The contract extension signed by Matthew Stafford with the Detroit Lions – paying him $76.5 million over the next five seasons – immediately occasioned discussion surrounding Jay Cutler – the money, the respective talents, potential, all the things that go into player – and player – evaluations.
Getting to the Cutler conclusion first
It is increasingly difficult to avoid reasoning that the Bears already have made their decision on Jay Cutler as their quarterback for 2014 and possibly beyond.
All that remains is settling on price. That’s what 2013 will be about. The franchise tag is the obvious fall-back, and if Cutler plays his way into something longer term, he and the Bears make out.
Consider the indicators
The Bears haven’t been building a team of weapons to surround Cutler. They’re building one to win a Super Bowl, whether it’s with Cutler or not. That’s as it should be. If Cutler goes down in-season, the best guess is that Josh McCown, in fact, can keep an offense with Bennett Brothers Earl and Martellus, Matt Forte, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, plus a made-over offensive line on track to a postseason. Arguably, had the Bears gone to McCown instead of Caleb Hanie when Cutler was lost in 2011, the Bears are in the playoffs, not 8-8.
[MORE: Ditka: Rodgers is 'the best in football']
One domino in the Cutler scenario came when the Bears did not secure a quarterback for development in this year’s draft. GM Phil Emery didn’t have unlimited options because of limited draft choices, particularly no third-rounder, as he himself said.
Actually this might be construed as some leverage for Cutler. But had coaches Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer and Matt Cavanaugh on offense - three individuals who know some things about quarterbacks - concluded that a QB was a need, Emery would have found a way to get one.
As it is, the Bears will go to training camp with only three quarterbacks, meaning the No. 2 for the foreseeable future is Josh McCown and the project is Matt Blanchard. A big part of the reason is that coaches do not want to be parceling reps out to a backup when the investment is in – and will be – in Cutler mastering this offense and teammates.
The bigger-picture Cutler math for the Bears
Cutler has proved he can win 10-11 games with a very good defense (the usual excuse for his not winning into the playoffs in Denver). That’s usually enough to reach the playoffs, Emery’s minimum acceptable standard based on the reasoning for firing Lovie Smith.
[ALSO: Bears reboot: Offensive line]
To that extent, Cutler already has consistently met the franchise’s minimum seasonal requirement.
Settling on price
And this is where Stafford and his deal come in. Sort of. Because in the end, it is always about the money.
Stafford has directed the Lions to the playoffs in one of his first four seasons. Well, three actually, since he only played three games in one year and 10 in another.
And he was drafted (No. 1 overall in 2009) onto a team that was 0-16 the year before, so “weapons” other than Calvin Johnson were hardly what the Lions had for him. Not insignificantly for Stafford’s case, Johnson’s production has spiked since Stafford’s arrival, from 67 catches to 77 to 96 to 122.
[RELATED: Bears reboot: Receiving corps needs its health and Cutler's trust]
Stafford’s $76.5 million over the next five seasons place him right where he belongs, in the second tier of quarterbacks below Brady, Brees, Flacco and the Mannings. The reason they rate above Stafford and the likes of Matt Ryan is what Stafford himself said after his deal was announced:
“A Super Bowl ring. That’s what those guys have. League MVP, Super Bowl rings, years of experience it. All of that.”
Like it or not, salary slotting happens with more than draft choices. Stafford acknowledges he’s not at the elite level based on the wins that matter, and Cutler is not at Stafford’s level, with the same number of playoff appearances at age 30 that Stafford has at 25.
The “slot” for second-tier quarterbacks has been roughly set by Stafford. The Bears can play out the 2013 season with Cutler playing to show if he is at that level or still in the third-echelon.