Jay Cutler: Underpaid and Worth Every Penny

Dec 29, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler (6) prior to a game against the Green Bay Packers at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve all experienced the awkwardness of a friend getting serious with someone and then slowly but surely incorporating the significant other into the pre-existing friend group.  If you hate the boyfriend or girlfriend, you can’t really say anything to your friend about it—unless you have reason to believe that the new romantic interest is a rapist or an axe murderer or something of the sort.  You might think person is a loser.  You might think the person is a douche bag.  You might even think the person doesn’t deserve your friend.  But all of those feelings are irrelevant.  As a good friend, your only responsibility is to support the boyfriend or girlfriend until he or she gets dumped or does the dumping—then and only then can you start openly trashing the ex.

For me, Kristin Cavallari is that proverbial friend, and her husband Jay Cutler is that proverbial significant other.  Like a lot of people, I grew up watching Kristin on Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County.  And despite attending high school in a party town most famous for hosting MTV Spring Break, and the year-round drunken debauchery that comes with it, it was difficult not to live vicariously through Cavallari’s semi-scripted exploits at Laguna Beach High School.  Through her seemingly never ending drama with Lauren Conrad and Stephen Colletti, Kristin taught me about both the joys and perils of getting involved in a love triangle.  Her boundless popularity and sex appeal functioned as a practical lesson in power politics surpassing the teachings from virtually any political science course across the country.  And long before I experienced the awesomeness that is a Mexico vacation without parental supervision, Kristin engrained in me the most important rule of travel south of the border: “What happens in Cabo, stays in Cabo.”

As silly as it might sound, I can say with absolutely no semblance of flippancy that Kristin Cavallari meant a lot to me growing up.  As a result, I naturally continue to support her today—even when she started dating Jay Cutler during the Fall of 2010 and married him in June of 2013.  And part of supporting Kristin is supporting Jay.

People would attack Cutler for being a “loser” due to amassing an 11-35 record while playing quarterback at Vanderbilt.  I would counter by asserting that Vanderbilt is a bastion of academia with the unfortunate luck of being situated in the Southeastern Conference.  To think that Jay Cutler and his Commodores could realistically compete with LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and the rest of the SEC is at best nonsensical and at worst unabashed ignorance.  Cutler’s career professional record of 56 wins and 48 losses has shown that he is hardly a loser.

People would also attack Cutler for being “soft” due to taking himself out of the 2011 NFC Championship Game against Green Bay.  I would strike back with the fact that Cutler suffered a sprained MCL against the Packers, rendering him both immobile and unable to plant and throw off his left knee.  By taking himself out of the game, Cutler was sacrificing his personal glory for the success of the team—something his teammates and opponents alike recognized and appreciated after the game.  In hindsight, Cutler’s willingness to play the 2013 season with a torn groin and twisted ankle rendered any past potshots concerning his fortitude as sophomoric and misguided.

Now, Jay Cutler’s ever-present critics are attacking the Chicago Bears for giving Cutler an allegedly undeserved seven-year, $126.7 million contract.

Yahoo! Sports’s Dalton Russell alluded to Jay Cutler now becoming the most overpaid quarterback in NFL history.  I’m not sure if Russell was simply writing a shocking headline to maximize page clicks or if he genuinely thinks that Cutler might actually be the most overpaid quarterback in the history of professional football.  Regardless, such a belief is pretty foolish.

First, it is important to understand that Bears General Manager Phil Emery is not literally handing Cutler a check worth $127.6 million.  Per Profootballtalk.comonly the first three years of the deal are guaranteed.  In 2014, Cutler will make $22.5 million; in 2015, $15.5 million; and in 2016, $16 million.  After 2016, the deal becomes year-to-year with salaries of $12.5 million in 2017; $13.5 million in 2018; $17.5 million in 2019; and $19.2 million in 2020.  In other words, unless Cutler thrives in his late-thirties, the Bears will likely not be paying him much of the latter portion of his deal.  Jay will effectively make for sure just $54 million, and anything more than that is just speculation.  Be honest, $54 million for Jay Cutler sounds a hell of a lot better than $127 million, doesn’t it?

Second, aside from understanding the specificities of the Jay Cutler contract, one must think about the concept of being “overpaid” under the economic logic of capitalism.  In a capitalist system, people are paid what the market determines them to be worth.  If someone is overpaid, then the payer is either an idiot OR more likely simply made the tactical decision that the employee in question brought desirables to the table that should not fall into the hands of the competition—at almost any cost.  Meanwhile, if someone is underpaid, then either the payee is an idiot OR more likely just came to the conclusion that the psychic benefits of a specific location were worth making slightly less than the market rate for the services rendered.  When comparing Cutler’s contract with the contracts received by his contemporaries—and taking into account the interconnected realities of QB salary inflation and QB scarcity—it appears rather objective that Cutler is, if anything, underpaid.

