MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Vikings have seen for far too long, and know far too well, what it's like not to have a franchise quarterback. They've had a quarterback start all 16 games just three times in the past 10 seasons -- or as many times as they've used three starting quarterbacks in a season -- and they're looking at starting over once again after shuttling through two first-round picks (Daunte Culpepper and Christian Ponder), a second-round pick (Tarvaris Jackson) and an expensive free-agent acquisition (Brett Favre), among others, during that time.
But as the Vikings prepare for the possibility of looking for another franchise quarterback in the 2014 draft, they're undoubtedly aware of how expensive it can be to get caught in the middle with one who only looks the part some of the time.
The Chicago Bears proved that again on Thursday when they announced a seven-year, $126 million extension for Jay Cutler. According to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter, the deal has more than $50 million in guaranteed money. The total amount of the deal is interesting, though, because while the salary structure is obviously different, it's known as the Contract of Death in baseball.
Why? That deal has typically gone to players (Vernon Wells, Barry Zito, Jayson Werth) who are good, but not good enough to get the megadeals averaging more than $20 million a year. Those players have tended to fall short of expectations on their contracts, either through injuries or ineffectiveness, and though they're not getting absolutely top-shelf money, they're getting enough that they're expected to perform like franchise players, rather than just very good ones.
Baseball, of course, guarantees every dollar, but as the average annual value of NFL contracts continues to climb, the deals are starting to look more like baseball contracts, and Cutler's AAV of $18 million matches what the Dallas Cowboys gave Tony Romo. His guaranteed money puts him in an elite group, as well -- only seven quarterbacks are currently playing on deals that include at least $50 million in guarantees. Four of those (Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Joe Flacco) have Super Bowl rings, while two of the other three (Matt Ryan and Sam Bradford) were top draft picks before the NFL curtailed rookie spending.
Cutler, like Romo, has a history of wilting in big games, but his regular-season numbers have been even less impressive. He's only thrown for 4,000 yards once, has thrown at least 14 interceptions in a season five times and has never thrown more than 27 touchdown passes in a season. Flacco's put up plenty of pedestrian numbers, too, but he earned his deal after leading the Ravens to a championship last year. Cutler has only quarterbacked two postseason games, and before he got hurt in the 2011 NFC Championship Game at home against Green Bay, he had hit just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards and an interception.
The deal the Bears gave him is an awful lot of money for a quarterback who remains an enigma at age 30, but after all the Bears gave up to get him, and all the time they'd invested in developing him, they might not have been able to risk starting over at the position. They're now essentially committed to Cutler for the rest of his prime, even if he has yet to reach an elite level, and he'll eat up a large chunk of their cap space during the deal. He'll have plenty of work to do to prove he's worth it.
On some level, the Vikings saw with Ponder what it's like to commit to a quarterback that's not providing commensurate returns, but their commitment to Ponder was a pittance compared to what the Bears have invested, and will continue to invest, in Cutler. They're spending premium dollars for a player who's yet to provide premium production, and they'll have spent a dozen years with Cutler by the time the deal runs out. If he only remains a quarterback who's just above average, the Bears will have wasted plenty of time.
The Cutler deal is an example of how high the stakes are at the quarterback position. The Vikings might not find a great QB in their next attempt, but if they make a Ponder-like mistake, their commitment is at least relatively short. It would be far worse for them to be where the Bears could find themselves at the end of Cutler's deal: having spent an astronomical amount of time and resources on a quarterback who never got past pretty good.