Less than a week after Marc Trestman's first season with the Chicago Bears ended in relative disappointment, the quarterback controversy that was pegged to dominate Chicago's offseason was hastily resolved.
On Thursday, the Bears officially announced that quarterback Jay Cutler, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent this coming spring, signed a new seven-year deal that would keep him in Chicago through 2020.
Regardless of money, the agreement makes sense on several levels for Cutler and the Bears.
Not only will one of the league's most productive offenses stay intact, but the rock-solid relationship between head coach and quarterback will get an opportunity to live on past the 11 games Cutler started this season.
Instead of starting over at the position, the Bears will keep Cutler, a fringe top-15 quarterback, and bank on more of the kind of improvement seen in his one season under Trestman.
And there's no discounting the fact that locking up Cutler now gives the Bears maximum draft capital to fix a defense that was mostly to blame for Chicago's 8-8 season.
Critics of the deal will point to Cutler's injury history, or his propensity to throw interceptions, or the fact that the Bears have been to the playoffs once in his five years in Chicago. But this was a good decision for the future of the Bears.
In just one season, Trestman took a middling, inconsistent offense and turned it into one of the NFL's best. And Cutler was right at the center of the improvement.
The Bears finished the 2013 season ranked second in points (27.8), behind only the record-setting Denver Broncos. The offense was also third in yards per play (6.0), eighth in total yards (381.8 per game) and total first downs (344), fifth in passing yards (267.6 per game), passing touchdowns (32) and net yards per attempt (7.0) and seventh in yards per rush (4.5).
The offense set new team records for total yards, passing yards, passing touchdowns, first downs and passer rating (96.9). The 445 points were second most in franchise history.
|Trestman Effect: Bears Offense in 2012 and 2013|
|Points/G||23.4, 16th||27.8, 2nd|
|Yards/G||310.6, 28th||381.8, 8th|
|Yards/Play||5.0, 26th||6.0, 3rd|
|First Downs||292, 24th||344, 8th|
|Passing Yards/G||187.4, 29th||267.6, 6th|
|Passing TDs||22, 22nd||32, 7th|
|Passer Rating||80.4, 23rd||96.9, 6th|
|Yards/Attempt||6.8, 22nd||7.7, 7th|
|Sack Percentage||8.3, 27th||4.9, 4th|
|Yards/Carry||4.2, 14th||4.5, 7th|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Contrast those numbers with the Chicago offense in 2012, and it's rather easy to see why the Bears wanted to keep the gang all together.
A team that won 10 games a season ago finished 16th in points (23.4), 26th in yards per play (5.0), 28th in total yards (310.6), 24th in first downs (292), 29th in passing yards (187.4), 22nd in passing touchdowns (22), 27th in net yards per attempt (5.7) and 23rd in passer rating (80.1).
Cutler captained both teams: 15 starts in 2012, and 11 starts this season. The improvement in his game was evident from Week 1 on.
Despite fighting ankle and groin injuries during the middle portion of the season, Cutler finished 2013 with his near-career-best numbers in completion percentage (63.1), touchdown percentage (5.4), yards per attempt (7.4), passing yards per game (238.3), sack percentage (5.1) and game-winning drives (three). He also set a personal best in passer rating (89.2) and threw the same number of touchdown passes in 11 games in 2013 (19) as he did over 15 starts in 2012.
|The Best of Jay: Comparing Cutler's 2013 Season|
|2013, Career Rank||Career Best|
|Completion %||63.1, 2nd||63.6, 2007|
|TD %||5.4, 2nd||6.6, 2006|
|Passing Yards/G||238.3, 2nd||282.9, 2008|
|Yards/Attempt||7.4, 3rd||7.6, 2010|
|Passer Rating||89.2, 1st||89.2, 2013|
|Total QBR||66.4, 2nd||72.3, 2008|
|Sack %||5.1, 2nd||1.8, 2008|
|Game-Winning Drives||3, 4th||4, 3x|
|Source: Pro Football Reference|
Trestman certainly didn't fix all that ails Cutler. He still threw interceptions at a higher-than-average percentage (3.4, higher than his 3.2 percent in 2012), and his passer rating was only middle of the pack for starting quarterbacks. Overall, the Bears won five and lost six with Cutler starting.
