By Dan Pompei
Those rare human beings who really can spin a football at the highest level of the game have a way of holding people hostage.
They hold hostage the opposing defensive coordinators who stay up all night in preparation, as well as their own offensive coordinators who risk losing their jobs if they fail to appease them. There are hostage safeties, unable to play the run the way they should because of them. Hostage fans line up to pay exorbitant prices for their jerseys. Hostage wide receivers beg for their attention.
And then there are hostage team owners who can't help but blink at the negotiating table.
The question in Chicago then, is not should the Bears pay Jay Cutler? The question is how could the Bears not pay Jay Cutler?
The controversial quarterback is in the final year of his contract. He'll be sitting out this week with his second injury of the season. But he failed to lead his team to win in four of his last five starts, and his backup has a better passer rating than he does. He can be loose with the football. He has one career playoff victory on his resume.
The point of letting him play out his contract presumably was to see if he could prove without a doubt he deserved to be paid like one of football's best. Cutler has not done that. But it probably won't matter. One way or another, the cash register is going to ring loudly for him, just as it did for Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco and Tony Romo last offseason.
A financial advisor might come to the conclusion that the combined $332 million committed to the aforementioned quarterback trio was not money well spent. The $20.75 million annual average for Ryan has bought the Falcons a 2-7 record. For paying Flacco an average of $20.1 million per season, the Ravens have been rewarded with a 77.3 passer rating. The Cowboys are a .500 team with a quarterback who makes $18 million per year.
The truth, as difficult to digest as it may be, is each of those teams made the smartest possible choice by re-signing their quarterbacks. That had something to do with their other options. Do you want a piece of sirloin that isn't perfectly tender, or would you prefer Salisbury steak? Mystery meat, perhaps?
"When you got a guy, you stick with him," said one general manager who has got a guy and has no intention of losing him. "Letting one go is not an option."
Another longtime executive calls quarterback "the un-fillable position." Think of it this way. If the Bears were to allow Cutler to sign elsewhere, with whom would they replace him? They could promote 34-year old backup Josh McCown, who has not been a regular starter in the last six years. They could gamble on a reclamation project free agent like Josh Freeman. They might be able to acquire a veteran on the outs like Matt Schaub, Michael Vick, Mark Sanchez or Brandon Weeden. Or they could draft a quarterback. It's a deep draft for quarterbacks, but you could turn over every stone from Maine to Samoa and not find another Andrew Luck.
Stop me when you see a more appealing option than Cutler.
"What would the Ravens have done if they let Flacco go?" the general manager said. "They had the 32nd pick. They could have drafted Matt Barkley."
Quarterbacks can't all be Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. The term "franchise quarterback" is thrown around loosely, but the longtime NFL exec believes those four are the only true established franchise quarterbacks in the game right now. Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger were in that class previously, but they aren't at the moment. Some, such as Luck, are ascending and could join the elite group.
There is a larger group of quarterbacks who are bourgeois in production, even if some of their paychecks are upper crust. And that's where it gets tricky. With an elite quarterback salary comes elite expectations.
Fans want a quarterback who can win them a Super Bowl. But teams have to set their sights on a quarterback they can win the Super Bowl with, not because of. Flacco is in that group. Ryan and Romo are too. And so is Cutler. And those quarterbacks have significant value, given the alternatives and the importance of the position. Said the longtime exec, "You are paying for the position as much as the player."
So the Bears have four options with Cutler.
Option A: Let him go. And pray to find a replacement who is as capable of playing such a premium position.
Option B: Allow him to test the market, and then try to re-sign him. That's a high-risk gamble. He might choose to sign elsewhere. Or his price tag might rise if he gets a better offer than he was willing to accept from the Bears before free agency. It's hard to imagine fewer than two outside suitors for Cutler, and two is all you need to drive up the price. Among the teams that could be in the quarterback market include the Browns, Bucs, Cardinals, Eagles, Jaguars, Vikings, Raiders, Texans and Titans.
Option C: Put the franchise tag on him. The Bears still would be paying him like an elite quarterback, more than $15 million for one year. And they ultimately would be postponing a decision. But the franchise tag would not work if Cutler were not on board with it. You can't have your quarterback showing up the week before the season opener.
Option D: Bite hard and sign him to a long-term deal before he becomes a free agent. The downside here is they might have to pay him like Ryan, Flacco and Romo were paid.
Like every NFL team, the Bears are hostage to the quarterback position. And the sooner they realize that, the less painful negotiations will be.
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Dan Pompei has covered more than 500 NFL games, including 26 Super Bowls. He is one of 44 members on Pro Football Hall of Fame selectors board and one of nine members on the seniors committee. He was given the 2013 Dick McCann Award by the Pro Football Writers of America for long and distinguished reporting in the field of pro football. Follow him on Twitter @danpompei.