- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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On the surface, Jay Cutler's insistence on targeting an early return after tearing a groin muscle on Oct. 20 seems questionable, given the fact he’s seeking a new contract with his deal set to expire after the season.
But the truth is it’s not. And while there’s no inside knowledge to suggest familiarity with Cutler’s thinking, a deduction based on the past and how the free-agent market might set up in 2014 can be made that right now the quarterback isn’t worried about the money.
He’s made plenty, and there will be more to come regardless of how his bid for a quick return pans out.
Obviously, Cutler rejoining the Bears too quickly heightens the risk for aggravating the injury, which ultimately could put him on the shelf for more time than the originally prescribed four-week minimum. But in a 16-game NFL season, just one loss could decide the team’s postseason fate.
So the importance of each outing renders a big-picture perspective obsolete for Cutler.
“Whenever they give me the green light, we’re going to go in there rocking, and we can’t look back,” he said. “So whenever that happens, you’ll see me out there.”
But what about considering the big picture?
“I’m not going to. Each game is valuable; especially second half of the season,” Cutler said. “So the sooner I can get back, the better I’m going to feel helping these guys out.”
If the quick return turns out to be a dud, it likely won’t affect Cutler’s finances or value in 2014 free agency. Teams pay top dollar for quarterbacks in free agency, especially the signal-callers considered to be among those in the top half of the league.
As it stands right now, Cutler ranks No. 11 among quarterbacks in terms of average salary per year at $14,718,500, while players such as Kansas City’s Alex Smith, who is tied for 15th in salary average, is pulling down an average of $8 million and Philadelphia’s Michael Vick, at No. 17 averages $7.5 million.
If Cutler returns and maintains the production recorded through the first 6 ½ games of 2013 (he missed a little more than a half against the Redskins), the quarterback should be in line for a contract similar to those of some of his peers. Despite ranking 20th in attempts and completions, Cutler is tied for 10th in touchdown passes (12) and is 12th in passer rating (91.7).
If Cutler fails, which is doubtful, given the body of work already produced, a team -- if not the Bears -- will still pay a salary on par with the top half of quarterbacks in the league.
Asked if the groin injury is more frustrating now given that he’s in a contract year, Cutler said, “No. Doesn’t matter what year it is. You never want to get injured.”
Besides that, Cutler has already earned plenty of money throughout his first eight years in the NFL, which is also part of the reason the contract situation -- from this vantage point -- seems to have little to do with the quarterback’s desire to get back on the field ASAP.
As the 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft, Cutler received a rookie contract that paid more than $11 million in fully-guaranteed compensation, in a total package of $48 million. When Cutler signed a two-year extension in 2009 with the Bears, he received another $20 million in guarantees and will earn approximately $50 million over the life of the deal.
Receiver Brandon Marshall always talks about how he’s been to the Pro Bowls and signed the big contracts, and how now the desire is to win. At this point in his career, Cutler seems to fall into that category, too. That’s why his insistence on an early return appears at this point to be more admirable than foolish.
The organization could take that decision out of Cutler’s hands, though. Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery have stressed they plan to adhere to the prescribed four-week minimum recovery period.
“What I’m saying is that I don’t decide when Jay comes back or when any player comes back,” Trestman said. “The doctors make that decision. What I was doing was reiterating the prognosis of the doctors. They’re not always right. It could happen faster. Jay’s optimistic; we all are. But I’m not saying we’re not bringing Jay back for four weeks. That’s what the doctors have said, and we’ll work off that timeline. If it happens quicker, that’d be great.”