Why non-elite QBs get elite contracts

Are you kidding?!

The Cincinnati Bengals signed quarterback Andy Dalton to a six-year extension Monday that could max out at $115 million. The fourth-year pro led the Bengals to nine, 10 and 11 wins his first three seasons and became the first quarterback to take the franchise to three consecutive playoff appearances. But that's also where the flame burned out. Dalton wasn't just bad in those games, all defeats. He was awful. He threw for only one score. He committed seven turnovers -- six of them interceptions. He led the offense to a total of two touchdowns, one more than Cincinnati's defense scored.

They did what?!

In January, the Chicago Bears signed Jay Cutler to a contract with a possible value of $126.7 million with $54 million in virtual guarantees. In March 2013, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo signed an extension potentially worth $108 million that included a reported $55 million in virtual guarantees. Those figures approach the $110 million -- including $62.5 million guaranteed -- that Aaron Rodgers can earn from the Green Bay Packers by virtue of the extension he signed in April 2013.

Rodgers is a former league and Super Bowl MVP. Cutler is eight games over .500 for his career and has gone to the playoffs once, where he's 1-1. Romo is 1-3 in the postseason.

They got how much?!

In July 2013, Detroit Lions signal-caller Matthew Stafford signed an extension that averages $18 million a season and includes nearly $42 million in virtual guarantees; the sixth-year pro is 0-1 in the postseason. That same month, the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan inked a contract with an average of $20.75 million per year -- second only to Rodgers. Ryan is 60-34 in the regular season but 1-4 in the playoffs, with nearly as many interceptions (seven) as touchdowns (nine).

If those deals made your jaw drop, brace yourself, because the trend won't end anytime soon. Kansas City's Alex Smith, Philadelphia's Nick Foles, Carolina's Cam Newton and St. Louis' Sam Bradford all will be up for new deals in the next year or two. Their aggregate postseason record is 1-4.

The premium placed on quarterbacks has never been greater than it's been in the past decade. The league's emphasis on protecting and reducing contact against receivers has opened up the passing game, making for even more of a quarterback-driven league. Front-office personnel and coaches subscribe to the belief that you need a quality starter to consistently compete for a title. But since the pool of qualified talent is so shallow, they're willing to pay average or slightly-above-average quarterbacks as if they're elite.

"Teams are just afraid to say, 'Let's start again, because we literally do not have a legitimate chance to win a Super Bowl with the quarterback that we have,'" said one club president, who was among a dozen personnel people, executives and coaches who spoke for this story on the condition of anonymity. "They'd rather have an average to above-average quarterback than wait to get a great quarterback. I think it's more than fair to say that the fear of the unknown is greater than the fear of the known."

Others contend these personnel decisions have more to do with history than fear. Only 28 of the 151 quarterbacks drafted from 2000 to 2010 went on to start for at least 2½ seasons. That 81 percent failure rate speaks to why many franchises are more inclined to ride with what they have than possibly die with the unknown. They believe if they surround the quarterback with the right pieces, the whole will be greater than the individual parts.

Consider the Cowboys. When Romo signed his extension, he had led Dallas to only one playoff win in nine seasons (seven as the primary starter). Still, owner Jerry Jones signed him to a deal that included payouts of $40 million over the first two seasons. Jones sold the signing by pointing out that Romo was 55-38 as a starter and could lead the Cowboys on a postseason run with a few upgrades around him. Instead, Dallas has been stuck in that murky area between being just good enough to compete for a playoff spot and not being bad enough to land near the top of the draft, where the odds of finding a franchise quarterback are greater.

Some argue that's where the Bears are with Cutler. For every reason to re-sign him, there seemingly was an argument to let him walk as a free agent. Since joining the Bears in 2009, he has thrown for 101 touchdowns, 13th-most in the league; but his 75 interceptions are more than all but four players during that time. He has won 39 of his 67 starts for Chicago, but he also missed six games in 2011 and five games in 2013 because of injury. The Bears have had only one losing season since Cutler's arrival, but also have made just one playoff trip. That was in the 2010 season, when Cutler won in the divisional round but sat out nearly all of the second half of the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury.

