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Jay Cutler is Poised to Be the Breakout Quarterback in 2013

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Jay Cutler is easy to hate. Whether it is the scowl or his perceived aloof nature (one that I am not sure is deserved as an assessment of his competitive nature), he is a quick punching bag. The next interception, or fumble lost, draws instant volatile reaction (“same ‘ol Jay”) on social media, exceeded by only Tony Romo in a Primetime Game.

Here’s the thing, though. When you watch the Bears play in recent years,–if you admit it to yourself in the moment, without getting caught up in narratives–you would likely see Cutler as doing more with less. Many games (excluding those against the Packers, of course) I have come away watching throws and the blocking–or lack thereof–in front of him and was impressed that Cutler was a “plus” player. By that I mean his performance was better than his numbers.

Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times columnist, does not feel like Jay Cutler can get better. Telander is not a Cutler fan, and this isn’t the first time he has gone in against the quarterback. His statements are easy to challenge here, though.

This guy is not a kid. He’s not ‘‘developing’’ anymore. He’s 30. He can tweak things, but that’s it. He might not be the immature jerk he was with the Broncos and when he first came to Chicago, but, to rearrange jargon from the athlete world, he is what he is.

And that’s nothing special.

I wish it weren’t so.

But Cutler actually has been fairly consistent in his career, which includes being a dud if he ever reaches the playoffs.

The playoffs part? Cutler has been to the postseason once, in 2010. You probably remember that as the game he tore his MCL in the first half, but was instantly diagnosed as a quitter by all the sideline doctors, from Maurice Jones-Drew to Jason Whitlock. (I had my own thoughts on the amateur doctors here). So we are calling him a playoff dud based on a half where he had a bad start then tore his MCL? Sounds reasonable. Here, by the way, are the yards per attempt in the postseason for the last five years. Cutler is such a dud that you will want to look toward the top of that list, not the bottom. Andy Dalton in the playoffs, he is not.

What about the age 30, “he is what he is”, not likely to change statement? The die is not cast on Jay Cutler. Here is a list of guys who had their best years after their 30th birthday, among guys who had started and thrown at least 200 passes in three or more years before their 30th birthday (footnote for those who are into such things, guys are only included if they had a pro bowl caliber year, not for those that went from bad to close to average):

  • Tom Brady, 2007, age 30
  • Terry Bradshaw, 1978, age 30
  • Kerry Collins, 2002, age 30
  • Matt Hasselbeck, 2005, age 30
  • Jim Kelly, 1990, age 30
  • Eli Manning, 2011, age 30
  • Steve McNair, 2003, age 30
  • Jake Plummer, 2004, age 30
  • Michael Vick, 2010, age 30
  • Dan Fouts, 1982, age 31
  • Tommy Kramer, 1986, age 31
  • Ken Anderson, 1981, age 32
  • Drew Brees, 2011, age 32
  • Jeff George, 1999, age 32
  • Jim Harbaugh, 1995, age 32
  • Jim Hart, 1976, age 32
  • Bobby Hebert, 1992, age 32
  • Norm Snead, 1972, age 33
  • Steve Beuerlein, 1999, age 34
  • John Brodie, 1970, age 35
  • Randall Cunningham, 1998, age 35
  • Vinny Testaverde, 1998, age 35
  • Steve DeBerg, 1990, age 36
  • Phil Simms, 1990, age 36
  • Fran Tarkenton, 1976, age 36
  • Rich Gannon, 2002, age 37

Chicago Bears v Miami DolphinsSorry for putting up such a long list. We can argue about peak ages at quarterback (yes, it usually is earlier), but there are plenty of examples of guys who “figured it out” after 30.  That list doesn’t even include guys that didn’t really become starters until right before their 30th birthday, whether due to injuries robbing them early (Brian Sipe, Lynn Dickey, Chris Chandler), being backups (Steve Young, Trent Green, Elvis Grbac, Brad Johnson, Erik Kramer) or having to play elsewhere, like in Canada (Warren Moon, Jeff Garcia, Joe Theismann, Doug Flutie).

