But beyond the Bears' flagging postseason aspirations, with Chicago having fallen to 7-6 during Cutler's absence and only on the fringe now of playoff contention, there is also this element to consider regarding the six-year veteran: Cutler arguably is the best and most productive quarterback acquired via trade in the past three seasons.
Almost by default.
Don't believe it? Or can't agree recent history suggests that trading for a veteran at quarterback is almost as tenuous a crapshoot as drafting one, or even signing one as a free agent? Well, consider: Since the beginning of 2009, 10 quarterbacks were traded in the NFL who were acquired either as starters or expected to challenge for the No. 1 job. One of them, Donovan McNabb, was traded twice in that stretch. And one franchise, Oakland, consummated two deals for starters, first for Jason Campbell in 2010, and then for Carson Palmer two months ago. Kyle Orton was released by the Broncos a few weeks ago.
The results have hardly been scintillating.
The 10 quarterbacks have combined for just a 79-97 record (.449) as starters with their new clubs. Four of the traded quarterbacks presently are backups, although Orton could get the start in Kansas City this week if healthy, and Cleveland's Seneca Wallace will start his first game of the season with Colt McCoy out with a concussion.
Three others are injured. McNabb is out of the NFL entirely, having been dumped by three franchises in the past 20 months. Orton lost his starting job to Tim Tebow. The two current starters, Arizona's Kevin Kolb and Palmer of the Raiders, are a combined 6-9 in 2010 and have hardly played up to the bounties extracted for both of them.
For all his bashers, including some players past and present, Cutler is the only one among the traded quarterbacks with more than 20 starts who has carved out a winning record.
"No matter what (the perception) is," Bears wide receiver Johnny Knox told The Sports Xchange after a win over San Diego this season, "the guy is a big-time talent."
Cutler has started in all 41 of his appearances since moving to Chicago from Denver in 2009, owns a 24-17 mark, led his team to an NFC North title in 2010 and to the conference championship game, and had the Bears at 7-3 and in solid wild card contention before his injury. Those accomplishments might not seem like much, but compared to some of the other quarterbacks dealt for as potential starters since '09, they are relatively admirable.
In a risk-reward scenario, the veteran quarterbacks gained in trades haven't really provided much of the latter.
This isn't entirely meant to be an endorsement of Cutler, whose aloof demeanor and off-putting veneer can be nettlesome, but rather to point out the uneven nature of dealing for a veteran quarterback. As recent history has indicated, it can be a pretty tough proposition, one that has produced less than the anticipated results.
As in free agency, the prevailing theory in trading for an established quarterback is that a club pretty much knows what it's getting, and has a chance to investigate and assess a player's track record at the NFL level, unlike a draft choice. But some veteran quarterbacks gleaned through trades have performed so unevenly that at least a few personnel directors opined this week that the draft may be the preferred method of filling a hole at the game's most critical position.
When the collective statistics for the 10 quarterbacks acquired since 2009 as starters or as legitimate challengers for the top spot on the depth chart were cited to several coaches and general managers this week, the response was largely one of at least mild surprise. Not all of the team officials, however, were caught off-guard by the dismal numbers. In fact, some acknowledged that the poor record for starters acquired via trade was not all that unpredictable.
"There's usually a reason why (veteran) quarterbacks are traded by the people who know them best," an NFC general manager told The Sports Xchange. "I mean, you look at Andy Reid, and he's traded McNabb and Kolb the past year or so, and how have those guys worked out? You can say, 'Well, they just played better for Andy,' and that's fine. But (Reid) is a smart guy, too. For all the selling he did on both of them, you don't think he knew something? C'mon, man."
Seems there is, indeed, a "buyer beware" component when acquiring a veteran quarterback via a trade. "It just doesn't always pan out," allowed Washington coach Mike Shanahan, who dealt for McNabb in April 2010 then shipped him to the Vikings this summer. "No matter how much investigation and due diligence you do, sometimes it doesn't work."
Actually, more often than not.
In 2009, none of the starting quarterbacks acquired in trades were in the playoffs. Last season, Cutler and Kansas City's Matt Cassel were the only two. There are still three weeks remaining on the schedule this year, but it appears that Matt Schaub of Houston will be the lone "traded" quarterback tied to a postseason team. And Schaub was acquired by the Texans five seasons ago, has missed the past three weeks with a foot injury and is on injured reserve for the year.
Noted Seattle's Charlie Whitehurst, acquired last year from San Diego and signed to a two-year, $8 million contract, to The Sports Xchange in 2010: "It's really a great opportunity ... but it's not handed to you. There's a (learning) curve."
And apparently, judging by Whitehurst's inability to beat out Tarvaris Jackson for the starting spot this year, a fairly steep one.
Cassel, sidelined for the balance of the season by a hand injury, could be the answer in Kansas City, but there are many skeptics. There are question about whether McNabb will ever play again. Campbell is eligible for unrestricted free agency at the end of the season and someone may take a shot at him, but there are some red flags. It's doubtful, though, that many personnel people regard quarterbacks like Wallace, Whitehurst or John Beck now as potential starters. And arguably two of the disappointments to this juncture of the season have been Kolb and Palmer.
Despite some leeriness within the organization, the quarterback-needy Cardinals won a bidding war for Kolb, but he is only 3-6 as a starter, has missed four games with injuries and has thrown nearly as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (nine). Added after the injury to Campbell, and thought to be the man who could pull everything together with the Raiders, Palmer has struggled. He has won just half of his six starts, has thrown 10 interceptions in those starts, owns a passer rating of just 78.6 and might be stuck on the same declining path he appeared to be traveling the last few seasons in Cincinnati.
"There's still a lot of confidence (in Palmer)," Oakland coach Hue Jackson said after the Raiders' second straight lopsided loss last week.
Still, a lot of questions, too.
That dubiousness might well extend to many of the veteran quarterbacks acquired via trade the last three seasons. A lot of once hackneyed stances have been struck down or at least challenged the last few years, but the one that might remain is the widely held belief that the best approach at quarterback is to develop from within. The records of the recent veteran acquisitions clearly strengthens the contention.
"At least with a rookie," said a veteran college scout, "he's your guy, you get to teach him your way, and you're not taking on a retread."
There are only three traded veterans with more than 20 starts for teams other than the ones with which they entered the NFL, and the quarterback ratings for Orton (86.4), Cutler (82.1) and Cassel (79.9) aren't sterling. As a group, the 10 veterans have a rating in their 176 starts of only 81.5.
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Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.