It didn't help that veteran backup Josh McCown played well in eight games and finished the season with a career-best passer rating of 109.0. He threw 13 touchdowns against just one interception and won three of his five starts.
Still, McCown is 34 years old and a career backup. And when Cutler finally shook his lower body injuries late in the season, Trestman had no decision to make: McCown was his No. 2, and Cutler his starter.
The devotion to Cutler stems from a working relationship between quarterback and head coach. One that, given time, could produce super results.
Back in September, Dan Pompei chronicled the "maturation" of Cutler for Sports on Earth. Pompei painted a picture of the immediate bond Trestman formed with his new quarterback.
According to Trestman, the two are "texting constantly during the day." There is deep understanding. The two can talk on the same wavelength.
And to top it all off, the two men live only a mile away from one another.
There's no more important relationship in the game of football than the one between coach and quarterback, and the Bears appear to have a thriving one already in place.
Now, it has a chance to continue to grow.
"It's Marc's desire to have a real relationship with Jay, and the football is kind of ancillary," McCown told Pompei. "When you have that authentic relationship, the football is enhanced and improved."
Asked early in the season what the reason for Cutler's sizzling start was, McCown had a rather simple answer.
"No doubt, it's Marc's influence," McCown said. "Marc has had an influence on his will to learn."
No wonder a deal got done so quickly.
Quarterbacks of Cutler's age (30 going on 31) rarely see development in their skill set, but it's clear Trestman's presence in Chicago has spurned change. And it's been change for the better.
Cutler has always had the big, rocket arm, capable of connecting on any part of the route tree. He can fit completions into the tightest of windows with a simple flick of his right arm. He's also surprisingly athletic, and much tougher than any one gives him credit for.
From the shoulders up has always been the missing piece of the Cutler puzzle, and it sure looks like his relationship with Trestman is beginning to improve that part of the equation.
Only one year into that bond, it would still be difficult to describe Cutler as anything more than a top-15-18 quarterback in the NFL. But unlike most quarterbacks in that same tier, Cutler has a real chance to refine his craft under Trestman and make the jump up the quarterbacking hierarchy.
Instead of drafting a top quarterback and restarting the molding process, the Bears can move forward with their veteran option—confident in projecting more improvement as time passes.
Avoiding a top quarterback in the draft also keeps more ammunition in the pocket of general manager Phil Emery, who desperately needs to spend his coming draft on fixing a bad and aging Chicago defense.
The Bears defense allowed more points (478), total yards (6,313) and rushing yards (2,583) this season than any previous year in franchise history. Chicago's defense finished 2013 ranked 30th in points allowed (29.9 per game) and yards (394.6), 28th in first downs (353), 32nd in rushing yards (158.6) and yards per carry (5.3) and 31st in rushing touchdowns (22).
According to Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, the Bears became just the fourth defense since 1978 to allow 20 or more in all 16 games. That kind of defensive futility has historically meant a small amount of wins and a big number of losses (see table below). But not the 2013 Bears, and that's a credit to a productive, efficient offense.
|Teams Allowing 20+ Points in All 16 Games, Since 1978|
|Total Points Allowed||Team W-L|
|Source: Scott Kacsmar, Football Outsiders|
With Cutler's extension now a done deal, Emery and the Bears front office can and should focus their efforts on fixing such a historically poor defense. The draft is the most sensible avenue to go, and they'll need all the draft capital possible to accomplish that goal.
Letting Cutler go and then spending a pick on a quarterback in the first 100 selections would have robbed the Bears of the opportunity to pick a potential difference-maker on defense.
Such a possibility is now off the table, as the Bears acted quickly on Cutler and took away any suspense that his looming free-agent status could have caused this offseason.
There will be many critics of this deal, but only because Cutler is such a polarizing figure, and because past results haven't always pointed to Cutler being worthy of such investment.
However, the Bears only needed to look toward the future when analyzing this decision. The forward projections on Cutler—given the offensive improvement and his relationship with Trestman—and the other roster needs likely made this an easy choice.