What Will a Contract Year Bring Out of Jay Cutler?

Jay Cutler  BearsBears quarterback Jay Cutler
has had everything going for him this offseason.

He married Kristin Cavallari this summer. He watched the Bears bring in help on the offensive line in Kyle Long and Jermon Bushrod. He shook hands with his new sure-handed tight end, Martellus Bennett. He watched Lovie Smith and Mike Tice pack their bags. And now he is less than three weeks away from chucking passes to his favorite target Brandon Marshall at Bears training camp.

You could say things have been going about as smoothly as the gunslinger’s hair in a picture for a fashion magazine, parted and combed to the right. Cutler is where he wants to be, as he has repeated numerous times this offseason. But it’s easy for Cutler to stay composed in July, when his bright orange jersey will ensure the likes of Julius Peppers won’t even breathe in his direction.

That state of comfort is fit to change, though, as Cutler will soon feel the pressure of Clay Matthews, Jared Allen, Aaron Rodgers’ shadow and lofty expectations bearing down on him. And that’s not to mention an even higher pressurized circumstance that is his expiring contract.

The Bears have pushed their chips to the center of the table for Cutler. They shipped two first round picks to Denver just to bring him to the Windy City. They brought in Marshall, and even more pieces this offseason. They have even changed the franchise’s age-old philosophy of defense-first football—exemplified by the hiring of Marc Trestman.

Aside from some untimely injuries and struggles against the rival Packers, Cutler has done a solid job with the situation he was given. But now the Bears want to see it all come together, with a lucrative return worthy of another large investment. The Bears hope that Trestman’s new system can turn what Cutler already has into a royal flush.

“Coach Trestman and his offense, I’m really excited about it, I think the guys will be really excited about it. Our approach to the offense and just the intensity we’re going to approach each and every day. We’re getting the pieces talent-wise around everybody. The defense is going to be really good once again and the special teams will be there as well,” Cutler told ESPN.

“I think Phil (Emery) and everyone involved is doing everything possible to put us in a position to be successful.”

The front office has done their part—which is something Bears fans aren’t used to saying—now it’s time to see how it all plays out. Cutler said that he will have enough on his plate, in terms of learning the playbook and focusing on winning, to keep his mind off a new deal. That may be the case, but it’s obvious that players have handled their contract years with different levels of effectiveness.

Everyone with an allegiance to the Bears is hoping that Cutler follows the Joe Flacco model. In the final year of his contract last season, Flacco threw for a career-high 3,817 yards in the regular season, along with 22 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. This led the Ravens to the playoffs, where he took his game to another level, posting 11 touchdowns, no picks and a 117.2 passer rating on his way to winning Super Bowl MVP. You can’t get any better than that.

Other success stories include Drew Brees’ contract year in 2011, when he threw for an NFL record 5,476 yards in a season, breaking Dan Marino’s all-time mark. Brees also threw a career-high 46 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions. Another recent one was Michael Vick in 2010, who threw for more than 3,000 yards with 21 touchdowns and a 100.2 passer rating (both career highs) in just 12 games.

Both players received $100 million contracts after those seasons, but that is where the comparisons end. Brees followed up his big payday with yet another season with more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns. Vick has yet to be the same quarterback, and has since restructured his contract to take less money and stay with the Eagles (who were sure to cut him otherwise).

How much money the Bears will fork at Cutler is something they will have to consider at a later date. As for the other side of the spectrum, Tony Romo played out the final year of his contract last season. Romo threw for a career-high 4,903 yards with 28 touchdowns, but he also registered 19 interceptions, a 90.5 passer rating (lowest of his career) and another seat on the couch during the playoffs.

Another instance that Bears fans are familiar with is that of Kyle Orton. Orton was playing in a contract year in 2011, after posting back to back 20-touchdown seasons. He struggled mightily, however, throwing just eight touchdowns with seven picks in the first five games of the year (going 1-4). The Broncos then traded Orton to Kansas City, and he is currently a backup in Dallas.

It’s likely that Cutler finishes in the middle of the two extremes—probably closest to Romo’s totals if anything, according to recent history. The Bears gunslinger has not thrown more than 19 interceptions in a season since 2009 when he threw 26. Cutler threw only 14 picks last season, but that total could be increased in 2013 with more pass attempts in Trestman’s system.

Despite being the only quarterback of starter quality on the Bears roster, nothing is guaranteed for Cutler beyond this season. More likely than not, he will be in a Bears uniform in 2014 but that is something he’s going to have to earn first—along with everyone else in the locker room.

For now, the anticipation of what could be a very exciting season is building. This year is going to set the foundation for the franchise’s future. Cutler will need to show how badly he wants to be a part of it.

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