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Such a deal? A year later, Jay Cutler on solid ground with Bears

When Phil Emery was fired as the Bears’ general manager after the 2014 season, his decision to sign Jay Cutler to a seven-year, $126-million extension with $54 million guaranteed prior to that season arguably was No. 2 on the list of fireable offenses, after the obvious No. 1 gaffe — choosing Marc Trestman over Bruce Arians as head coach in 2013.

A deal that raised eyebrows when it was announced in January of 2014 looked like an albatross by December. With the sixth-highest salary cap figure in the NFL, Cutler was no better in the second season under Trestman than he was in a promising first season in 2013. Unable to avoid interceptions at critical junctures, Cutler was closer to being “the same old Jay” than a career breakthrough. He faded in the second half and was benched awkwardly in favor of Jimmy Clausen in Week 16, as the Bears lost six of eight games to fall to 5-9. Cutler’s 88.6 passer rating ranked 17th in the NFL — not a lot of bang for your buck at $18 million a year.

Less than two weeks later, the Bears finished 5-11, Emery and Trestman were fired and it looked like the Bears were stuck with one of Emery’s biggest “mistakes” — a highly paid quarterback they couldn’t win with.

Fast forward to the eve of training camp this season and the perspective on Cutler and Emery’s seemingly generous contract extension has changed. A year ago, new GM Ryan Pace and coach John Fox weren’t even sure if Jay was their quarterback. “We’re still evaluating all that,” Pace said at the scouting combine last year. “We have until mid-March [to make a decision on keeping Cutler] and we’re going to maximize that time and thorough decisions through this process.”

But a year later, Cutler is as entrenched as any player on the roster — still not “elite,” still an x-factor in predicting the team’s 2016 success, but not nearly as high among the Bears’ issues entering training camp as he used to be. Cutler’s $18.1 million salary isn’t quite a bargain. But with a cap hit that ranks 16th among NFL quarterbacks, Cutler’s much more cost-efficient than he used to be. It’s debatable whether the Bears are lucky to have him. But let’s put it this way: If not him, who?

Therein lies the gist of Cutler’s value to the Bears in 2016: They could do better. But they could also do much, much worse. Cutler improved his own standing with an efficient season under offensive coordinator Adam Gase — a career-best 92.3 passer rating (with a mostly sub-standard receiving corps), with 21 interceptions and a career-low 11 interceptions. But a general downturn in the state of quarterbacking in the NFL has made Cutler’s experience, competency and big-play capability that much more valuable. Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr and rookie Jameis Winston played in the Pro Bowl after last season. Ryan Mallett, Brandon Weeden, Case Keenum and Blaine Gabbert started four games or more.

And most importantly, the Bears have finally figured out that just because Cutler has all the physical tools to be a franchise quarterback doesn’t mean he is one. Cutler can get a team to the Super Bowl, but he can’t carry it there. Though he’s spent much of his career navigating difficult circumstances — protection problems, wide receiver problems, playing on teams with bad defenses — Cutler needs the wind at his back. An improved, play-making defense, an Alshon Jeffery-Kevin White tandem and a revamped offensive line that leads to a true run-first offense are the keys to an improved Jay Cutler in 2016. It’s at quarterback that the Bears finally really know what they’ve got.