Jay Cutler is not a perfect quarterback. During his eight-year career, he's won just one playoff game and since joining the Chicago Bears in 2009, he's engineered just one victory over the Green Bay Packers. His career is full of extreme ups and downs, and his penchant for turnovers can be borderline maddening at times.
There's no denying his checkered past in Chicago but it's also easy to see why he was set up to fail. For his first four years in the Windy City, his top receiver was Devin Hester and his offensive line was atrocious. He had no weapons to throw to and no protection up front. Throw in the fact he had to play under the direction of Mike Tice in 2012 and it shouldn't be shocking to anyone that Cutler couldn't carry the offense on his own.
And on top of that, he's been a different system in all but one of the past five years in Chicago.
Jerry Angelo was fired because he paid a king's ransom for Cutler and then surrounded him with garbage. And Lovie Smith was fired because he couldn't find a competent coordinator to run the offense. The dysfunction under which Cutler played for four years as a member of the Bears is borderline comical.
Yet under Marc Trestman, with a cast of solid characters around him, which has been GM Phil Emery's focus the past two seasons, Cutler took an enormous step forward this year. Across the board, his numbers were at or near the best of his entire career.
It was that improvement, combined with the potential of him developing even further, which earned Cutler a seven-year contract worth a reported $17.6 million per season, with roughly $50 million guaranteed.
"He had his best season as a pro this past year from a statistical outlook," Phil Emery said today after announcing the deal. "I also think he had his best season as a pro in terms of his leadership, his improvement, his display of toughness, his ability to bounce back, his ability to handle pressure and his ability to come back and win games. To be a player that is a reason you win games. Jay is a team guy that we feel very comfortable moving forward in our future that he's a key part of winning championship football."
Cutler was also very good in areas of critical importance: 3rd down and the 4th quarter. His 4th-quarter QB rating of 102.7 was ninth best in the NFL, while his third-down rating of 102.6 was sixth best in the league.
"That says a lot about a player," Emery said. "I think that Jay's third-down passing and fourth-quarter quarterback rating are very high. And they have been high for a while but he finished in the top 10 in both areas this year. I think that speaks to a guy that can be a guy and a player that is a reason you win. And after the three games, I saw that was evident."
Beyond the numbers, Cutler also took to a step forward in terms of leadership, both on and off the field, with Emery pointing to the Cleveland Browns contest in Week 15 as proof.
"The calmness that he's displaying, to me, is different. The calmness of his approach," said Emery. "I was really fascinated by his press conference post the Cleveland game. I think he finally felt the weight off his shoulders, that he showed everybody that he is ultimately a great competitor that can win even when the chips are down and even when he's a part of those chips being down in terms of the early picks that happened. He took accountability for it and he kept fighting for his teammates that kept fighting and found a way to win.
"Being able to bounce back, being able to, from a physical aspect, throw a ball 45 yards in the air, being hit in two different directions, being on his back foot and receiver Alshon [Jeffery] came up with a catch, but the ball was in a place where he could come up with a catch. So from a physical standpoint, a toughness standpoint, emotional calmness, his ability to win a tight game and to bounce back from adversity, to me, that game summed it up."
Cutler's improvement this year can be credited almost entirely Trestman, who also made Josh McCown a soon-to-be multi-millionaire.
"What I saw over the last six months, No. 1, Jay's team elected him captain. I didn't, his team elected him captain," Trestman said. "I saw selflessness. I certainly saw mental toughness. When you evaluate a quarterback, you say, does he have an inventory of passes? Can he make all the throws? Does he have mobility? Is he a quick decision maker? Jay has all that. He can do all those things. But what's most important is, is he mentally tough enough? Can he fly the plane and not be on autopilot? And I think during this process, and I think Phil reiterated that in a statistical fashion, that he's proven that he can do that. Can he carry the weight of a team on his shoulders? He can do that."
With Cutler it's all about continuity. After three years of working in the same offense under Mike Shanahan in Denver, Cutler was named to the Pro Bowl. And in his second season under Mike Martz in 2011, the only time in five years he's had the "luxury" of working in the same system for two straight seasons, he led the team to a 7-1 record before a thumb injury derailed his campaign.
Emery and Trestman aren't worried about what's happened in Cutler's past. They know that if Aaron Rodgers had a new coordinator every single season, instead of working in the same system his entire career, that even he would struggle. What Trestman and Emery see is a player with immense potential, who took to Trestman's coaching and played twice as well as he did the year before. So if he plays twice as well next year, and the year after that, and so on, how good can Cutler be in the fifth and sixth years in Trestman's offense?
That's why Jay Cutler is signed through 2020, not because he failed to win a Super Bowl with Ron Turner calling the plays, Orlando Pace blocking his blindside and Roy Williams his top target. It's his potential growth under Trestman, not what he did under Mike Tice, that earned Cutler an enormous multi-year deal.
"It hasn't always been easy," Cutler said. "We've had some ups and downs. There's been some bad years, there's been some good years. I think it makes me appreciate the situation and the moment I'm in even more. With the offensive weapons that we have, with the type of leadership that we have from the front office, with the coaching staff that we have with their detail and organization of our play calling and our install, it makes me happy I'm here. It made my decision of coming here much easier."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.