LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Jay Cutler's insistence to return early from a torn groin muscle that doctors expected to sideline him for a minimum of four weeks, on the surface, appears to be an admirable move, based on all the time and effort put into the healing process.
But if Cutler fails to perform up to standards or reinjures the groin Sunday at home against the Detroit Lions, opinions on the quarterback's return could quickly go the other way, especially in light of the fact backup Josh McCown seems to have the hot hand at the position. If things go badly against Detroit's formidable pass rush, you'll hear pundits say that in a contract year, Cutler heard footsteps from the backup and rushed back too soon in a bid to get a new deal.
While that's certainly plausible, what about the idea that Cutler hurried his rehab simply because he wants to be on the field to help his team through the November playoff push?
“As soon as I got hurt, I thought that I would be back quicker than they thought,” Cutler said. “I kind of had that mindset throughout. [During] the bye week we stayed here. If I wasn't here, I was getting chiropractic work. If I wasn't [getting chiropractic work], I was on the ARP (machine). I put some time in to get back and get to this point. If I wasn't back to 100 percent or they had any doubts, I wouldn't have been practicing today; that was the stipulation. They were gonna let Josh have another crack at it and I was gonna have to sit this one out. With the bye week, I felt that would give me a lot of time to make a push for this game. Last week I felt that if things kept progressing, I'd definitely have a chance for this game. Early last week, I had a sense this could be it.”
So if Cutler's early return turns out to be a disaster, don't be so quick to speculate on the reasoning behind why he did it. Remember this: Cutler has already earned plenty of money, and regardless of how Sunday pans out there's still going to be plenty more coming his way.
The 11th overall pick of the 2006 draft, Cutler received a contract worth more than $11 million in fully guaranteed compensation as a rookie in a total package valued at $48 million. The two-year extension he signed in 2009 called for Cutler to receive another $20 million in guarantees, which called for approximately $50 million over the life of the contract.
So money isn't an issue now, and won't be once Cutler enters negotiations with the Bears or hits free agency.
“I haven't worried about my contract. I haven't worried about it, period. That stuff takes care of itself somehow someway,” Cutler said. “So my biggest thing was just helping Josh last week to make sure, even though I knew he would be ready, to make sure I could help him in any way, and then get back as quick as possible so I could help those guys.”
The fact is franchises pay quarterbacks, especially the good ones. Cutler certainly belongs among the top half in the league.
Cutler currently sits at 11th among quarterbacks in terms of average salary per year at $14,718,500, while Kansas City's Alex Smith (No. 15 in salary average) makes an average of $8 million and Philadelphia's Michael Vick (No. 17) averages $7.5 million.
Players comparable to Cutler, such as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Matt Ryan and Matt Schaub, are currently averaging more per year in salary, which means the Chicago quarterback is set to receive a contract at the very least in line with those of his peers if he maintains the production he put forth through the first 6½ games.
At the time of Cutler's injury, he ranked 10th in touchdown passes (12) and 12th in passer rating (91.7). Cutler should be able to continue to produce at that clip once he returns Sunday against the Lions.
Sure, there's the risk of Cutler aggravating the injury, which could ultimately jeopardize his availability later in the year. Bears coach Marc Trestman likes to claim that no game is more important than any another, even Sunday's, with the team looking to seize sole possession of first place in the NFC North. Trestman is correct. With just 16 games in a season, every one of them is important.
Every one of them ultimately decides the team's postseason fate in some form. And that's precisely why Cutler rushed back to action. He's got money. He'll get more in the future, too.
McCown played surprising well as a fill-in for a little more than six quarters, as he helped the Bears upset the Green Bay Packers on Monday night. While McCown would have liked to have played another game as the starter, he totally understands that at this point, Cutler provides the Chicago Bears the best chance to win games.
“I'm a competitor. I love playing. It's fun. I had a blast Monday night, and I'll be ready to go the next time I play,” McCown said. “There's a part of you that's bummed because you don't get to play anymore, but at the same time, the best thing for our team is for Jay Cutler to be our quarterback.”