The weight of unmet expectations and inconsistent performance finally fell on Jay Cutler Wednesday.
The Bears, in the death throes of their wrecked season, benched him and planned to start Jimmy Clausen against the Lions on Sunday. It’s a seismic shift for an organization that exalted Cutler as its franchise quarterback before and during its dysfunctional 5-9 campaign.
Two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the decision Wednesday evening. ESPN first reported the news.
Embattled second-year coach Marc Trestman for weeks has defended Cutler’s status as the starting quarterback. His apparent change of mind amplifies questions about Cutler’s future with the organization amid heightened speculation about the job security of Trestman and general manager Phil Emery.
That’s a jarring development as the Bears near the first anniversary of signing Cutler to a seven-year, $126.7 million contract that includes $54 million guaranteed.
On Friday, though, Cutler did acknowledge his clouded future in the wake of offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer’s apology for disparaging him to an NFL Network reporter.
“I think that’s a fair question,” the ninth-year veteran said then. “I don’t know if I can answer it for you, though. At this point in my career it’s out of my hands. Whatever happens, management — Trestman, Phil, those guys — will make that decision, and we’ll talk about that when that happens, I guess.”
How the Bears handle Cutler from this point involves several unanswered questions. Besides uncertainty about who will make such decisions, severing ties with Cutler is an expensive proposition because of his contract.
To this point, $38 million of Cutler’s guarantee has been triggered. The remaining $16 million effectively could be classified as a team option.
If the Bears cut him before March 12, they would not have to pay the remaining $16 million. In that scenario, Cutler would count $19.5 million in dead money against their 2015 salary cap, but he would be off the books in 2016. Also, there’s offset language in Cutler’s contract that could reduce what the Bears owe him in 2015 if he signed with another team, ESPN reported Tuesday.
If the Bears traded Cutler before March 12, he would count only $4 million (the amount of his unamortized signing bonus) against their 2015 salary cap. Of course, the Bears would have to find a trade partner willing to take on his salaries of $15.5 million in 2015 and $16 million in 2016.
Emery extended Cutler’s contract on Jan. 2 because he believed Cutler could build on a season in which the offense ranked third in the NFL in yards per play.
Any incremental improvements were not enough to overcome sporadic mechanical flaws and poor decision making. With the offense sputtering entering the week off on Oct. 27, Emery lamented Cutler’s inability to shake “gunslinger” habits he developed while trying to carry his Vanderbilt University team nine years earlier.
Cutler’s inconsistency is a big reason why the Bears missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season and why he leads the NFL with 24 turnovers.
Trestman, for his part, said Wednesday it’s “evident” he hasn’t gotten the best out of Cutler.
“Am I working at it? Yes,” Trestman said. “We’ve seen moments, but we haven’t done it on a consistent basis. I can’t hide from that. I haven’t been able, and we haven’t been able to do the things that we want to get done. We’re working toward that.
“It’s not where we need to be, but it’s not all about Jay. It’s about our entire offense, working together to get it done.”
ESPN reported that Trestman told Cutler of the decision Wednesday morning. Trestman dodged the issue during his news conference in the afternoon when asked about ESPN analyst Jon Gruden’s assertion that Cutler should be benched.
“Jon certainly has a right to his opinion,” he said, “and each and every week we go through our evaluations all the way around.”
As it turns out, his analysis after Monday’s 31-15 loss to the Saints prompted him to change his stance on Cutler as the starter. And where that leaves the Bears is now the big question.