Not since the Three Stooges studied the age-old question of heredity versus environment has there been a more fascinating test of epigenetic theory than the one the Bears are about to embark upon.
•Does the system make the player or is it the other way around?
•Can journeyman Josh McCown, with a peashooter for an arm, outperform the bazooka bombing of Jay Cutler and keep the Bears in contention in the NFC North?
•Can you really go cheap at the most important position in sports?
The future of the franchise seems to be hinging upon the outcome. What future, you ask? Indeed, the Bears' master plan has yet to be revealed. They have just 30 players under contract for next season, fewest in the NFL. And that is counting guys such as Julius Peppers, who could create $9.8 million in cap savings, and Lance Briggs, who could provide potentially $5.5 million in relief.
Nine of the 15 highest contracts for next season are on offense, including four wide receivers if you consider Eric Weems more than a special-teams player. The Bears could clear even more cap space if they want to release Earl Bennett ($2.45 million), who was rumored to be on the trading block before the season, and backup running back Michael Bush ($1.85 million) or Weems ($1.1 million).
Presumably none of that will be determined before Cutler's contract is decided.
It's a subject of fascinating debate in league circles, with Michael Silver of NFL.com reporting one day that the team is considering moving on without Cutler, NBC analyst Tony Dungy saying the next he wouldn't give Cutler a $100 million deal — and he doesn't believe the Bears will have to — and other experts predicting Cutler will get the franchise tag for next season at about $15 million.
Mike Ginnitti, the founder and editor of spotrac.com, which compiles salaries for every major sport, has a much different idea of Cutler's value. A self-described nerdy fan with a background in web design and writing, Ginnitti went from monitoring player salaries and making contract predictions for friends to building an impressive database and establishing close relationships with multisport sources the last eight years.
He developed a formula to determine the value of future contracts by finding players with comparable statistics and careers and breaking down their salaries to find the proper payday a similar player has coming.
There is nothing emotional about the process. Ginnitti is not tormented by the march of mediocrity Bears fans have seen at quarterback. Nor is he troubled by the draft picks the player cost or the specter of how to replace him when McCown is 34 and hardly a long-term solution. The bottom line on Cutler, according to his research, is that the Bears should give him a four-year deal for roughly $32.2 million for an annual average of about $8 million. Pay him like he's Matt Forte?
"I was pretty hesitant to post,'' Ginnitti said of the prediction. "We have a formula. We plugged him in and that is what came out. It was a surprisingly low number.''
Ginnitti isn't trying to broker a deal. His quest is simply to set a value bar surrounding quarterbacks. He said he had a difficult time finding comparable players to Cutler in terms of the statistics he has put up over the last few years, his age and his overall history. Ginnitti said Cutler didn't fit as a top-tier quarterback, and it was a problem fitting him into the second tier. He settled on comparable players being the Jets' Mark Sanchez, the Chiefs' Alex Smith and the Texans' Matt Schaub.
The good news for Cutler is that he will be back before the season ends. The groin injury he suffered against the Redskins will keep him out for a minimum of four weeks. There still is the possibility of an impressive run to the playoffs to close the season. Much, however, will depend on how the team plays without him.
The Redskins were unprepared for McCown, with some admitting they didn't know the backup quarterback's name. They also don't have much of a defense, rating No. 25 in the NFL — one slot ahead of the woeful Bears. Presumably, coach Marc Trestman can cater a game plan to McCown's strengths, but there also will be an opponent's attack plan against his weaknesses.
The Bears can't simply run an offense designed to complement the defense as they have done previously because the defense isn't very good.
Spotrac rates the Bears 30th in the 32-team NFL in its team value power rankings. They take the rating of each player's performance from Pro Football Focus and turn it into a dollar figure using salary-cap numbers to determine the bang for the buck every team produces.
Will the Bears pay through the nose next year for Cutler? Ginnitti laughed when asked how he would sell his contract numbers to Cutler.
"Luckily, that's not my job,'' he said.
Good luck, Phil Emery.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.