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The Jay Cutler Problem

The Bears will have a hard decision to make at the end of the year: keep their frustrating but decent quarterback, or replace him with a quarterback that’s no better but less frustrating?

A Bears 2017 preview?   Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

After a few years of being a Jay Cutler apologist, last night might have broken me. It’s not that it was an especially bad performance, or that the Bears are necessarily destined to fall below 2015’s low bar. As disappointing as the first two games were for the team, there’s no reason yet to think that they can’t be what people were expecting: a team with a lot of holes led by a usually averageish, sometimes pretty good quarterback to a not-embarrassing record in the vicinity of, and probably just shy of, .500.

It’s that this scenario is the best-case scenario, and promises to be for the near future. The other teams in the NFL’s basement have, at the very least, something interesting going on, whether it’s an unpredictable new coach (Chip Kelly for the 49ers), a crash rebuild (the Browns), a compelling young quarterback (Marcus Mariota, Carson Wentz), or at least one star (Phillip Rivers, Julio Jones, Ndamukong Suh).

The Bears have Cutler, the best quarterback whose team’s fans don’t want. The Bears would almost certainly be worse without Cutler, but they’d probably be more interesting.

By interesting I don’t mean good. To see how well teams do when acquiring a quarterback by means other than the draft (or undrafted free agents like Tony Romo and Shaun Hill), I looked at the top 16 quarterbacks by Football Outsiders’ DYAR—defense-adjusted yards above replacement—every year since Cutler’s last in Denver.

These are the quarterbacks who weren’t playing for the team that originally drafted them. It’s not a great list, aside from a couple obvious outliers.

2015

1. Carson Palmer (trade)
10. Jay Cutler (trade)
13. Ryan Fitzpatrick (trade)
15. Alex Smith (trade)

2014

3. Peyton Manning (free agent)
14. Alex Smith (trade)
16. Jay Cutler (trade)

2013

3. Peyton Manning (free agent)
13. Josh McCown (free agent)
15. Carson Palmer (trade)

2012

2. Peyton Manning (free agent)
12. Matt Schaub (trade)

2011

10. Matt Schaub (trade)
16. Matt Hasselbeck (free agent)

2010

8. Matt Schaub (trade)
12. Michael Vick (free agent)
13. Kyle Orton (trade)
14. Matt Cassell (trade)
15. Shaun Hill (trade)

2009

5. Brett Favre (free agent)
6. Matt Schaub (trade)
11. Kurt Warner (free agent)
12. Kyle Orton (trade)

2008

5. Kurt Warner (free agent)
10. Matt Schaub (trade)
14. Kerry Collins (free agent)
16. Jeff Garcia (free agent)

Broadly speaking, the options are: roll the dice on a quarterback with a good track record nearing the end of his career (Palmer, Warner, Favre, Collins, Garcia, Hasselbeck), trade for the best backup quarterback/mediocre starter on the market (Schaub, Orton, Fitzpatrick, Cassell, Hill), or hope that freak circumstances land one of the greatest players ever in your lap. And, broadly speaking, it doesn’t turn out that well. It doesn’t have to turn out that well if your team is otherwise good, but the Bears aren’t and won’t be for awhile.

So the realistic best-case scenario is a quarterback about as good as Cutler, but with the psychological bonus of lower expectations. It’s an even harder call to make now that Cutler’s contract, which seemed awful just a year or two ago, is now something of a bargain. Unless Cutler is a disaster this season, the logical choice is probably to keep him instead of changing for the sake of it—but football front offices can be just as illogical as the rest of us, and perhaps Bears fans can cheer for them to be just as restive.

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