For Cutler, define "make or break"

Considering the Chicago Bears have no long-term backup quarterback plan in place, how good does Jay Cutler have to be this year to earn the franchise deal for which he's looking?

The Chicago Bears will have a number of contracts expiring after this season. On defense, Henry Melton's franchise deal will expire, Corey Wootton and Major Wright will be free agents, and both All-Pro cornerbacks, Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings, will hit the open market. On offense, decisions will have to be made regarding J'Marcus Webb and Roberto Garza.

Yet the biggest free-agent-to-be is Jay Cutler, the team's franchise quarterback according to GM Phil Emery.

"Am I convinced that Jay has the talent to be [a Super Bowl quarterback]? Yes, I am," Emery said in January. "I see Jay as a franchise quarterback. We've got to build around him. That's been the goal from the beginning, to build around Jay and to build our team towards championships."

In fact, Emery's faith in Cutler is so deep, that he hired a head coach who hadn't worked in the NFL since 2004, Marc Trestman, based almost entirely on his history of working with successful quarterbacks.

"Jay being our quarterback and that being a franchise position in terms of importance, it's very important that [the new head coach], either himself or staff-wise, has the right person to help Jay develop," Emery said.

Entering his fifth season in Chicago, Cutler has yet to consistently perform at the level of a franchise signal caller. Last year, despite the addition of Brandon Marshall, who posted the best numbers by a Bears receiver in franchise history, and a solid run game, Cutler regressed considerably. His passer rating in 2012 (81.3) was the second lowest of his career, as was his completion percentage (58.8), while his 3,033 passing yards were the lowest of any season in which he started 15 or more games.

The offensive line, which has struggled mightily in pass protection since the team traded for Cutler in 2009, deserves a lot of the blame. Which is why Emery signed a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle, Jermon Bushrod, this offseason and used a first-round pick on offensive lineman Kyle Long. With the addition of a pass-catching tight end in Martellus Bennett, Cutler now has all of the tools he needs to finally reach his potential.

Yet how good does Cutler actually have to be to earn his franchise deal? The prevailing wisdom is that, if he again struggles this year and the passing offense doesn't improve on it's 29th ranking from last season, the team won't be able to justify breaking the bank for a quarterback who has yet to live up to expectations. At that point, they would then have to move on from the failed Cutler experiment.

Realistically though, Cutler doesn't need to have a Pro Bowl season to earn a Pro Bowl contract. In fact, he needs to be only marginally better than he was last year, or even stagnate, to still earn a franchise deal.

Why? Because the Bears have no Plan B. Cutler's backup, Josh McCown, is 34 and the club's third stringer, Matt Blanchard, is still years away from developing into a competent backup. If the team decided to move on from Cutler, what would they do then at quarterback, by far the most important position in all of football?

J'Marcus Russell? Yeah, that's not a path the Bears want to go down.

In reality, the only quarterbacks that hit free agency are backups. Very rarely is a franchise signal caller allowed to just walk away from an organization. The draft would be an option but that in itself is the biggest crapshoot in the game.

With Cutler, at least you know the man leading the offense has immense talent. The same won't necessarily be said for any free agent or rookie the team would be pinning their hopes on if Cutler isn't re-signed. That unknown factor will play in his favor.

Cutler is only 30 years old, so there's still a chance he'll finally turn his career around and excel under the tutelage of Trestman. If that happens this season, Emery will be more than happy to pay his signal caller what he's worth. But even if Cutler regresses, the Bears won't be in a position to low-ball him, as Cutler and his agent know as well as we do there are no other viable options on the roster.


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.

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