- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears locked up quarterback Jay Cutler for the long term on Thursday with a seven-year contract, a move that might finally secure some stability on the club’s offense.
“It rewards Jay, and it helps the team continue to be able to build a championship-level team,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said.
Throughout his tenure in Chicago, Cutler has rightfully received plenty of criticism on several fronts, ranging from his truculence with the media and demeanor in games, to a record of futility against NFC North rival Green Bay. But what was undeniable in 2013 is the fact that he improved tremendously during his first season in a new offense under Bears coach Marc Trestman and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer.
Emery saw as much almost immediately, and admitted it.
In leading the Bears to a 3-0 record to start the season, Cutler completed 67.3 percent of his passes for six touchdowns and three interceptions to go with a passer rating of 94.2. At that point, Emery knew “we were headed in the right direction” regarding Cutler.
But when Cutler suffered a groin injury on Oct. 20 at Washington, Emery had to pump the brakes on rushing to hand the quarterback a new deal.
Cutler returned too quickly from the groin injury and played in the club’s Nov. 10 matchup against the Detroit Lions. Largely ineffective in that outing, Cutler finished with a passer rating of 69.8, a performance Emery admitted “wasn’t his best day.”
“But you know what? He battled back and he put us in a position to tie the game," Emery said.
How Cutler handled that adversity provided more evidence that Chicago needed him for the long term. In that game, he suffered an ankle injury that would put him on the shelf for the next four games while backup Josh McCown performed well enough to conjure discussion about a potential quarterback controversy.
That became another adverse situation Emery would use as a litmus test in determining whether Cutler’s future was with the Bears.
“How he handled that as a person after throwing a couple of picks, coming back and being a reason that you win that game” played a major part in Emery’s decision, as was the way “he handled the Green Bay Packers [in the regular-season finale].”
“That’s when I finalized the decision,” Emery said.
So the general manager reached out to Cutler’s agent, Bus Cook, on Monday to start the process of locking up the quarterback long term.
Given that Cutler signed a seven-year deal, it’s likely a cap-friendly contract that will allow the Bears to be aggressive in free agency to restock a floundering defense.
There’s no doubt that he showed growth under Trestman. In four seasons with the Bears prior to 2013, Cutler had generated a passer rating of 81.9. In 2013, Cutler produced a career-high passer rating of 89.2, his best since his rookie season (2006).
It’s important to note Cutler’s improvement came in just one season in a new offense, coached by a new staff and filled with new players on the offensive line. What will happen once Cutler gains a level of mastery in the offense similar to what Aaron Rodgers has in Green Bay, what Tom Brady has in New England?
It’s impossible to predict with any real accuracy.
But by locking up Cutler, the Bears gives us a chance to find out.
“When was the last time you had a Jay Cutler?” receiver Brandon Marshall asked on Monday. “When was the last time you had Jay Cutler with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, [Matt] Slauson, [Jermon] Bushrod, [Kyle] Long, [Roberto] Garza, Trestman, Kromer, [receivers coach] Mike Groh, Phil Emery? The pieces are there.”
Undoubtedly, Cutler is the most important one.
17hDana Wakiji / Special to ESPN.com