After eight seasons, the Chicago Bears appear on the verge of parting ways with their all-time leading passer, Jay Cutler. As a regular figure in the NFL's longest-running rivalry, Cutler's pending departure marks an important milestone for the Green Bay Packers as well as the NFC North. Over the next few days, Acme Packing Company will review Cutler’s time in the division from a number of perspectives.
For nearly a decade, Jay Cutler has served as the Chicago Bears' primary starter under center. In that role, he has produced some memorable moments, albeit not all positive, for the team as well as the Green Bay Packers. Still, few players have affected the NFC North as significantly as Cutler, making him one of the most pivotal figures in division's recent history.
After eight seasons, Cutler's Chicago tenure appears headed for an end. If the veteran quarterback doesn't retire, it has become increasingly clear that the Bears plan to either trade or release him this offseason. One way or another, the franchise will move on from one of the most important players in its history.
But before Cutler became one of the Bears' defining players of the 21st century, he played three seasons with the Denver Broncos. Selected 11th overall in the 2006 draft, Cutler took over for veteran Jake Plummer near the end of his rookie year. Though the numbers don't necessarily suggest it, Cutler performed better than the typical first-time starter, helping the Broncos win two of their last three games to close out the year. He returned stronger in 2007 to deliver his first 20-touchdown campaign and became a Pro Bowler during his third season.
While Cutler's career appeared on the rise, Denver's trajectory had stalled under long-time head coach Mike Shanahan. The team decided to fire him during the 2009 offseason and replace him with offensive wunderkind Josh McDaniels. Only 32 at the time, McDaniels poorly handled the transition, alienating Cutler by publicly flirting with the possibility of trading for former pupil Matt Cassel. Though the Broncos tried to mend fences following the fallout, the two sides couldn't find a workable resolution. On April 2, the team consummated a trade to send Cutler to Chicago.
To acquire the disgruntled Broncos signal-caller, the Bears relinquished their first- and third-round picks in 2009 (18th and 84th overall), a first-round selection in 2010 (11th overall), and fourth-year quarterback Kyle Orton. Chicago also received a pick in a 2009 fifth-rounder (140th overall) as part of the deal.
While some feel tempted to compare the players obtained via the various selections in order to determine a trade "winner," such an approach yields flawed results. The prospects the Broncos chose differ from those the Bears would have taken with the same picks. Ultimately, it makes more sense to judge these transactions by the opportunity cost for each team, not by the sum total of the resulting players.
By those standards, the Cutler trade becomes more difficult to judge. The loss of draft picks thinned out the Bears' roster significantly, resulting in as many non-winning records as seasons with double-digit wins over the four years following the deal. At the same time, a Cutler-led squad won the NFC North in 2010, falling to the Green Bay Packers in the conference championship. That near-Super Bowl trip likely doesn't transpire without the Cutler, but Chicago qualified for the playoffs in no other season during his tenure.
As for Cutler's individual performance, he offers roughly as many pros as cons. Cutler ranks as the Bears' all-time leader in passing yards (23,443) and touchdown passes (154). For a franchise that has played 97 seasons, those marks cannot be easily dismissed. At the same time, Cutler failed to garner so much as a Pro Bowl nod during his time in Chicago and twice led the league in interceptions. He also never played a full 16-game slate after his first year with the team and, fairly or otherwise, received considerable criticism for the manner in which he departed the 2010 NFC title game.
In the end, Cutler played well enough with the Bears to keep them from pursuing an alternative for nearly a decade. His performances in 2010 and 2013 ranked among the best of his career, justifying his continued employment with the team. At his best, perhaps no more than 10 quarterbacks surpassed him in talent and on-field impact.
At the same time, Cutler never put together a full season of brilliance in Chicago, and arguably did long-term damage to the franchise by preventing it from pursuing a different signal-caller. In particular, the seven-year, $126.7 million contract he signed after the 2013 season hamstrung the franchise. When the bottom fell out on Cutler's career in 2014, the team could not afford to sever ties, delaying a necessary offensive rebuild.
Had they not traded for Cutler, the Bears might not have secured a superior quarterback. However, they probably find themselves in a more advantageous position in 2017 had they passed on the deal instead. Consequently, regret and unfulfilled potential, not great achievement, have come to characterize Cutler's time in Chicago.