- Jon Greenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In a sport in which first-round picks make millions of dollars before strapping on a pair of shoulder pads and well-worn offensive linemen give up their brains -- literally and figuratively -- with no guarantee of financial or professional success, there are two words that make me truly happy.
If you really love professional football, and admire the men who play it, those words are sweeter than Super Bowl, sudden death and (NFL referee) Ed Hochuli.
The announced value of an NFL contract isn't worth the cups that hold your $7.50 beer. Contracts get ripped up or get redone for salary-cap purposes; players get released into the wilds of free agency. It's a travesty, if you're a humanist, but it's (supposedly) necessary to field huge, transitory rosters.
Football is the most dangerous of all the major sports, the one with the greatest on-field danger and the deadliest aftereffects. The studies being done on football players' brains should shame all of us. If you haven't read Malcolm Gladwell's piece on the subject in last week's New Yorker, you will wonder after you do why you love such a grotesque sport.
Then the weekend will roll around, and you'll forget once again. And that's OK. It's a Faustian bargain for NFL players, and every one of them is willing to face the potential dangers for the guaranteed money. It's best not to think about it, but here I am, thinking about it.
So when Jay Cutler, the quarterback with the big arm and no playoff experience, signed an extension recently, with $20 million in guaranteed "new" money, to a rookie deal that originally paid him for sacrificing his body to the SEC gods at Vanderbilt (talk about a thankless job), I thought to myself: Good for him. Get it while you can.
"I think it was mutual," Cutler said in his normal effervescent manner. "I wanted to be here awhile. I think the Bears wanted me to be here awhile. I think it worked out for both of us."
I wouldn't say I'm sold on Cutler as a leader capable of leading the Bears deep into the playoffs every season, but they made it clear he's the future of this franchise. After watching him through five games, I am confident that he not only is talented but is willing to sacrifice his body on pure impulse.
When I saw Cutler helicopter dive into the end zone against Detroit, a play that looks more dangerous than it probably is, I knew he was a guy who could inspire his teammates and lead by example. And I knew he was deserving of the money.
Quarterbacks typically don't have a problem getting their just rewards in the NFL hierarchy, and it's easy to see why. It's the signature position in all of sports and the one with the most pressure. And Cutler, who has made a bundle already, is a relative bargain at $10 million per season, given that he's playing on a marquee team and is still well on the right side of 30 years old.
Eli Manning, who has won a Super Bowl, signed a $97.5 million deal this summer that potentially keeps him in New York through 2015, gives him an annual salary of $15.3 million and pays him $35 million guaranteed.
Philip Rivers, Cutler's old foil in the AFC West, signed a week or so after Manning for $92 million, with $38 to $39 million guaranteed.
Cutler, of course, took less money and fewer years in an extension, but there are major differences in their situations. For one, these guys, even Rivers to a smaller degree, are winners. Three of them Super Bowl winners. Cutler was 17-20 in Denver, and the Bears are 3-2 now, with his mistakes playing a big role in both losses.
It makes sense financially, too. Cutler still has two years left on his original deal, which goes until 2011, which didn't give him much of a bargaining chip -- a chip that was already small enough, considering the way he forced himself out of Denver.
I know I said we shouldn't be surprised by any athlete's contract, but if you want to compare Cutler's guaranteed money with that of some of his Chicago peers, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
The Blackhawks signed defenseman Brian Campbell to a ludicrous $57 million free-agent deal in 2008. We all know Alfonso Soriano will earn $136 million over the life of his deal, which ends in 2013, and Milton Bradley still has $20 million left on his deal, most of which the Cubs might pay him to go away. When it comes to free spending, the Cubs would probably give $30 million to former "Rookie of the Year" Henry Rowengartner. They just promised a hitting coach $2.4 million over three years, even though they had one of the best-hitting teams in baseball just two seasons ago and their most esteemed veteran, Derrek Lee, said hitting coaches aren't worth much to an experienced team.
It goes on everywhere, in this city and beyond. White Sox general manager Kenny Williams claimed Alex Rios off waivers even though he's due the GDP of Curacao (OK, $51 million), thanks to the brainiacs in Toronto. The Bulls signed Ben Wallace for four years and $60 million, Kirk Hinrich for $47.5 million and Luol Deng for at least $71 million. None of those three is a marquee player, but each was in the right place at the right time.
The Bears, wisely, weren't interested in immediately signing Cutler to a long-term deal, but they weren't as stubbornly opposed to it as they made it seem.
"When we made the trade for Jay, we told his agent our intent was not to do a deal during the season," Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said. "We wanted to watch Jay play and get settled in. We made it very clear, and they understood. They never balked. As the business goes, they presented us with ideas in [light] of the recent signings of Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. They had some concepts they wanted to share, and through the good works of his agent, Bus Cook, and our guy, Cliff Stein, we were able to find that common ground."
Cutler said he wasn't worried that he didn't have a deal, or any substantial guaranteed cash, after this year. But the prospective lockout when the current CBA expires in 2011 forced his hand a little bit. He was due a sizable roster bonus that season.
"Absolutely," he said. "I think every player in the league is concerned with that because we don't know what's going to happen. There could be a lockout. The [players' association] is advising everyone to save money, so any money you can get before that point is going to be good for any player."
Angelo and the McCaskey family have taken care of Bears veterans the way few teams do, and they deserve credit for that. They redid Brian Urlacher's deal, probably more out of respect than anything. They redid Lance Briggs' deal, even though he openly declared his relative dislike for the organization. They keep guys around for long stretches, such as Olin Kreutz, Brad Maynard and even the long-snapper, Patrick Mannelly.
But when Angelo spoke about loyalty Wednesday, I almost did a spit take: "I know in the era of free agency, we might not have the loyalty to the team that we had in yesteryear," he said.
Give me a break, right? But Angelo quickly won me back.
"We want loyal players," he said. "That's why we reward our own. Because loyalty is a two-way street; you just can't talk about it."
In a sport that rewards novices and causes dementia in a significant portion of its players, a little loyalty isn't a bad thing.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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