In 2008, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger signed an 8-year $102 million contract with $33.2 million in guaranteed money.  Since the Roethlisberger signing, and arguably long before that, NFL teams have come to realize the necessity of having a competent starting quarterback, and the historical salary increases have reflected such a realization.  In March of 2012, the Denver Broncos signed Peyton Manning to a 5-year $96 million deal with $18 million guaranteed—not bad for a 37-year-old who can’t win in big cold weather night games with a neck constantly at risk of detaching from his upper body.  In July of 2012, the New Orleans Saints signed Drew Brees for 5-years at $100 million with $40 million guaranteed. In March of 2013, the Baltimore Ravens infamously signed Joe Flacco to a 6-year $120.6 million contract with $52 million guaranteed.  The Dallas Cowboys signed Tony Romo to a 7-year $119.5 million contract with $55 million guaranteed in March of 2013.  One month later, the Green Bay Packers signed Aaron Rodgers to a 7-year $130.75 million deal with $54 million guaranteed.  Then in July, the Detroit Lions’ Matt Stafford inked a 5-year $76.5 million deal with $41.5 million guaranteed.  That same month, the Atlanta Falcons gave Matt Ryan 6-years $113.75 million with a $59 million guarantee.  Moral of the story: the Chicago Bears think Jay Cutler is a franchise quarterback; franchise quarterbacks make a lot of money; and Cutler’s new de facto $54 million contract falls in line with the market price for franchise quarterbacks in 2014.

The argument against the signing now becomes, “okay, Jay is paid a fair market rate for a starting elite quarterback, but Cutler just is not a starting elite quarterback!”  This sentiment—while popular—is quite baffling when you look at Jay Cutler’s abilities in the context of the totality of the National Football League.  Cutler boasts a career 61% completion percentage; 23,937 yards passing; 155 TDs and only 112 INTs—solid numbers for a guy frequently butchered by fans and media alike.  Is he Aaron Rodgers?  No.  Is he Tom Brady?  No!  But he doesn’t have to be one of the top 5 quarterbacks in the NFL to be paid $54 million.  Consider the teams who objectively would have loved to have Cutler this year as their starter:  the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Buffalo Bills, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Minnesota Vikings, and New York Jets.  Then, think about the teams with ambiguous quarterback situations who would at the very least hold a five hour meeting regarding signing Jay Cutler: the St. Louis Rams, Miami Dolphins, Washington Redskins, and Cincinnati Bengals.  That’s literally 40% of the entire NFL that would have serious interest in Jay Cutler!  Imagine what would have happened if Cutler hit the open market.

In all likelihood, at least three of the aforementioned thirteen teams would have gotten into a bidding war for Cutler’s services.  And if that happened, Cutler’s current $54 million guarantee and $127.6 million contract in total would have increased substantially.  It seems apparent that, in signing his new deal with Phil Emery and the Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler left guaranteed money on the table to stay in Chicago.  The Chicago Bears got a break in signing an underpaid franchise quarterback.

The argument against the Bears signing Jay Cutler now devolves into, “fine, the Bears got a deal on Cutler considering the open market bidding war, but why would they want a deal on Jay Cutler?  He’s at best nibbling at the top quadrant of NFL quarterbacks.”  This is an interesting argument.  Virtually anyone would take Russell Wilson, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Colin Kaepernick, Tom Brady, Andrew Luck, and Peyton Manning over Jay Cutler.  That’s 25% of NFL starting quarterbacks.  And one could even debate taking Cam Newton, Nick Foles, Tony Romo, Eli Manning, a healthy Robert Griffin III, Matt Stafford, Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco, Alex Smith, and Philip Rivers over Cutler.  Throw those guys in with the prior eight and that’s 56% of starting quarterbacks arguably more valuable than Jay Cutler.  Let’s assume the worst of all possible scenarios: that Cutler is the 19th most desirable quarterback in the NFL.  Why would the Bears give him $54 million?  Why not just trade up in the draft and take a supposed elite franchise quarterback of the future?  Or why not just bring in a myriad of rookie quarterbacks during preseason competition and troll for the next Russell Wilson?  Because, they are the Chicago Bears!

A quick perusal of the history of quarterback play in Chicago reveals that the Bears have never had a Dan Marino, a Joe Montana, a Troy Aikman, or even a Bernie Kosar.  The Bears have never had that elite franchise quarterback.  In fact, Jay Cutler is the closest player to an elite quarterback ever to call Soldier Field home.  And statistically, Cutler is the most successful quarterback in Chicago Bears history.  He has the highest completion percentage, controlling for a nominal sample size from Shane Matthews during the late ’90s.  He has the most passing yards, the second most touchdowns (he will pass the immortal Sid Luckman within the next two seasons), and the highest quarterback rating.  Just read the names of some past quarterbacks to don the white, navy blue, and burnt orange: Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer, Mike Tomczak, Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton, and Jim Miller.  That partial list speaks for itself.  If the Bears attempted to draft the next Russell Wilson or Andrew Luck, they almost assuredly would end up with a poor man’s version of Blaine Gabbert or Brandon Weeden.

