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Bears can’t afford to let Jay Cutler go

Updated: January 10, 2014 6:29AM

No matter how you feel about Jay Cutler, whether you think he’s the best or worst thing to happen to the Bears, some team is going to pay him a lot of money. It could be the Bears. It could be someone else.

So a report that the Titans are interested in Cutler isn’t exactly shocking. If Duke blew out a University of Phoenix online basketball team, it would have about the same shock value.

Of course the Titans and other teams are interested in Cutler’s arm. Oakland probably will pursue him if he becomes a free agent. Jacksonville, Arizona, Cleveland, Houston and Minnesota, among others, will be in the market for a quarterback. If they aren’t, a government investigation is in order.

The NFL Network reported Sunday that Tennessee won’t pick up the option on Jake Locker and very much would like to acquire Cutler, who starred at Vanderbilt, which is located in Nashville.

In Chicago, the question isn’t what another team thinks of Cutler. It’s what the local team thinks of him. If I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Cutler getting a multiyear contract from the Bears. General manager Phil Emery said last week that putting a franchise tag on a quarterback doesn’t make a lot of financial sense because of the salary cap hit that comes with it. A contract, on the other hand, significantly spreads out the cap implications.

No matter what Emery and his blurred vision have to say about Shea McClellin’s effectiveness as a defensive end, the Bears are going to need two years to rebuild their defense. Next season wouldn’t be the best time to start over at quarterback.

Is that a defeatist attitude? Shouldn’t you decide on a quarterback based on whether you think he can win you a Super Bowl? In a perfect world, yes. But keeping Cutler is a realist’s attitude. The reality is that the Bears are building something good on offense, with an offensive-minded coach in Marc Trestman and weapons such at Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte.

When it comes to public opinion of Cutler in Chicago, the choices are either good or evil. You can’t be kind of for him or kind of against him. And yet, that has nothing to do with his value to teams. A team doesn’t even need irrefutable evidence before it gives a quarterback a ton of money. The position commands big money for anyone with skills. Ask the Ravens and Joe Flacco.

There’s a very good chance that my suggestion of offering Cutler a four-year contract instead of a six-year deal would be laughed out of the room by the quarterback’s camp. He can get a six-year contract with more guaranteed money somewhere — if not in Chicago, then somewhere else.

When the Bears line up against the Cowboys on Monday night, Josh McCown will be under center and Cutler will be on the sidelines because of a sprained ankle. Another debate swirling around Cutler is whether the Bears should play him again if his ankle heals before the end of the season. The ‘no’ crowd says there’s little benefit in it, especially if the team falls out of the playoff picture.

But we’re not talking about Aaron Rodgers and the Packers here. Cutler isn’t the known quantity that Rodgers is, and the nascent offense under Trestman isn’t the proven offense that the Packers’ is. The more time Cutler and his teammates spend together on the field, the better.

And let me be ghoulishly pragmatic here: If Cutler were to go down with a catastrophic knee injury, would you rather it happen now or next season, after he has signed that contract? This season, of course. It’s a cold business.

It figures to be a cold business Monday at Soldier Field, with the predicted game-time temperature at 17 and the wind chill at 2. The Bears will retire Mike Ditka’s number at halftime. I expect the coach to sign a parka endorsement deal before he walks onto the field.

Ditka once said that late Bears owner George Halas “tosses nickels around like manhole covers.’’ The franchise hasn’t changed all that much, so it will be fascinating to see if owner Virginia McCaskey, Halas’ daughter, signs off on a huge contract for a quarterback who hasn’t won anything yet.

But just know that if the Bears don’t, someone else will.

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