The off-season started a lot better for the Bears than the regular season ended.
Just four days after a 33-28, last-minute loss to the Green Bay Packers kept them out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years, the Bears re-signed, arguably, their three highest-priority free agents.
Comparing quarterback payThe Chicago Bears have signed Jay Cutler to a seven-year contract, and multiple reports it averages $17.6 million per year. Reportedly at least $54 million of the $126 million deal is guaranteed. Here's how Cutler's contract compares to other highly paid NFL quarterbacks:
Player, team: Contract (guaranteed amount)
Joe Flacco, Baltimore: 6 years, $120.6 million ($51 million)
Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay: 5 years, $110 million ($54 million)
Matt Ryan, Atlanta: 5 years, $103.75 million ($59 million)
Tony Romo, Dallas: 6 years, $108 million ($55 million)
Tom Brady, New England: 3 years, $57 million ($57 million)
Peyton Manning, Denver: 5 years, $96 million ($18 million)
Matt Stafford, Detroit: 3 years, $53 million ($41.5 million)
Drew Brees, New Orleans: 5 years, $100 million ($55 million)
Quarterback Jay Cutler agreed to a seven-year deal, which reportedly could be worth up to $126 million and includes at least $50 million in guaranteed money. Cornerback Tim Jennings, a 2012 Pro Bowler, and left guard Matt Slauson also signed on for four more years.
"We have some key pieces and players in place in the coming years," general manager Phil Emery said. "Our goal as an organization is to win championships; be in the hunt on a consistent basis. We have not reached that level. We were within 46 seconds this past weekend of reaching the NFC North crown, which would've been a step in our efforts to win championships. We failed in that attempt."
But Cutler had his best NFL season in terms of passer rating, and the offense established franchise records for total yards, passing yards, first downs, points, passing touchdowns and completion percentage.
With Cutler and Slauson back, every major player on the offense, with the exception of center Roberto Garza, will return next season. And the Bears seem interested in having Garza, their 34-year-old center, back in 2014.
"I'm looking forward to the future," Cutler said. "Whether I came here or a different quarterback came here, the direction of this organization was heading in the right way. The people who make the decisions and influence people are the right group. The mindset is right, and the talent in the locker room is right.
"I'm happy to be joining the rest of the guys in our pursuit for a championship. That's the reason I wanted to come back, because I truly believe that we have the right group of people to make that happen."
Cutler will be paid as a championship-level quarterback. His deal is similar to that of the Packers' Aaron Rodgers, the Patriots' Tom Brady, the Saints' Drew Brees and the Ravens' Joe Flacco.
Emery said he had a strong feeling that Cutler would be his franchise quarterback after the first three games of the season.
The Bears won all three of those games, and Cutler had passer ratings above 90.0 in each game. While Cutler finished with a career-best 89.2 passer rating, Emery said the decision to invest so heavily in the quarterback was more than numbers.
"I also think he had his best season as a pro in terms of his leadership, his improvement, his display of toughness, his ability to bounce back, his ability to handle pressure and his ability to come back and win games," the Bears' GM said. "No. 1, he's a demonstrated winner with the Chicago Bears. He showed us right from the beginning that he could be a key player (who is) the reason you win."
Cutler may have been able to get a bigger contract by testing his value in free agency, starting March 11, but he said he wasn't interested.
"I didn't want to," he said. I wanted to stay here. Kristin (Cavallari), my wife, wanted to stay here. So it was going to have to come from the Bears not wanting me back for me to test it."
Cutler said his marriage to Cavallari, who attended his news conference, and fatherhood have helped him mature and become a better leader. He has played in the postseason just once in his eight NFL seasons with a 1-1 record after the 2010 season, but he believes the Bears are building a team that can compete for championships.
"You get to a certain point (and think) 'what's the most important part of your career?'" he said. "Do you want to say, 'Hey, I made X amount of dollars' or 'Hey, I won championships?' I talked to guys like (Matt) Forte and B. Marsh (Brandon Marshall) and (Roberto) Garza and all the guys.
"We're here to win championships, not to make so and so amount of dollars. That was my thought process. Whether it's $15 million or it's $22 million, it's hard to spend all of that in your lifetime. Kristin said she'll help, but we've reached the amount of money where we're going to be taken care of."
• Follow Bob LeGere's reports on Twitter @Boblegere.