The elephant in the room with the Jay Cutler signing is Josh McCown—the Chicago Bears backup who played so admirably for the Bears in Cutler’s extended absence in 2013.  Many, including NFL.com‘s Adam Rank, believe that the Bears should have named McCown the starter and stuck with him in 2013 and moving on into the future.  But choosing not to sign Jay Cutler in favor of career backup Josh McCown is ludicrous for three reasons.

First, sample size.  There is no denying that McCown had a great year in 2013; no one can take his 13 TDs and only 1 INT away from him.  But that is just an 8 game sample size out of the 60 career games he has appeared in for the Arizona Cardinals, Detroit Lions, Oakland Raiders, Carolina Panthers, and Chicago Bears.  Eliminate the nominal 8 game 2013 sample size and McCown’s 52 game career numbers drop to 37 TDs and 44 INTs.  Josh McCown was a nice story and will continue to be an excellent option at backup quarterback moving forward, but to anoint him as the Bears starting quarterback of the future would be a curious case of Pollyannaish myopia.

Second, commitment to football.  Josh McCown is on record as being unsure if he even wants to continue playing football in 2014.  Josh is a family man with four children ages 15, 6, 10, and 9 living in North Carolina, and McCown genuinely seems to want to be a traditional father and watch his kids grow up in person.  Perhaps McCown will change his mind if he gets a multi-million dollar offer this offseason, but even so: would it really be rational for the Bears to pass on Cutler and roll the dice on a guy who might not even want to play professional football anymore?

Third and lastly, age.  Josh McCown will be 35-years-old at the start of the 2014 NFL season.  Admittedly, there has been some history of success with aging late-bloomer quarterbacks.  At age 37, career middling at best quarterback Rich Gannon was NFL MVP and the starter for the Super Bowl XXXVII runner-up Oakland Raiders.  At age 38, however, a combination of age and injuries led to his statistics and quarterback play to plunge off a metaphorical cliff.  He retired a year later.  Assuming for the sake of argument McCown could replicate his 2013 season until age 37, like Rich Gannon.  How many NFL General Managers would choose two years of Josh McCown as opposed to realistically anywhere between five and seven years of Jay Cutler?  I would be shocked if the answer was more than zero.

To the rest of the league, Jay Cutler might look like a middling quarterback, but to the city of Chicago he is the best quarterback they’ve ever had.  You can only search for the answer at quarterback for so long.  A popular definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  It goes without saying that Phil Emery couldn’t sanely part ways with with the greatest quarterback in Chicago Bears history and expect to find someone better. Not in Chicago.

Topics: Chicago Bears, Jay Cutler

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  • James Duszak

    Put that way ,he probably is worth the $. Bears

    • Phil Daniels

      I’m of the opinion that once you get over the concept of ANYBODY making $54 million, you can start to rationally think about “fair pay.”

  • King A

    I agree with this article, except for the Laguna Beach references. Really!?! you watched Laguna Beach?? psh…

    • Phil Daniels

      I think that every generation has that embarrassing show geared toward women that draws guys in somehow. If you’re in your late 20s – early 30s, those shows include Laguna Beach and The OC. If you’re in your mid 30s – early 40s, then it’s definitely either Melrose Place or Beverly Hills 90210. And if you’re a teenager now, it might be one of those ridiculous ABC Family shows like Pretty Little Liars. If you managed to avoid shows like this, you sir are a better man than me.

      • King A

        ugh… i watched 90210 … smh… Go Bears!

  • James Duszak

    Bears wins should be the real question. I don’t see Jay taking Chicago or anyone to the Super Bowl,therefore, he is well overpaid.

  • Big Swede

    Your article is well thought through and accurate.

    Sometimes it embarrasses me how little the average Bears fan actually understands about NFL football. Phil Emery has worked wonders with this team that was basically left in shambles by Jerry Angelo, especially in rebuilding the O line and bringing in weapons for Cutler.

    Lovie Smith was NOT the devil, but couldn’t figure out how the offensive side of the ball was supposed to work. Marc Trestman turned that around in one season. THIS off season, Emery will be tasked with turning around the defense. I have no reason to believe that he can’t do the same job he did with the offense.

    With Cutler in place, along with his key targets, I expect outstanding things from the Bears for 2014 and beyond.

    • Phil Daniels

      I agree completely. Going 8-8 this season with the injuries suffered on the defensive side of the ball is actually pretty incredible. With a strong offseason on the defensive side of the football, the Bears are poised to become an 11 win football team. That being said, both Packers and Lions fans can say the same thing about their teams. The NFC North might be next year’s NFC West, with a 10 win team failing to qualify.

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