Last night the Bears announced that the highest-paid player in the NFL is going to sit on Sunday, in favor of Jimmy Clausen, a quarterback who's had just nine pass attempts since his disastrous 2010 season (the worst of any quarterback in the past eight years). Jon Greenberg captures it: "I thought [Cutler] would never leave. If we had a zombie apocalypse, he'd find a way to get $20 million." (One theory: they're trying to avoid a major-injury guarantee. Another: they've already worked out a trade and don't want him to get injured.)
There are two things that no one can seem to get their mind around. One is that Jimmy Clausen's sole season as a starter was historically bad. In 2010, he played 13 games, completing 52.5 percent of his passes for 1,558 yards at an abysmal 5.21 yards per attempt, throwing three touchdowns and nine interceptions. That comes out to a QBR of 11.0. That's the worst in the eight years ESPN has kept the stat.
He was worse than 2006 Andrew Walter; worse than 2009 JaMarcus Russell; worse than 2011 Blaine Gabbert, the three quarterbacks who fell below 20 QBR. (If you prefer the NFL's quarterback rating, he was better than Walter or Russell and worse than Gabbert.) And he didn't throw a single regular-season pass between then and 2014.
The second is that cutting Cutler outright, as a few have suggested, wouldn't save the Bears much money. In the best-case scenario, Brad Biggs explains, the Bears would owe him his 2015 salary minus what his new team pays him. Biggs suggests that could be $10 million, which sounds reasonable. But if they don't cut him by March, his contract kicks in for another $10 million in 2016, and nothing about his benching suggests they want him around that long.
So he could get traded. Whether he's cut or put on the market, he'll be the best available quarterback, hard as that may be to believe. Otherwise there's RG3 (a mess), Nick Foles (a gamble), Andy Dalton (who has Cutler's inconsistency, but not his ceiling), and Colin Kaepernick (expensive). Bill Barnwell suggests that there's a market for Cutler:
If the Bears did decide to deal Cutler, he would likely be the most-talented and best-regarded quarterback on the market, with the usual quarterback-hungry suspects like the Jets, Texans, and Titans all interested. Teams picking in the top 10 wouldn’t likely give up a 2015 first-rounder for Cutler, and he won’t require the haul the Bears gave up to acquire Cutler in 2009. A team like Tennessee would more likely agree to a deal that includes a 2015 second-rounder and a future second-rounder that would turn into a first-rounder if Cutler and/or his new team hit certain thresholds of success.
Barnwell's estimation of Cutler's worth, in terms of draft picks, is way off that of an anonymous executive cited by Mike Sando, who suggests a late-round pick would be fair. Either way, it would save the Bears a bunch of money, reducing the bill to $4 million, around the cost of a high-end stopgap quarterback (it's less than what Michael Vick went for last year, more than what Mark Sanchez did).
But that still leaves the question: Who would replace Cutler?
We've been through the possible trade targets; only Foles and Kaepernick would seem to be realistic improvements on Cutler. But they would cost draft picks.
Then there are the free agents, a list of whom you can find here. If the Bears cut Cutler, the simplest option would be to hire the least embarrassing available veteran. Matt Moore, for example. He's not too old; he's been thought of as a possible starter in the past; and he's been not-terrible in the past.
And assuming the Bears couldn't somehow greatly improve him, the best they could expect would be a quarterback about as good as Jay Cutler. 2011 was Moore's best year: he started 13 games for the Dolphins, throwing 16 touchdowns with nine interceptions and an okay 60.5 percent completion rate. His ESPN quarterback rating—which does a better job of capturing Cutler's weaknesses than the NFL's official rating—was 54.5.
(If you want to be more generous to Moore, he was slightly better in 2009: eight touchdowns, two interceptions, and a 61.6 percent completion rate over seven games. His rating that year was 55.8.)
Jay Cutler's rating in 2014? 55.0. In 2011, Cutler's was 55.9—16th best in the NFL, just ahead of Matt Moore.
The Bears could also could take a flier on a disappointing former prospect like Jake Locker (career high QBR: 58.1) or a less expensive veteran like Shaun Hill (who managed a 60.2 QBR back in 2008). Cutler's QBR has varied between 44.7 and 66.4, though. Again the odds are that they'd replicate Cutler.
The last option is to try the draft. But the Bears aren't bad enough to pick any higher than 7th, leaving them out of the running for the two promising quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston.
Plus, Cutler has been pretty good for an 11th pick. He was the only good quarterback taken in the entire 2006 draft, coming behind Vince Young and Matt Leinart. The best quarterback taken the next year was Kevin Kolb or Drew Stanton. Matt Ryan was #3 in 2008, then Joe Flacco at #18. There was one reliable starter in 2009—the first pick, Matt Stafford—then Mark Sanchez at #5 and Josh Freeman at #17.
If you go backwards, 2005 has Alex Smith at #1, Aaron Rogers at #24, and Kyle Orton at #106. In 2004, Eli Manning at #1, Philip Rivers at #4, and Ben Roethlisberger at #11.
So if the Bears went to the draft, they'd be trying to replace a quarterback who's been above average for his draft position (based on this math, he'd be a respectable 3rd or 4th pick) at something very much like his draft position. It's possible to draft a better quarterback than Jay Cutler outside of the top 10, it's just very risky; some drafts don't have a single quarterback that good.
Cutting Cutler would probably save the Bears some money—but about as much as it would cost to find a marginally suitable replacement. Trading him would bring back some return over a marginal replacement, but probably not enough to secure a better quarterback.
Which is not to say they shouldn't. Perhaps a quarterback who lives up to low expectations is less psychically wearying than one who fails to meet high ones. Perhaps it's like killing the God-King to bring about the harvest, a primitive, metaphysical version of tanking. Either way, Jay's still Jay: hard to stomach, harder to replace.