The Bears Do the Safe Thing With Jay Cutler’s Contract (No, Really)

The quarterback, and his new contract, are frustrating to Bears fans. But he got what the market demands right now.

Photo: José M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune

Jay Cutler, Chicago’s vaguely Fox Mulderish quarterback, mercifully (or not) ended what would have been weeks of off-season speculation by inking a big, long contract. It’s not as big or long as it looks, because NFL contracts are Monopoly money, but the reaction was predictable. The Trib edit page captures the CW pretty well:

You can’t blame Chicagoans who greeted news of Jay Cutler’s seven-year, megamillion-dollar contract with a collective, “Whaaaaat?”

They have come to know and not particularly love the Chicago Bears quarterback.

Cutler’s performance on the field doesn’t seem to justify the generous deal.

And it captures the conventional reasoning as well—and, subtly, why Chicagoans get so mad about Jay Cutler. It’s not just the grumpy face.

Cutler got an equal or better deal than the Dallas Cowboys’ Tony Romo or the Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco, both of whom have better stats during the past five years. Flacco was a Super Bowl MVP.

Football contracts are complex; Cutler will get $18 million a year with $54 million guaranteed, which basically makes it a three-year deal (18x3=54) with four years of team options, not a seven-year deal proper. Otherwise, it’s about right. Cutler is guaranteed a bit more than Flacco but will make a bit less per year. He’s guaranteed a bit less than Romo and Matt Ryan, but a lot more than Matthew Stafford.

Thus, if you believe that Cutler is a worse quarterback than Romo and Flacco, he’s overpaid. But it’s more complicated than that, for a couple reasons.

First, it depends on what you mean by “better stats.” By the usual top-line stats, Romo and Flacco have been better over the past five years, though Flacco was awful on a decimated Ravens team this year. Dig into the advanced stats, though, and the picture gets more complicated. Let’s start with ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating:

Season Cutler Romo Flacco
2013 8th 12th 25th
2012 21st 13th 24th
2011 16th 5th 14th
2010 22nd Injured 12th
2009 20th 12th 16th

Or, if you like, Football Outsiders’ Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement:

Season Cutler Romo Flacco
2013 16th 7th 40th (!)
2012 28th 7th 17th
2011 21st 4th 14th
2010 30th Injured 11th
2009 39th 7th 14th

By this measure, Cutler looks wildly overpaid—but project out a full season of Cutler with a quarterback-oriented coach, two outstanding receivers, and finally a good O-line, and his DYAR is in line with Flacco’s. He’s not as good as Romo, but is closer in value to Flacco than you might think. Numberfire’s JJ Zachariason, using his own set of advanced statistics, ranks Cutler behind Romo and Matt Ryan, but ahead of Flacco.

And Romo, for what it’s worth, has the same reputation as Cutler, even if it’s probably unfair.

But not entirely unfair. All three are talented but frustrating quarterbacks. Advanced NFL Stats ranks their Win Probability Added Variance—a measure of how inconsistent a quarterback is—in the 9th, 10th, and 14th places over the past 14 years. Among active quarterbacks, they’re 4, 5, and 6: Romo, Cutler, and Flacco, in that order. (Number one? Matt Stafford, of course. If the Packers had a Matt Stafford clone instead of an excellent, charming franchise quarterback, Bears fans’ Cutler-hate would drop by a third, easily.)

And all three are basically second-tier quarterbacks. There’s an elite top tier: Manning, Brady, Rodgers, Brees, and until recently Ben Roethlisberger. There’s a group of young quarterbacks who could be top-tier with a longer track record: Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, RGIII, Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick, maybe Nick Foles and E.J. Manuel. None of these guys are going anywhere.

There’s an abysmal bottom tier: Chad Henne, the ghost of Carson Palmer, Mike Glennon, whoever happens to be starting for Minnesota/Cleveland/Oakland/the Jets.

In between is the unsatisfying middle: boring game managers (Alex Smith, Matt Schaub), gifted quarterbacks who can lead a great team to the Super Bowl but implode on bad teams (Flacco, Eli Manning), and guys who are good enough to settle for while addressing worse problems (Stafford, Andy Dalton, Sam Bradford).

Players like this are really frustrating, but they have a lot of leverage. They’re frustrating, in part, because they have a lot of leverage. Because their agents know that when the game of musical chairs ends and you’re stuck with Chad Henne, Ryan Fitzpatrick, or Jason Campbell, you might as well hang CLOSED FOR REPAIRS on the next couple seasons.

Or you can go to the draft, and hope you get one of the one or two quarterbacks who will be better than your mid-tier quarterback in a couple years or more. While waiting until later in the draft to replace, say, Chris Conte.

Where’s Jay Cutler in all of this? The brutal loss to the Packers is instructive. Both teams, this year, were quite similar: awful defense (the Bears had one of the worst running defenses in history, by some measures, including the most yards per carry since the NFL-AFL merger), solid running games, great passing offenses. By Advanced NFL Stats’ Expected Points Added, the teams were virtually identical on both sides of the ball.

And the season rivalry came down to a matter of inches, as Bill Barnwell details. The Bears sent a blitz, the Packers burned them, and it was all over:

How often do we hear that prevent defenses don’t prevent anything? The play call almost got Peppers a free sack on Rodgers to end the season. Peppers versus air with the season on the line is a good matchup for the Bears. The Packers overcame it with a heroic block from Kuhn and a moment of brilliance from their best player. And the Bears made an undesigned mental mistake that cost them the game behind the blitz [blown man coverage, basically]. Had Peppers made it that one final step or gotten just enough on his lunge to trip up Rodgers, we would be sitting here talking about what a great call the blitz was….

Maybe that’s the difference between Rodgers and Cutler: maybe Cutler doesn’t make that play; maybe Rodgers makes more out of a similarly flawed team. Just a step more, but that step got the Packers to the playoffs.

Cutler’s not Rodgers. But he’s not Matt Stafford, either. He’s somewhere in between, hopefully and plausibly as good as Romo or Flacco. And that’s about what, and why, he’s getting paid.

 

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