Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is under an even brighter spotlight after general manager Phil Emery's announcement that the team won't extend any contracts until after the season.
Cutler, 30, called his contractual situation "fine with me," telling the Associated Press, "if you win and produce, you're going to get paid."
Whether Cutler can win and produce -- and subsequently get paid -- will play a key role in determining the fate of the NFC North in 2013 and the fate of the Bears for many more years.
Since trading two first-round picks and a third-rounder to obtain Cutler in 2009, the Bears have only finished one season with a losing record and made their way to the NFC Championship game at the end of the 2010 season. The Bears also haven't made the playoffs in two years, and their performance prompted the team's front office to fire head coach Lovie Smith.
The team's mixed results the past four years have led to a bevy of both criticism and praise for Chicago's signal-caller. Throughout his tenure as the Bears' quarterback, Cutler has provided plenty of fodder for both negative and positive reviews of his play.
Cutler's greatest asset is undoubtedly how powerfully he throws the football. He has thrown touchdown passes effortlessly from behind the 50-yard line all the way into the back of the endzone. His deep throws to the outside of the field travel with such a high velocity that they land in receivers' hands before safeties playing deep in the middle of the field can get to the sideline and defend the pass.
Paired with his cannon of an arm, Cutler's mobility is exceptionally useful. He often escapes rushers with ease, and does a great job of extending plays by keeping his eyes downfield to find an open receiver when he escapes the pocket. This year Cutler will use his speed even more, as Bears coach Marc Trestman announced he plans to implement some read-option plays into the team's playbook.
Though certainly a gifted player, Cutler has displayed plenty of flawed habits that hinder his ability to become a top-tier quarterback. More often than not, he throws without setting his feet properly. At times Cutler's arm strength is enough to compensate for his poor footwork, but many of his mistakes come from his feet impacting his accuracy or causing him to underthrow passes his arm is more than strong enough to complete.
The Bears' offensive line situation hasn't given Cutler a lot of time to set his feet, reinforcing his bad habits. In his four years with Chicago, Cutler has taken 148 sacks and missed eight games due to injury. While many of Cutler's mechanical errors came from poor footwork, a lot of his mental errors came from not having enough time to make good decisions.
To remedy this, the Bears drafted offensive guard Kyle Long with their first-round pick in this year's draft. If Long can help keep Cutler upright, the Bears' offense should take large steps in a positive direction, as the Bears have been much better with Cutler than they have been without him.
Cutler's numbers aren't eye-popping by any measure: as a Bear he has completed 59.6 percent of his passes, thrown 82 touchdowns and 63 interceptions and averaged 7.08 yards per attempt. However, they greatly exceed the Bears' passing numbers when any quarterback other than Cutler has taken a snap since 2009. In regular-season action, the Bears' backup quarterbacks have combined for seven touchdowns, 21 interceptions, and only averaged 5.73 yards per attempt since the team traded for Cutler.
Cutler's biggest value for the team comes in the form of his ability to evade a pass-rush. On average, Cutler has taken a sack once every 11.7 passes he's thrown for the Bears. The remainder of the Bears' quarterbacks have taken a sack once for every 6.9 passes they've thrown in the same time frame, which is a drastic increase in frequency.
To earn a new contract, Cutler will have to go from merely being better than the alternatives to being good enough to win a Super Bowl in the near future. If Cutler can't prove that, it won't be due to a lack of offensive firepower. Along with familiar targets Brandon Marshall and Earl Bennett, newcomers Devin Aromashodu and Martellus Bennett will give Cutler plenty of receiving options while running back Matt Forte takes pressure off of the passing game.
If Cutler can maximize the potential of his offensive weaponry, he has a legitimate shot at entering 2014 as the quarterback for the defending NFC North champions. If Cutler still can't win despite a strong supporting cast and a new offensively oriented head coach, he has a more legitimate shot at entering 2014 as the quarterback for a city other than Chicago.
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