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Cutler, Bears are a good match

CHICAGO -- The old Jay Cutler era was a messy, chaotic time period full of hearsay, confusion, interceptions, sacks and sporadic blips of hope that receded into a series of crushing disappointments.

That era officially ended Sunday with a final interception on a "what the hell" Hail Mary pass to close out a massively disappointing loss to Green Bay in the de facto NFC North championship game.

The snow started falling soon afterward and hasn't stopped yet. The world is reborn under a foot of slush and a new contract for Cutler.

The new Jay Cutler era began Jan. 2, when it was announced Cutler signed a new long-term deal to quarterback the Bears in their Age of Offensive Enlightenment.

The deal, hammered out quickly by general manager Phil Emery and cap expert Cliff Stein, is for seven years (meaningless), believed to be more than $100 million (meaningless) with at least $50 million guaranteed (very important). It's expected to average $18 million per season (most important) for the life of the deal.

In football terms, it means that Cutler will be here for at least three more seasons. Probably more. This is very good news. As Emery moves to remake the old Bears defense, he has one fewer unknown to deal with. And that's what his job is all about, removing unknowns. Whatever you think of Cutler, you know what he can do and what he can't do. While he will continue to develop, what he is now is good enough to go forward with.

When Marc Trestman was hired as coach last winter, he didn't want to wade into the "franchise quarterback" debate. But this deal settled that semantic argument. Depending on how you look at it, the Bears are blessed/cursed with Cutler for the foreseeable future.

After all those words were wasted on various mediums about Cutler's future, it figures that the deal was done four days after the season.

For as long-winded as Emery is, it's amazing he finished it before Greek Easter. But Emery knew there was no need for a protracted contract battle, no need for either side to "win" the contract.

In the NFL Quarterback Economy, the deal seems fair and equitable to both sides. In the real world, the Bears needed Cutler and he needed the Bears.

Nearly five years ago, Cutler left Denver under a cloud of controversy and landed on a team that was thirsty for a good quarterback like Cutler. In Chicago, he went national for all the wrong reasons, becoming one of our most polarizing, divisive athletes. NFL players, past and present, ripped him on Twitter, TV and print. Reporters spent years finding new and interesting ways to call him a jerk. One blog compared his personality to that of a sullen cat.

Occasionally, we celebrated his talent.

In the ensuing five seasons, Cutler engendered all sorts of opinions about his quarterbacking, the role of an athlete as a spokesman/public face, and the role of social media in cultivating a reputation.

We called him pouty, erratic, talented, intelligent, idiotic, disappointing, tantalizing. And those are just the words we used to describe his press conferences.

Cutler's moody persona has been multiplied by his mercurial performances. Sometimes the criticism is unfair -- calling him soft is like calling a Chicago winter soft -- but so it goes.

For all the noise, which peaked in December with calls for his benching for backup Josh McCown, this deal was a no-brainer. Emery has brilliantly restructured the offense to complement a high-powered passing game. It's a quarterback's dream. For all his failings, Cutler is wildly talented. Now he has help.

Cutler has perhaps the best wide-receiving tandem in the NFL in Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall, a playmaking tight end in Martellus Bennett, a Pro Bowl running back in Matt Forte, and a coalescing, consistent offensive line. The enlightened Cutler, a family man at 30, has his football Descartes in Trestman to help make sense of the chaos around him.

Trestman's first season was truly a start to this new Jay Cutler era, but it's important to remember that's what it was, a beginning. A bridge year. While the season was unquestionably a disappointment at 8-8, because the Bears were 46 seconds from a playoff appearance, the offensive players on the team looked at it optimistically as a promising season; they saw the potential to become dominant. The numbers bear them out.

The Jay Cutler who met with media on a snowy Thursday afternoon was a happy one. Gracious, even. Dressed in a suit and joined by his wife, all-purpose celebrity Kristin Cavallari, Cutler touched on his career here, which hasn't been the smooth ride we envisioned when former GM Jerry Angelo traded a slew of draft picks, and QB Kyle Orton, for Cutler in 2009.

"It hasn't always been easy," Cutler said. "We've had some ups and downs. There's been some bad years, there's been some good years. I think it makes me appreciate the situation and the moment I'm in even more. With the offensive weapons that we have, with the type of leadership that we have from the front office, with the coaching staff that we have with their detail and organization of our play calling and our install, it makes me happy I'm here. It made my decision of coming here much easier."

"Ups and downs" is putting it mildly. As Emery would say in an endearing malapropism, it's been a "rollycoaster" ride.

This season we saw Cutler mature, as the story goes. No more yelling at overmatched linemen. Fewer mistakes. The idea was that the arrival of Trestman would finally make Cutler's life easier and safer. Two injuries might have stunted Cutler's growth, but when he played, it was easy to see that he was coming close to fulfilling his potential with this new staff.

Still, Emery and Trestman said they needed the season to fully evaluate Cutler. Emery had been around Cutler for a year, and it seems that Trestman wanted to investigate Cutler's coach-killer reputation for himself.

"My biggest focus was not on his skill set," Trestman said. "My focus was on all the other things. The things that weren't related to football, but have everything to do with football. The type of person he was, his intelligence level, what was his commitment to the organization? And what I saw was, it's been a process, a tremendous process of just getting to know him. We all knew the skill set. I watched all this tape and there was no doubt in my mind that he had all the ability to be a very, very good player in the National Football League. He's been through a lot. I mean, part of what's brought him to this point is the scars of the last five years and the adversity that he's gone through in getting to know himself better over the last five years."

Basically Trestman wanted to make sure Cutler wasn't a jerk. Or at least not a jerk he couldn't handle.

Cutler, who has been something of a cad in relationships with his previous coordinators and coaches, knows he has a good one with Trestman.

"It was a relatively easy marriage, if you will, from day one," Cutler said. "I'm happy to be married to him for seven more years."

It's easy to judge Cutler on his checkered past. That's why so many critics, even former Bears, wanted to see McCown finish the season for Cutler, who missed five games and parts of two others with injuries. Cutler hasn't earned a complete benefit of the doubt.

But it's important to remember that Cutler isn't done growing as a quarterback. The Cutler we saw before could just be the prologue to the Cutler that Chicago celebrates in 2020. With the players and coaches around him, there is every reason to believe the best is yet to come from Cutler and, thus, from the Bears.

"To be here for possibly 10, 12 years, hopefully we can win some championships," Cutler said. "That's what it's all about. If we look back 20 years from now and say, 'Hey, I was here 12 years and we didn't win a championship,' we're gonna be disappointed, I'm gonna be disappointed by it, and I think the rest of the organization is gonna be disappointed. So that's what we have to start working toward starting tomorrow."

Tomorrow is today and yesterday is history. Welcome to the new Jay Cutler era.