Joe Flacco won his “negotiation” with the Baltimore Ravens by winning a Super Bowl and reaping the resulting contract. Jay Cutler could still do that, theoretically, but chances are beyond remote.
That confronts both Cutler and the Bears with a sticky contract situation. But it is one with a solution that falls neatly between the franchise tag of $16.2 million that GM Phil Emery doesn’t want to use; and a $100-million multi-year deal, which Cutler has not earned based on the kinds of playoff appearance and playing time that others in that echelon have achieved.
The answer lies in incentives. In simplest form, if Cutler is all in for the kind of bet Flacco made on himself, the Bears will be in position to do a multi-year deal with individual incentives based on games played and “team” incentives based on the Bears reaching the playoffs and advancing.
Because Cutler will play no more than 12 games this season if he returns for Monday’s Dallas game and plays the final four, any incentive starting with 13 games is defined as not-likely-to-be-earned. Meaning: It does not count against the current year’s salary cap. The Bears have done incentives based on team performance, and unless they make the 2013 playoffs, an incentive based on 2014 playoffs also is considered not likely to be earned.
Oversimplifying for illustration purposes: Cutler agrees to a contract paying him $15 million for 2014, and which pays $1 million per game more than 12, plus $1 million for the Bears reaching the postseason. If Cutler plays 16 games and the Bears are in the playoffs, Cutler has his $20 million.
Conflicting starting points
The hope of the Bears was to have questions surrounding Cutler as their franchise quarterback solved based on performance over the 2013 season. That hope has been compromised by Cutler injuries, two different ones (groin, ankle) costing him four full games-plus this season.
Adding up: Cutler has missed 12 of the last 56 Bears games with injuries in addition to significant chunks of three others (Detroit, Washington this year, NY Giants in 2010). Cutler has not played a 16-game season his first in Chicago (2009).
The result is a potential contract conundrum, a negotiation where Cutler’s side comes to the table with a quarterback who has gotten significantly better and has an arrow pointing up (the Bears are the first to say so); and the Bears point to the likelihood that they will need to pay a very good backup because won’t play 16 games.
And both sides will be right.
Emery evinced no hesitation when he placed the franchise tag on running back Matt Forte in 2012 and Henry Melton in 2013. He showed decidedly less enthusiasm for employing it for the quarterback position, which would pose a massive lump in the Bears’ salary cap. Best guess is that using it would be done with a realistic hope of reaching a long-term deal, as it was in Forte’s case, rather than simply being the only way to keep a key player when no deal was in sight, as in Melton’s case.
In Cutler’s case, if the Bears play more than 16 games next season with him as their franchise quarterback, another guess is that they will not mind paying market price for the quarterback who would have had a huge hand in getting them there.