The trade that decided a division

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
A very specific visual passed through my head Thursday night as I considered the Jay Cutler trade from a NFC North-wide perspective. I thought of a man grappling for stability on the rough side of a mountain, slipping ever so slightly while creating 10 vertical lines in the direction of his descent.

The man wore a Helga hat and Viking horns. A bear clawed at his feet.

OK, enough with the corny metaphors. My point: This trade will prove a pivot point in the pecking order of our fair division -- one way or the other. Cutler will either lead the Bears to the NFC North title in 2009, imposing a bitter judgment day for a Minnesota franchise that chose not to pursue him, or the cost of his arrival will bury Chicago under a debt of unfilled holes and lost draft picks.

When you think about it, the Cutler drama produced an extraordinary scenario in the Black and Blue. Three-fourths of our teams inquired about him at some point. Chicago, Minnesota and Detroit all considered improvement at quarterback a significant offseason priority.

The Bears acquired Cutler. The Vikings traded for Sage Rosenfels to compete with Tarvaris Jackson. The Lions, burdened by the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, must now decide between drafting Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford (or USC's Mark Sanchez) and riding Daunte Culpepper for the next few seasons.

I don't fault the Lions too much in this situation. They recognized the rarity of Cutler's availability and pursued him accordingly. But they simply didn't have the assets, in terms of draft picks in the right spots and a proven veteran starter, to complete the trade. (Remember, the Broncos didn't want the No. 1 overall pick in the draft any more than the Lions do.)

It is the Vikings who faced a much more complicated and nuanced decision. In the short-term, at least, they must live with two institutional ramifications:

  1. They declined to pursue a quarterback who is superior to their own at a time when the rest of their roster seems primed for a Super Bowl run.

  2. In doing so, they paved the way for Cutler to land with a division rival that finished two games behind them in the 2008 standings.

All things equal -- and they are, because the Vikings have made minimal improvements to their roster this offseason -- it's within reason that Cutler could account for two additional victories in Chicago this season.

I've been on record suggesting the Vikings should pursue Cutler with the same aggression with which they've built the rest of their roster. But let's be clear: Cutler's ultimate price tag made this deal far from a no-brainer. It's too easy just to rip them for not outbidding the Bears. Ultimately, they have made a calculated decision for two primary reasons.

Rosenfels Jackson
The first is that coach Brad Childress remains committed to developing Jackson and already had set the parameters of a training camp competition with Rosenfels. We've discussed the virtues and vices of that dynamic often on this blog, but facts are facts. Childress wants Jackson to succeed and will give him every opportunity to do so.

Second, I think the Vikings had some concerns about the long-term repercussions of gutting three consecutive drafts. In 2008, they surrendered their first-round pick and two third-round choices for defensive end Jared Allen. Had they acquired Cutler, they would have been forced to give up their 2009 and 2010 first-round picks as part of the package.

I don't buy some reports suggesting the Vikings were scared off by Cutler's personality or his apparent immaturity. I don't know how they could have made an informed judgment on those areas without first interviewing him themselves, which by NFL rules they couldn't do without the Broncos' permission. If they had a one-on-one meeting with Cutler to address those concerns, it hasn't been reported.

I'm not sure the Vikings could have outbid the Bears. Chicago had one asset -- a viable starting quarterback in Kyle Orton -- that Minnesota couldn't offer. But unless we're missing some last-minute activity, it doesn't appear the Vikings tried. That decision will make their 2009 outcome easy to judge.

So, as they say, the die is cast. One way or the other, the 2009 NFC North title was decided Thursday. The Bears might have clinched it with the trade. The Vikings might have won it by choosing Jackson/Rosenfels and additional draft choices. Or, the decision could damage both franchises and open up the division for a resurgent Green Bay team. (We'll give Detroit a year or so before we include it in that mix.)

Write it down: April 2, 2009. It's the date the North was won.