The decision to re-sign Cutler wasn't made by the Bears in a day, a week or a month. It was made over two years, beginning the day that Phil Emery was hired as general manager. The longtime personnel man methodically evaluated the polarizing Cutler, extensively studying his three seasons with the Broncos and first three years with the Bears. He looked at the talent around Cutler, the constant turnover in play-callers, the ability to make plays with his arm strength even as the pocket dissolved around him. Emery said nothing publicly but had a pretty good idea going into last season that Cutler was his guy.

Backup Josh McCown's strong performance subbing for the injured Cutler elicited calls to re-sign the journeyman but didn't sway Emery. During a four-game stretch as the starter late in the 2013 season, McCown had nine touchdown passes against one interception and posted three consecutive games of at least 348 yards passing with a 102.4 passer rating. When Cutler was healthy enough to return, many fans called for first-year coach Marc Trestman to stay with the hot hand. A national media outlet even reported that some Bears veterans wanted Cutler to remain on the sideline.

But Emery's beliefs about Cutler's mental and physical toughness were affirmed in his first game back. After throwing two first-half interceptions, including a pick-six that gave the last-place Browns a 10-3 lead, Cutler stared down the Cleveland defense and silenced some critics by leading the Bears 66 yards in four plays, the last a 5-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Marshall. Then with the Bears trailing by seven in the fourth quarter, he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass to Alshon Jeffery to tie the score and a 4-yarder to Earl Bennett to take the lead for good in the Bears' 38-31 victory.

That was the icing for Emery, who liked that Cutler was at his statistical best last season when games mattered most, posting a 102.7 fourth-quarter passer rating while throwing nine touchdown passes -- six when the score was separated by seven points or fewer. Cutler also threw for 16 scores and only three picks inside opponents' 20-yard line. Cutler, who at 31 is four years younger than McCown and has a significantly greater arm, appeared ready to blossom under Trestman's tutelage.

Still, even if Emery wanted to go in another direction, what were the acceptable options? Knowing that a clear majority of the quarterbacks drafted from 2000 to 2010 failed to pan out, could he realistically anticipate getting a difference-maker at No. 14, where the Bears were drafting? McCown might've been good enough to help them challenge for a playoff spot, but nothing in his history shows he can lead a team to a championship. So Emery went with the younger, more physically talented player with greater upside. He banked on the known over the unknown, which shouldn't have been surprising considering 26 personnel people and coaches identified only five Tier 1 (elite) quarterbacks among the 32 projected starters in a recent poll conducted by ESPN Insider's Mike Sando. Ten others received Tier 2 status, which means more than half the league's starters are considered average or worse.

In today's NFL, teams seem ready to settle for quarterbacks who won't lose games rather than ones who win games. It's a subtle, yet significant, distinction. When they get a player who can manage games, they're willing to potentially compromise their salary cap by paying top dollars for non-elite performers. The $13 million difference between Cutler's average salary and what McCown received from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency could be the difference between reaching the playoffs and competing for a title.

As one general manager noted, two or three other "damn good football players" could have been signed for that $13 million. Is it worth spending so much more on one position, even if it's the most important one on the field?

Whether the trend of handsomely compensating QBs who are unproven in the postseason continues will likely depend largely on how Ryan, Romo, Cutler, Stafford and Dalton fare.

"In the future, you may see guys just walk away from quarterbacks that look pretty doggone successful but haven't gotten it done in the postseason," the GM said. "You're going to have to look at what signing him does to your salary cap going forward, and you're going to have to decide what type of talent you're going to have around that guy -- or not be able to have around that guy. We're not just in the business to pay players; we're in the business to win championships. If it gets too crazy, you just may have to walk away."