Just because general manager Phil Emery would prefer not to use the franchise tag for Jay Cutler doesn’t mean you can discount the Bears’ efforts to re-sign the quarterback.
Emery has intimated if the club uses the franchise tag to keep Cutler from reaching the open market, it will be to buy time to complete a multiyear contract because the one-year hit of $16 million against the salary cap and the prospect of facing the same situation in 2015 isn’t appealing.
That does not mean a long-term contract will not average $16 million per season — or possibly more — for Cutler. The quarterbacks of the NFC clubs doing their best to back out of the playoff race might see to that. All Cutler’s agent, Bus Cook, has to do is point to the flimsy postseason resumes of the Lions’ Matthew Stafford and the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and ask what differentiates them from his client? Not much.
Offseason extensions for Stafford and Romo were great developments for Cutler. Both were responsible for bad interceptions at the end of losses last weekend that greatly damaged the playoff hopes of their teams.
Meanwhile, Cutler returned from missing four games with a high ankle sprain to play well in the second half of a 38-31 road victory over the Browns as the Bears secured control of their destiny in the NFC North with two games to play.
The Cowboys and Lions were forced to sign their quarterbacks to lucrative extensions because of salary-cap implications. The Bears will need to sign Cutler or let him walk. Unless the Bears and their injury-riddled defense go on a Lombardi Trophy push no one outside of Halas Hall expects, Cutler won’t have the kind of over-the-top leverage the Ravens’ Joe Flacco had as a free agent and reigning Super Bowl MVP. The market dictates Cutler doesn’t need it to get a huge payday.
Romo’s contract, which added six years, included $55 million guaranteed with an average annual salary of $18 million and netted him $28.5 million in the first year of the deal with $54 million paid over the first three years. Romo is 1-3 in four playoff starts with his last appearance after the 2009 season. Cook would be foolish not to use that as a starting point for contract talks. Cutler is 1-1 in the playoffs, beating a 7-9 Seahawks team before losing in the NFC championship game after the 2010 season when he suffered a knee injury against the Packers.
The Lions tacked three years on Stafford’s existing rookie contract, guaranteeing $41.5 million and pushing his annual average salary to $17.67 million. He has made one postseason start, a loss to the host Saints.
The Falcons’ Matt Ryan, who has a 1-4 playoff record, including a loss in last year’s NFC title game, also received a new contract during the offseason. Ryan received five more years with $59 million guaranteed and an average annual salary of $20.75 million, second to only the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers ($22 million).
The Bears face the prospect of losing Cutler via free agency, and while he could have a hard time finding an offense primed for success elsewhere, money talks.
What separates Cutler from other quarterbacks with top deals is that with the exception of Peyton Manning, who missed the 2011 season with a neck injury, the others were all healthy the season before they cashed in. Cutler has missed 51/2 games this year and 12 the last three regular seasons.
But the point is you don’t have to be in the Super Bowl-winning club of Rodgers, Flacco, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Tom Brady to get a top-of-the-market deal. The Steelers likely will have to address the status of Ben Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls and lost in a third, this offseason. His base salaries for the next two seasons total only $23.7 million, a bargain compared to the marketplace, and the Steelers could create some cap flexibility if he’s extended.
Using the franchise tag to secure Cutler for 2014 would give the Bears another year to evaluate him before potentially investing tens of millions of dollars in him. But that doesn’t seem a likely option.
“The franchise tag for quarterback has challenges because the average comes out to be such a big portion of your cap,” Emery said in a chat on the team’s website. “To use (the franchise tag) and not sign the individual to a long-term deal hurts the team because you lose the ability to prorate the amount of guaranteed salary over the length of the contract.”
The Bears removed any doubt about their intentions after this season when they restored Cutler to the starting role once he was cleared medically, putting the hot Josh McCown back on the bench. Coach Marc Trestman was clear that decision was made a month ago, just after Cutler was injured Nov. 10 against the Lions.
Emery will have an abundance of salary cap room to maneuver. Right now, projections are the Bears could have $42 million, and more space could be created. But cap space and cash budgets are two different things. Re-signing Cutler will be a major expense because experienced quarterbacks, even ones without Super Bowl rings, are getting deals of the century from teams that commit to them.