The soon-to-be 30-year-old quarterback – his birthday is in April – is approaching what appears to be a crossroads in his career with the Bears. He is coming off his fourth season with the franchise after playing for three offensive coordinators and has yet to reach the potential that was hailed when he was acquired in a 2009 trade, a shortcoming for which blame can be applied in many directions.
Now, if the Bears decide to sign Cutler to a contract extension this offseason, that will be evidence the Halas Hall decision-makers believe in him for the long haul. If not, Cutler will have to prove it in 2013, the final year of his contract, while forced to adapt to yet another new offense.
“I have no idea,” Cutler’s agent Bus Cook said when asked at the Senior Bowl if a contract could come together this offseason. “I’m just not going to comment. I don’t know. We’ll wait and see after everyone settles in.”
Roll call: Jay Cutler (signed through 2013), Jason Campbell (unrestricted free agent), Josh McCown (unrestricted free agent).
2012 season review: Cutler’s 2012 season was a mixed bag much like his other seasons in a Bears uniform have been. Like the team as a whole, his best performances came in the first half of the season. As has been the case in recent years, he struggled against the Green Bay Packers. They intercepted Cutler four times in the Week 2 loss at Lambeau Field, sacking him seven times. He passed for only 135 yards in the Week 15 rematch at Soldier Field. He topped 300 yards only once, hitting the Indianapolis Colts for 333 in the opener. He was terrific in a Week 4 victory at Dallas, completing 18 of 24 passes for 275 yards and two scores, averaging 11.5 yards per attempt. He followed that up with a strong outing at Jacksonville and fired three touchdown passes in a 51-20 blowout of the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 4.
The problem is Cutler’s best games seemed to match up with the best efforts by the defense. It’s hard to point to a game where you can say he was the reason the team was victorious. He did play well in the Dec. 2 loss to the Seattle Seahawks at Soldier Field, a setback the defense pinned on itself.
For the second time in three seasons, Cutler missed a game because of a concussion. He sustained a concussion on an illegal hit from Houston Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins on Nov. 11. Dobbins was fined $30,000 by the NFL.
There has to be some concern within the franchise when you consider Cutler also had one concussion with the Broncos and at least one playing in college. But his toughness is never questioned and he rushed for a career-high 233 yards. He’s still very athletic and capable of avoiding trouble and making plays with his legs.
It is somewhat difficult to explain how Cutler’s statistics didn’t look better across the board with the addition of Brandon Marshall. His 7.0 yards per attempt was the second-lowest figure of his career. His 81.3 passer rating is just about where that number is for four seasons with the Bears – 81.9. His completion percentage was 58.8, the second-lowest number in his career. He’s a long ways off from the quarterback that passed for 4,526 yards playing with Marshall in Denver back in 2008.
Blame goes to the offensive line and the inconsistent supporting cast, but the point that needs to be made is Cutler put up similar statistics with the Bears in previous seasons when Marshall wasn’t around and the familiar problems existed. The addition of Marshall was supposed to take the passing game to the next level and while he gave the Bears a go-to target, he didn’t improve the passing game in measurable ways. That’s something the Bears hope a transition in the coaching staff will change dramatically.
Free agency/draft priority: Campbell will be an unrestricted free agent and the Bears might reconsider committing $3.5 million to a backup quarterback. It almost looked like a knee-jerk reaction to the Caleb Hanie meltdown that cost the Bears a playoff shot in 2011. Emery was fresh on the job and the last thing he wanted to do was leave the team ill prepared in the event Cutler went down with an injury. Campbell had a wealth of experience when he filled in for Cutler in a difficult spot on the road at San Francisco on Nov. 18. He was sacked six times under an onslaught of pressure and basically just completed check-down passes. Paying big money to a backup quarterback is something Emery has to reconsider with a relatively tight cap situation. McCown was added as a security blanket for the final seven weeks and he could always return in that role. Undrafted rookie free agent Matt Blanchard has been signed to a reserve/futures contract. It seems like every team has a goal of drafting a developmental quarterback annually but with only five picks that could be difficult for Emery to justify. What he does need to do is formulate a plan for a No. 2.
Change in coaching staff means: Cutler gets a fresh start with Trestman, who will serve as the head coach, play caller and quarterbacks coach while having Aaron Kromer and Matt Cavanaugh alongside him. Lovie Smith didn’t have a solution for what ailed the offense. No one has ties to Cutler now, though, as the general manager that traded for him and the coach are gone. The Bears’ hope is a clean slate gives Cutler the creative ideas, consistent coaching and pressure needed for him to turn the corner.
Bottom line: From all appearances it would be difficult for Emery to make a case for extending Cutler this offseason and it might be even more difficult for the parties to find common ground because there is little doubt he wants to be paid like an elite quarterback. So, in the absence of an extension, Cutler will need to play to earn his pay with the Bears holding a franchise tag in 2014 as leverage on their part. The quarterback guru has his first assignment.
First in a 10-part series. Coming Tuesday: Defensive line.