Yet apparently it was never a question for Bears brass, who quickly signed Cutler to a seven-year, $126-million contract following the campaign.
For better or worse, Cutler will direct Chicago’s offense for many years to come. He’s an extremely talented quarterback but he’s yet to reach his potential and has dealt with injuries the past three years. Can Cutler reach his ceiling this year and who will serve as his backup?
With OTAs and minicamp in the books, and training camp a week away, let’s break down in detail the team’s signal callers heading into the 2014 campaign.
As Josh McCown benefited from the inability of the Dallas Cowboys secondary to hang on to easy interceptions, many Bears fans began questioning the value of re-signing Cutler. Some believed that McCown’s strong stretch mid-season was enough to earn the 35-year-old a long-term deal over a player four years younger and much more talented.
In reality, McCown, a career journeyman who was jobless just a few years ago, was a product of Marc Trestman’s system. The “QB Whisperer”, as Trestman is known in some circles, worked his magic with an over-the-hill signal caller and turned him into the most sought-after free agent passer on the open market.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to find out how much value McCown has without Trestman.
Yet most don’t realize that Cutler was also on his way to a career year before a groin injury forced him to miss a good chunk of the season. Cutler finished with career highs in nearly every statistical category, and was on pace to shatter his previous high totals in both yardage and passing touchdowns.
Trestman had as much influence on Cutler as he did on McCown, yet no one seemed to notice.
Cutler now enters his second year under Trestman, which is only the third time in his nine-year career he’s worked in the same system in two straight seasons. The offense as a whole returns all 11 starters, including an offensive line that allowed the fourth fewest sacks in the NFL last year.
All of the same weapons are at Cutler’s disposal, including Pro Bowlers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Matt Forte, as well as one of the top tight ends in the league in Martellus Bennett. Cutler even gets a new toy with slot receiver Marquess Wilson, who could be on the verge of a breakout campaign.
All signs point toward a career-year for Cutler. The front office and coaching staff have put him in the best position to succeed and it will be up to him to produce. The days of making excuses for Cutler’s poor play are long gone. Now is the time for him to step up and, as long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to believe he won’t have a phenomenal year.
During offseason programs, Cutler looked confident with the offense. He was clearly a leader on the field and even spent time after practice working with the young QBs on the roster, something I’ve never before seen in three-plus years covering him. He’s matured, comfortable with the playbook and has all the right pieces around him. If he stays on the field, he’ll be in the running for NFL MVP.
You heard it here first.
The Bears signed Jordan Palmer late last season and he entered OTAs as the club’s primary backup. Yet since 2004, Palmer has suited up for a grand total of four NFL games. He’s attempted just 15 passes in his career, two of which were intercepted. His next NFL touchdown will be his first.
If Cutler goes down, is that the pedigree you want from his backup?
Palmer then hurt his pectoral during OTAs and was limited in practice thereafter. So it was no surprise when the Bears signed Jimmy Clausen in free agency.
Clausen was a one-year starter for the Carolina Panthers his rookie year in 2010 (52.5 completion percentage, three TDs, nine interceptions) but hasn’t taken an NFL snap since. He’s also fresh off shoulder surgery, so there are many reasons to question Clausen as a No. 2.
Yet, despite his less-than-stellar results as a rookie, Clausen’s 299 pass attempts are far and away the most of any Bears backup candidate. In 2011, Chicago went into the season with a No. 2 passer, Caleb Hanie, who had very little previous experience, and we all know how that turned out. Will the new coaching staff make that same mistake? It’s doubtful, which is why Clausen, and not Palmer, will likely emerge as Cutler’s backup.
Clausen isn’t an ideal option but it’s possible the past three years working behind Cam Newton has made him a better quarterback. In addition, he’ll be under the tutelage of Trestman, which will only help him.
During minicamp, Clausen worked his way into the second-team rotation and did not show any ill effects from the shoulder surgery. He had good velocity on his passes and made solid decisions. If he continues on that path, he’ll find a spot on Chicago’s 53-man roster.
Yet Fales does not posses an NFL-level arm. He’s an intelligent passer with good accuracy but he isn’t going to fit passes into NFL windows of any size.
During OTAs and minicamp, he had the deer-in-the-headlights look you often see from rookies. His lack of arm strength was immediately noticeable, particularly on sideline passes, most of which skipped to the intended receiver.
If Fales winds up as Cutler’s backup this year, then something went horribly wrong in training camp. Fales would benefit from a year on the practice squad but until he can put zip on his passes, he’ll never be a part of Chicago’s active roster.
Cutler has to stay healthy this season. In the past three years, he’s missed 12 games combined. Another long stretch on the shelf this year could once again derail a promising campaign. If he stays on the field, this could be a very special season for Chicago’s passing attack.
The backup competition between Palmer and Clausen will be a fun one to watch during training camp and the preseason. My money is on Clausen due to the fact he’s younger and more experienced, yet that doesn’t mean you want him running the offense. Ideally, Clausen never sees the field, and Cutler drives the offense into the postseason.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth 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.