Backup Josh McCown's strong performance subbing for the injured Cutler elicited calls to re-sign the journeyman but didn't sway Emery. During a four-game stretch as the starter late in the 2013 season, McCown had nine touchdown passes against one interception and posted three consecutive games of at least 348 yards passing with a 102.4 passer rating. When Cutler was healthy enough to return, many fans called for first-year coach Marc Trestman to stay with the hot hand. A national media outlet even reported that some Bears veterans wanted Cutler to remain on the sideline.
But Emery's beliefs about Cutler's mental and physical toughness were affirmed in his first game back. After throwing two first-half interceptions, including a pick-six that gave the last-place Browns a 10-3 lead, Cutler stared down the Cleveland defense and silenced some critics by leading the Bears 66 yards in four plays, the last a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall. Then with the Bears trailing by seven in the fourth quarter, he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery to tie the score and a 4-yarder to Earl Bennett to take the lead for good in the Bears' 38-31 victory.
That was the icing for Emery, who liked that Cutler was at his statistical best last season when games mattered most, posting a 102.7 fourth-quarter passer rating while throwing nine touchdown passes -- six when the score was separated by seven points or fewer. Cutler also threw for 16 scores and only three picks inside opponents' 20-yard line. Cutler, who at 31 is four years younger than McCown and has a significantly greater arm, appeared ready to blossom under Trestman's tutelage.
Still, even if Emery wanted to go in another direction, what were the acceptable options? Knowing that a clear majority of the quarterbacks drafted from 2000 to 2010 failed to pan out, could he realistically anticipate getting a difference-maker at No. 14, where the Bears were drafting? McCown might've been good enough to help them challenge for a playoff spot, but nothing in his history shows he can lead a team to a championship. So Emery went with the younger, more physically talented player with greater upside. He banked on the known over the unknown, which shouldn't have been surprising considering 26 personnel people and coaches identified only five Tier 1 (elite) quarterbacks among the 32 projected starters in a recent poll conducted by ESPN Insider's Mike Sando. Ten others received Tier 2 status, which means more than half the league's starters are considered average or worse.
In today's NFL, teams seem ready to settle for quarterbacks who won't lose games rather than ones who win games. It's a subtle, yet significant, distinction. When they get a player who can manage games, they're willing to potentially compromise their salary cap by paying top dollars for non-elite performers. The $13 million difference between Cutler's average salary and what McCown received from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency could be the difference between reaching the playoffs and competing for a title.
As one general manager noted, two or three other "damn good football players" could have been signed for that $13 million. Is it worth spending so much more on one position, even if it's the most important one on the field?
Whether the trend of handsomely compensating QBs who are unproven in the postseason continues will likely depend largely on how Ryan, Romo, Cutler, Stafford and Dalton fare.
"In the future, you may see guys just walk away from quarterbacks that look pretty doggone successful but haven't gotten it done in the postseason," the GM said. "You're going to have to look at what signing him does to your salary cap going forward, and you're going to have to decide what type of talent you're going to have around that guy -- or not be able to have around that guy. We're not just in the business to pay players; we're in the business to win championships. If it gets too crazy, you just may have to walk away."