The Chicago Bears yesterday were officially eliminated from playoff contention. It will be the sixth time in the past seven seasons the team has failed to reach the postseason.
All three phases of the team have played poorly. Throw a dart at the roster and you’ll find a player, coach or general manager who has underachieved to an extreme level.
Yet in the NFL, the quarterbacks are the most important players on the field. Quarterbacks drive the offenses in a pass-happy, offensive-friendly league. If your signal caller stinks, your team likely stinks as well.
So it’s no surprise that most are blaming Jay Cutler for the Bears’ utterly disappointing results this year.
Cutler has struggled all season, in spite of his numbers. He’s been a garbage-time champion who can’t move the ball consistently when his team is still in the game. Cutler’s only stats of relevance this season are his turnovers, 20, which leads the NFL.
As a result, Bears brass are considering all their options.
GM Phil Emery signed Cutler to a seven-year, $126.7 million contract this past offseason, with $54 million guaranteed. His salary next year is $16.5 million, with a cap hit of $19.5 million.
If Cutler were to be waived outright, the Bears would be on the hook for nearly $20 million in dead money. So cutting him isn’t realistic.
Another option is to trade him, yet that would very likely be an effort in futility.
Two parties must be involved in a trade and very few NFL teams are desperate enough to take on that egregious contract on top of sending a player to the Bears.
Three teams are possible candidates: the Bills, the Titans and the Jets.
The Bills were so fed up with E.J. Manuel, they signed 32-year-old Kyle Orton off the street midseason. The Titans have rotated the power trio of Zach Mettenberger, Jake Locker and Charlie Whitehurst under center this season. The Jets went from Geno Smith to Michael Vick and then back to Smith, resulting in the league’s 32nd-ranked passing offense.
Trading with the Bills is unlikely due to Buffalo’s salary cap situation. Next year’s cap is projected at $140 million and the Bills already have $122 million tied up in current players.
The Titans only have $105 million in 2015 salaries, yet they’ll also have 14 roster spots to fill. Taking on Cutler’s contract would leave them roughly $19 million to sign 13 players. Tennessee showed interest in Cutler last year but that franchise would be handcuffing itself financially by taking on his contract.
The Jets have just $97 million tied up in 2015 contracts, with 13 roster spots to fill. Financially, Cutler in New York makes the most sense.
NFL teams have a number of tools at their disposal to clear cap space, so these aren’t hardened numbers. If the Bills want to make room for Cutler, they can find a way. And the Bears would be getting a player in return, which could take more money off the books.
But the question each team has to ask is: Will Cutler make us better, while also allowing us to build a complete team?
When you’ve got a $16.5 million salary attached to you, coming off a season in which you led the league in turnovers, it’s very hard to foresee any team, no matter how desperate they are, mortgaging their future for Cutler.
Only the Bears would do that.Additionally, the team has made no contingency plans. Jimmy Clausen is the only backup on the roster, with sixth-round rookie David Fales on the practice squad. Neither player is an NFL starter. If either is called into duty, Bears fans will be begging for Cutler back.
There’s also the option of selecting a first-round quarterback in this year’s draft. If Chicago fails to win another game this year, they’ll likely have a Top 10 pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Yet that’s a big risk to take, one that isn’t likely to pay off until a year or two down the line, if ever. If they take that route, the Bears would go into full-blown rebuilding mode.
Trading Cutler would probably be the best thing for the Bears but due to a number of different reasons, that’s highly unlikely to happen.
For those who want Cutler gone, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, he’s under contract for seven years but the big money is up front. The guaranteed money between 2016-2018 is palatable and there are no guarantees in 2019 or 2020. He’s owed just $3 million in 2016, $2 million in 2017 and $1 million in 2018. Cutting him after next year would save the Bears between $14 million-$16 million in each of those three seasons.
Unless he makes some dramatic improvements over the next 13 months – which is unlikely, considering he’ll be 31 next year – Cutler isn’t long for the city of Chicago. Yet the team is tethered to him for one more season, for better or worse. Throw that trade talk in the trash, for now, just as the Bears threw this year in the trash.
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.