The NFL is all about the QB. They've revised the rules for years to get it this way, and they've finally got it. Yet, the position is demanding such a premium cost that it is making cap management difficult for teams. Overpaying in the NFL can really hurt a team, but you can't win without a good QB, so how much do you pay a good QB? That is the problem the Bears face with Jay Cutler. For all Cutler's flaws, he's better than half the starting QB's in the league. If you lose him, you probably get worse. But do you pay him $15MM per year? What about $18MM? What about $20MM?
To answer, we'll use over-the-cap.com to help us understand. If you have an elite QB and I'm talking about the Big 4 of Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers, your team will be good every year, especially since all 4 are pretty durable, even though all have missed time. All 4 of these guys deserve whatever salary they're getting. Aaron Rodgers tops the list at $22MM per year, and he deserves every penny. After those 4 obvious Hall of Famers, I'll throw in 2 probable Hall of Famers in Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Eli clocks in at $16MM and Roethlisberger near $15M, both have won multiple Superbowls, and both QB's have the ability to always keep their team in it, so I'm going to call those solid values for those teams. I believe Big Ben is due for new paper, and he will want more and Pittsburgh will face the same question other teams are dealing with. Tom Brady is a steal at $1MM per year.
Then you've got some sensational young QB's who are making an impact on rookie contracts, and I'm talking about Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick and my favorite of the group, Russell Wilson. With Luck topping the list at $5MM per year, these guys are incredible values, and it's not a coincidence that Wilson, Kaepernick and Newton lead 3 of the best teams in the NFL, with Luck and RGIII keeping their teams always dangerous, even though RGIII is struggling this year.
Then you've got this other group of quarterbacks where even though they're better than average at the position, you have to question whether or not they're really a value to their teams. This group includes Jay Cutler. These QB's are all bonafide, unquestioned NFL starters who have posted some big numbers: Joe Flacco, Matt Ryan, Tony Romo, Matt Stafford, Matt Schaub, Philip Rivers and Jay Cutler. It is hard to say whether or not these guys are really assets to their teams. Flacco has won a Superbowl but his $20MM deal is handcuffing the team in certain ways, forcing them to part with Anquan Boldin. Is he really good enough to keep the Ravens in it every year? Can he really do it again? I don't think Matt Ryan, while a better QB than Cutler, is worth $21MM per year -- look how awful the Falcons are this year. I'm not convinced you can win a Superbowl with him, nor with Romo at $18MM, nor with Stafford near $18MM, nor Schaub near $16MM. I think Cutler is better than Schaub (this year, that's not saying much) but not necessarily better than Stafford and definitely not Romo, statistically anyways. Is Rivers overpaid at $15MM per year? Compared to Andrew Luck, absolutely. You could get a really good player for the $10MM per year difference in contracts. There will always be questions about Rivers until he wins a Superbowl or at least a few playoff games. At the same time, Rivers has the Chargers in most games. He's not Blaine Gabbert, he's not even Sam Bradford. He's capable of beating any team, any given Sunday. Jay Cutler is a lot like Rivers, though I have always preferred Rivers and neither of them might be good enough to win a Superbowl. I think they both probably are with the right pieces around them. Among this group, Cutler would be at the bottom in terms of numbers, and also in terms of durability. I think a "fair" price for him is going to fall in the $15-16MM per year range.
Would I pay Jay Cutler $16MM per year for 5 years? Absolutely. The team doesn't get better by getting worse at the QB position, even if it means paying less for it. The QB position is too important to trust to a journeyman like Josh McCown, especially going forward. The offense with Cutler has operated at a high level and Cutler has at least posted some really good years in his career. McCown never has posted a full year as a starter. You can't let Cutler go without someone else in place, and it definitely isn't McCown. You only let Cutler go because you have someone better. If you don't want the Bears to stick with Cutler -- and I wouldn't necessarily blame you -- you have to have someone else to play instead. Name names. I don't want Michael Vick nor Carson Palmer, definitely not Sam Bradford nor Mark Sanchez. Signing Cutler for $16MM per year vs. say, McCown or a stud rookie for $5MM per year, means that's one $11MM per year defensive player you can't sign -- Bengals DT Geno Atkins made close to that this past year. Would you rather have Cutler, or McCown and Atkins? I'd rather have Cutler. This is a QB league.
Would you rather have Cutler or a rookie? I'd rather have a rookie who is almost as good, who makes a lot less. But how do you know if you've got that guy? Do you want to risk that guy being Sam Bradford or Mark Sanchez? Cade McNown or Rex Grossman? I don't want to trust the franchise to a rookie at a position that's so difficult to project. If it were easy, Russell Wilson wouldn't have fallen to the third round. Yes, we've seen rookie QB's like Wilson impact their teams, but do you really want to roll the dice when the offense is operating at such a high level?
If you don't believe Cutler can lead a team to a Superbowl, you still have to replace him with someone. So get that guy and then part ways with Cutler. I'm not sure Cutler is the guy, how can anyone be? But first draft and develop a better, more durable QB, then you can trade Cutler or cut him altogether -- NFL contracts aren't guaranteed. If Cutler wants more than $16MM per year, draft your guy, tag Cutler for one year and see if the other guy pans out to where a year later, he's your guy. Until then, we're stuck with Cutler unless his contract demands are totally unreasonable, in which case he leaves and the team probably gets worse. Cutler may not be the solution at QB but he's an asset, you protect your assets, you don't give them away. What's going to happen if Cutler leaves and Josh McCown looks more like the journeyman he has been throughout his career? What if the rookie you draft doesn't pan out the way so many don't, including Cade McNown and Rex Grossman? The answer is that the Bears will be bad. You can't do it without a QB, not in today's NFL, not with this aging and pathetic defense.
As far as the defense goes, this defense can't be fixed with the money that would be used to re-sign Cutler. This defense can be fixed only one way and that's the draft. They need to get younger. There's no trade or free agent fix for this. A veteran or two might help, but Bears need to draft at least 5 new starters. It's going to take more than one year. All the more reason, you can't count on Josh McCown being the guy 2 years from now when the Bears might be able to make a serious run at the title. Jay Cutler might or might not be the guy -- I'm inclined to think probably not, but he's better than half the guys in the league and he's your best shot, unless you can get someone better. So get someone better. Get someone better and cheaper. Or stick with Cutler and hope and pray.