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The late-season decision has been made, successfully, by the Chicago Bears. Jay Cutler returned to quarterback, shook off the rust, made the big-time throws and landed a win.
What about next year? What about the next three years?
Should the Bears stick with Cutler, when it means forking out major money in the Manning/Brady/Brees stratosphere, or at the very least using the franchise tag, a pretty penny in itself? Or should they try another approach, a cheaper approach, a less fan-base infuriating approach, maybe even elevating aging backup Josh McCown?
This is not a trick question, nor a particularly hard question.
The Bears' best chance to win in the next three years – which is essentially a timeframe for success in NFL these days – is with Cutler.
Franchise him or sign him? That a debate for the accounting department (and maybe the team psychologist). But the Bears should bring Cutler back next season no matter what.
I understand the arguments against Cutler. He's 30, he has yet to win a Super Bowl and his hangdog expressions don't do much from an aesthetic viewpoint. Plus, he likes to gamble on throws and that means sometimes there's a payoff and sometimes the house wins. Plus, McCown looked good the last few weeks, contrary to his career history.
The arguments for Cutler are stronger. Discard for a moment whether he should be mentioned with Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees or Aaron Rodgers. He shouldn't. Those four are in a category by themselves. All other quarterbacks are trying to attain that status. Some days they come close, some days they don't.
But here's where Cutler pays off: He's a skilled, veteran quarterback who has been in all types of situations.
Reaching 30 is a plus, not a minus. He has matured in his mindset. That was evident in how he talked about returning from injury to beat the Browns. The Bears had been on a roll with McCown. Cutler said he asked his teammates whether they thought it would be disruptive for him to reclaim his job. That's a thoughtful move he might not have made as a younger, brasher player.
Cutler can match, and sometimes surpass, the best in the game at both the deep pass and the precision pass. All things considered, when he's been on the field this season he's had one of his best seasons.
His completion percentage (63.9) and passer rating (89.9) are the highest of his career and his yards per game (241.4) are the second-highest of his career.
The weapons at Cutler's disposal are impressive, led by wide receivers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Earl Bennett, tight end Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte.
There's no reason for the Bears to break up what could be a great offense moving forward. Marshall, obviously, has a tremendous rapport with Cutler and Jeffery is ascending rapidly up the charts of the NFL's most dynamic receivers. Throw a new quarterback into the mix and you're essentially starting over.
When the Bears hired Marc Trestman as head coach after parting ways with Lovie Smith, one of Trestman's selling points was his ability to work with and get the most out of his quarterbacks. Cutler seems to have meshed with Trestman's personality and approach in ways that have helped him become a more cerebral, less-careless quarterback.
While there were plenty of people who felt Trestman should have stuck with McCown (13 touchdowns to one interception, far above his career trajectory), Trestman made it clear he was returning to Cutler when Cutler became healthy. Coach and quarterback are invested in each other.
The assets of Cutler's game that attracted Bears management to acquire him in the first place remain intact: strong arm, fearlessness, intelligence. Add the fact he's presumably learned from experience and it makes even more sense for the Bears to pay what's necessary to keep him in a Bears uniform.
If the Bears and Cutler can't come to an agreement on a deal this offseason, they could put the franchise tag on him, which would cost $16 million to $17 million. That's steep, especially when you're taking the chance on having a somewhat dissatisfied quarterback at the helm.
A quarterback of Cutler's stature can win the Super Bowl. I'd put Joe Flacco in his league. It all comes down to the team around him, and the team's confidence in him. The Bears have a team, and those players have shown confidence in Cutler.
Given the Lions' inability to close deals, the Bears might get that playoff chance this season. If not, the Bears have the foundation for runs in the next couple years. A rookie quarterback, or a career backup, offers no guarantees on a level of play.
Cutler is capable of a great season and has the teammates for a championship season. The Bears have come too far to turn back, or try another route, now.