LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Sidelined at least for Sunday's game, Jay Cutler could spend the free time pondering his contract situation, which is unlikely given it's beyond his control.
"I haven't worried about it period," Cutler said last week. "That stuff takes care of itself somehow, some way."
But there's a good chance Cutler could be waiting another season for resolution. With an uncertain timetable for his return from a high ankle sprain and the Bears sitting at 5-4, it's unfair at this point to contemplate whether Cutler has done enough to warrant the organization handing down the long-term security the quarterback seeks once his deal expires at the end of the season. When Cutler returns to the lineup, perhaps whatever games are left for him to play won't be sufficient to paint the clear picture general manager Phil Emery might need to make what could turn out to be a franchise-altering decision.
Cutler need not look much further than Chicago's upcoming opponent, the Baltimore Ravens, to get a sense of how an organization can sacrifice quality at key positions in the league-wide race to secure a franchise arm. Baltimore did that with quarterback Joe Flacco, giving the quarterback a six-year, $120.6 million contract, which he earned with a strong postseason run culminating in a Super Bowl ring.
With the Ravens stumbling to a 4-5 start and Flacco now struggling, there's not a sense of buyer's remorse on the part of the organization. But naturally there are rumblings as to whether the Ravens should have invested so much in Flacco.
"I don't hear any of that, man. I don't listen to any of it," Flacco said. "Just trying to win football games, man. We deal with enough. Just the fact we've lost a handful of games, that's all we're worried about is just trying to find ways to fix that and move on. We've got a lot of ways to turn this thing around. So that's all we can really focus on."
More and more teams, understandably, subscribe to the notion that a franchise quarterback provides the best chance of competing for a Super Bowl on a year-to-year basis. The Atlanta Falcons signed Matt Ryan to a five-year, $103.75 million contract in July but are currently mired in a 2-7 start. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers signed an extension that will pay him $130.75 million but is currently out with a broken collarbone, with his team losing two in a row to fall to 5-4.
Over in Dallas, Tony Romo signed a six-year, $108 million deal in March and he's currently in a slump for the struggling 5-5 Cowboys, coming off a loss to New Orleans in which he completed just 10 throws in 24 attempts for 128 yards.
So in the ever-elusive search to secure a franchise quarterback, the argument could be made that teams ultimately wind up hurting themselves at other positions. Given the roster and salary-cap limitations for each team, that's pretty much inevitable.
For instance, Flacco counts 15.15 percent against Baltimore's 2013 cap spent on offensive players and 6.49 percent of the total cap, while Rodgers accounts for 21.23 percent of Green Bay's cap spent on offense and 10.16 percent of the total allotment. Romo's cap figure ($11.824 million) represents a whopping 23.75 percent of Dallas' cap spent on offense and 11.64 percent of the club's total cap.
Ryan takes up 16.58 percent of Atlanta's cap spent on offensive players and 9.16 percent of the total cap, in which 53 players must somehow fit.
Flacco understood all that going into the final year of his deal in 2012, and his agent, Joe Linta, made it clear several times during negotiations with the Ravens that his client should be the NFL's highest-paid quarterback.
"Listen, I definitely understand how important it is to have a quarterback and have a guy that you can trust. And, really, all of the good franchises that you can think of have a guy. They're not just cycling through all kinds of quarterbacks," Flacco said. "But the biggest factor for me is what I felt like I was worth, and how I felt like I would feel if I didn't stick up for what I stood for, and what I thought was right, and what I thought was the best thing for me. It was really a personal decision in the end because I just wanted to be able to go home and look at myself in the mirror and say that I stood up for what I believed was right and what I thought the right decision was."
That begs the question of what Cutler and his agent, Bus Cook, might do once they get to the point of discussing a potential contract with the Bears. Cutler and Emery have been largely mum when questioned about the future for the quarterback, who has basically bet on himself the way Flacco did in 2012.
Cutler has said repeatedly he doesn't think about his contract situation, and Flacco said he took a similar approach last season.
"It's a bigger deal than what everyone makes it out to be," Flacco said. "I'm just going out there and playing football. It was never really an issue for me, so it's tough to answer that. I just went out there and played football and that's what happened."
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh appreciated that from Flacco.
"It says a lot of very positive things. Pretty obvious that he's confident and he's got some grit, you know. He's got some steel in his spine and he's not afraid to go for it. Those things are all the things that kind of count the most when you get in situations like that," Harbaugh said. "But that's not the end of it for Joe. He doesn't feel like, 'Hey, I've made my statement.' He's the kind of guy who's going to feel like he's always got something to prove."
Will Cutler feel the same once he's paid big money? That's impossible to answer, but surely something Emery has pondered. Given Emery's relentless search for knowledge and how to apply it toward the best interests of the Bears, he's surely considered every possible scenario when it comes to Cutler. Aside from perhaps Rodgers, Cutler compares favorably to Flacco, Romo and Ryan, or at least similarly in terms of skill set.
Emery knows as much. But other areas -- namely the aging defense, which also has several expiring contracts -- need attention, too. That's why at this point it makes the most sense to apply the franchise tag to Cutler, see how he performs in 2014 with another year under coach Marc Trestman, and then revisit the contract situation again after the season.
"He's had a good year," Emery said of Cutler last month. "He's improved as a player. I've said it in the past: I'm a Jay Cutler fan. I continue to be. I think he's improved as a player. I think his overall demeanor and his calmness have improved. I think he's certainly gotten the ball out faster. I think he's hitting more targets. I think he's been a key part in our leadership in leading us to victory."
But does Emery think Cutler is worthy of a lucrative new contract once his expires? It's a question the general manager isn't inclined to address until the season comes to a conclusion.
"As I've said repetitively, we're not going to talk about contracts during the 2013 season," Emery said. "There's no reason to, because that's not the here and now. We're going to focus on the here and now with Jay as we will with all of our players."