COMMENTARY | The Chicago Bears are suffering from a crisis of identity.
This was supposed to be the year they finally put all the pieces into place to be a contender for the Super Bowl. The defense was coming off of a season in 2012 in which they caused the most turnovers of any team in the NFL. The offensive side of the ball was finally getting a much needed facelift after the front office ousted Lovie Smith to make way for offensive guru Mac Trestman, who was brought in on the promise of revolutionizing the Bears' lackluster scoring attack.
But after the first seven games of the 2013 season, the Bears are a team beginning to show their age. Body parts keep falling off of these players like crash-test dummies, and the once stout Monsters of the Midway defense has been relegated to the back end of the NFL rankings, allowing 29.4 points per game.
This season marks year five of Jay Cutler's five-year, $50.3 million contract. But for the third straight season, Cutler has succumbed to injury, and the once brash talks of Super Bowl contention have suddenly given way to whispers about whether re-signing Cutler is even the right move for the Bears.
Injury Prone: Cutler wants to be a quarterback whose name is synonymous with toughness. As Cutler showed in the Bears' Week 3 win at Pittsburgh by lowering the boom on an unsuspecting tackler to pick up a first down, No. 6 is not afraid to mix it up when he has to. But for as much as Cutler would like to emulate the unwavering toughness of his boyhood idol Brett Favre, the Bears' QB has not been able to stay on the field.
Over the last two seasons, Cutler has missed seven games due to injury, and he will be sidelined for at least four weeks this season after tearing a groin muscle in Week 7. To this point, Cutler's resume in Chicago has been that of an employee with all the talent in the world, who starts great, but is ultimately unable to see the job through till the end.
In 2011 and 2012, Cutler had the Bears looking like a true playoff contender, but after he went down, the team faulted and missed out on the postseason. If the same thing happens for a third consecutive year, how wise would it be for the Bears to invest long-term in a quarterback who has proven he cannot be counted on for an entire season?
Lack of Quarterback Options: The problem with Cutler's contract is that he is holding the Bears' future hostage. If Chicago chooses to move in a different direction and not re-sign Cutler, they are essentially waving goodbye to the opportunity this group of players has to win a title.
Cutler and Charles Tillman are both free agents at the end of this season. Brandon Marshall and Lance Briggs are only under contract for one more season, and Matt Forte is only locked down for two additional years. If the Bears want to try and win right now, Cutler is the only option they have before their Super Bowl window slams shut and they are forced to start rebuilding from scratch.
Is the Franchise Tag the Best Option for 2014?
The Bears do have an ace in the hole if they choose to use it. Instead of risking the long-term deal on an injury-prone quarterback for a team who may or may not be heading into rebuilding mode, the Bears could franchise Cutler to give them one more shot at reaching for Mr. Lombardi.
In 2013, it cost a team $14.896 million to use their franchise tag on their quarterback. That figure will rise slightly next season to the point that the Bears would be bringing Cutler back for one season at the price of just over $15 million. Given the fact that the St. Louis Rams' Sam Bradford and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger will each make north of $17 million in 2014, the franchise tag's value would not be overspending on Cutler.
Although they do run the risk of making Cutler unhappy, bringing him back for the short term makes more sense than having to pony up the dough for a big deal -- this is the notoriously cheap Chicago front office we are talking about.
By franchising Cutler, the Bears can try to win now while still looking to bring in another quarterback through the draft or via a trade. In all actuality, the Bears could tag Cutler again in 2015 and further avoid the risk of being left holding a bloated, worthless contract should his injury-prone nature continue to reveal itself.
Dalton Russell has covered the Chicago Bears in print and online media since 1998. He lives just outside the shadow of the iconic architecture of Soldier Field.
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