It would have been easy to miss the move in the frenzied minutes after the Bears agreed to trade their best receiver of all time Friday.
Quietly, beneath the din of the Brandon Marshall-to-the-Jets fireworks, backup quarterback Jimmy Clausen agreed to return to the Bears on a one-year deal.
The one thing the two had in common was Jay Cutler.
Because it was easy to wonder after both moves if Cutler, immovable contract or not, was next to go.
No one seems sure. Clausen signed his contract without any guarantee whether or not Cutler would be a member of the Bears next season, sources said.
If the Bears’ new brass — general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox — know about Cutler’s future, they’re not telling. They have to tip their hand soon: If Cutler is still on the team on Thursday, the Bears owe a $10 million guarantee for his 2016 contract. His 2015 salary is already guaranteed, and a trade is more complicated than a flat-out release.
Trying to untangle how intertwined Cutler was with Friday’s moves is complicated. But, like Marshall, Cutler has gone the entire offseason without an endorsement from Pace or Fox.
That same duo just dealt Cutler’s most familiar receiver for six seasons, the first three when the two were in Denver and, after a separation, the last three with the Bears.
And while they plan to spend the $3.95 million in Marshall’s cap savings on the free-agent market, the Bears seemed closer to full-scale rebuild at dusk Friday than they were at dawn.
Still, the Bears’ best bet — and their most likely outcome — is keeping Cutler this season and hoping he regains some trade value before his contract becomes more palatable to other teams next year.
If that happens, the Bears likely won’t bother chasing another quarterback this offseason.
Just a few weeks ago, Clausen seemed likely to play elsewhere, perhaps for former Bears coach Marc Trestman, who was named the Ravens’ offensive coordinator in January.
Clausen won’t scare any potential free agent quarterbacks away if the Bears do move Cutler. His role figures to be that of a steady backup.
He impressed the Bears’ previous regime with his ability by winning the backup job despite signing in June after labrum surgery on his right shoulder. In parts of four games, including a Week 16 start that ended with a concussion on the final drive, Clausen completed 26-of-48 passes for 223 yards, two scores and an interception.
Last year marked the first regular-season passes he’d attempted since 2010 —his rookie season and his only one with Fox as his head coach. Clausen started 10 times in 2010. The Panthers went 2-14, Fox was fired and the team drafted Cam Newton with the first overall pick.
The two have reunited. Whether Cutler joins Clausen and David Fales in the Bears quarterback room again will be decided by Thursday.
But the Bears’ new bosses were clear with their moves Friday: Nothing is off the table.