For the Chicago Bears and going-on third-year general manager Phil Emery, the entire offseason essentially hinged on one transaction. Yes, there is an aging, haphazard defense that ultimately cost the franchise a postseason berth and yes the team has a number of veterans with expiring contracts that puts the Bears in a semi-vulnerable position from a salary cap standpoint, but ultimately what the team and Emery are going to be judged upon is one deal:
The Jay Cutler contract.
Just a few days after a devastating season-ending loss to the Green Bay Packers in a de facto NFC North championship game (one that yours truly enjoyed from the stands only by the grace of several rum-loaded hot chocolates), the Chicago Bears and Phil Emery decided to re-up their mercurial star quarterback for $126 million over the span of the next seven years, with a $54 million signing bonus. And while the signing elicited a wide-range of emotions from the Chicago fanbase, it will ultimately be the move that Phil Emery’s career in Chicago rests on.
The lifespan of a general manager in the National Football League–particularly in a place like Chicago, savage media and rancorous fanbase in tow–is typically rather fleeting. Changing tides in the front office often signifies an organizational shift in thinking and is supposed to be accompanied by rapid improvement.
Two seasons ago, when Phil Emery took over for Jerry Angelo, he took over a roster that was offensively inept and lacked the necessary depth to compete in what the resurgent NFC North. However, now, having had two drafts, having signed his own head coach and having tethered himself to Jay Cutler in lieu of alternatives at the quarterback position, this franchise very clearly reflects the philosophical undertaking Emery has embarked upon in Chicago.
The Chicago Bears (at Phil Emery’s behest) have made a concerted effort to leave the “black-and-blue” image we’ve so long associated with the franchise behind. Now, the Chicago Bears are attempting to take a chic stance in an increasingly aesthetic league.
They’ve made offense a distinct priority, trading for Brandon Marshall and drafting Alshon Jeffery in Emery’s first season, overhauling a vapid offensive line in his second and now resigning the franchise quarterback in his third. What resulted was the No. 2 scoring offense in the NFL in 2013.
However, while his ability to win a championship may ultimately hinge on his decision to sign Jay Cutler to a massive deal, the most pressing need (as well as the one that will likely determine the franchise’s immediate fate) will be his ability to get creative defensively. And that’s one of the reasons why the Jay Cutler contract was actually a very good deal for the Chicago Bears.
Beyond the fact that there simply weren’t any available alternatives for a franchise that seems unwilling to call it quits at quarterback and start from scratch (making resigning or franchising Cutler the only logical choice), Phil Emery managed to include a provision in Cutler’s contract that allows him to slide signing bonus into the base salary to give the franchise some cap flexibility.
As a matter of fact, it’s a provision he’s added to all of the Bears’ offseason re-signings (Tim Jennings, Matt Slausen, Robbie Gould, etc.) And while the initial moves appear to have left the organization somewhat cash-strapped (in terms of available cap space, the Bears are only working with about $11 million), this front office has shown an inherit ability to wiggle things around financially to make it all fit.
The No. 1 priority for Chicago this offseason (as it should be with every franchise in the NFL given the current structure of rookie contracts) will be to build depth through the draft, but if the Bears see a big-name free agent that could add some immediate help to a struggling defense, they should have the ability to do exactly that.
That’s why it’s the Jay Cutler contract that Phil Emery is tethering himself to, and not necessarily Jay Cutler himself.
Sure, if Jay Cutler continues to develop under Marc Trestman into a Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Emery will be lauded for the re-signing. Similarly, if Mount Cutler erupts, burying Bears fans in despair as thick as the soot in Pompeii, he’ll also be demonized.
However, Emery’s provision allows for a third outcome. If the Bears have an opportunity to upgrade at quarterback, or if they decide they want to save some cap space down the road when better options present themselves at quarterback, they’ll be able to do that.
And, at that point, we’ll all fawn over Emery’s ingenuity.
This is a big offseason for Phil Emery, and while there’s plenty to be excited about over the coming months, nothing will wind up being as critical as the signing of Jay Cutler. It will ultimately serve to define the analytic general manager’s legacy in Chicago.
Good, bad or otherwise.