You know when a lot of these guys “figured it out”? Amazingly, when they had changes, in the form of a new coach, new players around them, or both. Some did it while staying with the same organization; others moved and found success in a new place. Ken Anderson amazingly became a much better quarterback when the Bengals added Anthony Munoz and Cris Collinsworth. Theismann became a star when he got paired with Joe Gibbs and the team drafted many of the linemen that became the Hogs. Kerry Collins had his career year in 2002 with the Giants when the team turned over four offensive line spots on an aging line, added rookie Jeremy Shockey at tight end, and discovered they should give the ball to Tiki Barber way more than Ron Dayne.

Steve DeBerg turned in a big season late in his career, when Kansas City totally revamped the offensive line, including adding two rookie starters in Tim Grunhard and Dave Szott, something the Bears hope to duplicate this year. Eli Manning put his best season together when Victor Cruz emerged to go with Hakeem Nicks. Randy Moss owns this list, as Randall Cunningham, Jeff George, and Tom Brady all took big leaps over anything they had put together in the regular season, in the first year they played with Randy.

A pretty good argument can be made that the Bears will be better on offense in at least six different spots in 2013 compared to last season. First, of course, is at the offensive scheme and coordinator, where Marc Trestman comes in replacing Mike Tice (who needed a passing game coordinator last year).  Kyle Long, meanwhile, is drawing rave reviews as a rookie, and looks to be a huge upgrade at guard, the kind of nasty difference maker this offense needs.  Pro Football Focus graded his game against San Diego as the best game by a guard so far in the preseason. The other offensive line upgrades are less spectacular, but important as addition by subtraction. Matt Slauson provides the veteran upgrade at the other guard spot. Cutler’s buddy J’Marcus Webb looks to be on the outs when it comes to the starting lineup, moved not only off left tackle by the signing of Jermon Bushrod, but possibly out of the lineup at right tackle by rookie Jordan Mills. I’m not a huge Bushrod fan, but do think he can be an upgrade here.

Ordinarily, four new starters on the offensive line would be an issue. In Chicago’s case, though, I think it presents upside because the known past was so bad. I already mentioned Kerry Collins experiencing a big year with 4 new starters on the line. Drew Brees’ breakout season in 2004 came when San Diego completely overhauled the line with five new starters, including rookies Nick Hardwick and Shane Olivea.

Meanwhile, it is definitely addition by subtraction at the receiver positions besides Brandon Marshall. Devin Hester and the black hole that was Kellen Davis will be replaced by Alshon Jeffery, who was a rookie last year and injured part of the year, and Martellus Bennett. Neither has to be stars. They just need to be competent starters to provide other options, and that will be a big upgrade.

It’s easy to forget that the Bears are 27-13 when Jay Cutler starts over the last three years, a mark that ties him with Ben Roethlisberger and puts him 6th. I’m not a huge proponent of QB Wins, as much like RBI’s in baseball, they are context dependent. In Chicago’s case, a cursory glance might lead one to conclude that the team wins because of defense, and the offense has been at best average. The offense has been average on the whole, though the parts are more stars or scrubs.

A closer look, though, reveals that Cutler is probably better than people have given him credit for, and far more valuable, and that the offense has huge upside if in fact the weak points are replaced, as they appear to be.

Jay Cutler and other Quarterbacks vs. Their Backups

When Jay Cutler has missed games over the last three years, the Bears offense has been horrid. Here is how Cutler compares (to his backups) relative to other quarterbacks who started each of the last three seasons for the same organization, and also missed at least 6 games to injury. I also included Peyton Manning 2010 vs. the Colts situation in 2011, with Kerry Collins, Dan Orlovsky, and Curtis Painter.

The chart at the right shows the change in Yards per Attempt, Interception Rate, and Sack Rate relative to their replacements. Peyton Manning was being touted as a MVP candidate for being absent with injury, and he is arguably the biggest dropoff there. Until you look at the impact with Cutler out.

Perhaps the Bears’ backups were the worst ever. I’m skeptical, but perhaps they were just that much worse. Or perhaps Cutler is better than his numbers. The results from watching games like Detroit last year on Monday night, when Cutler put up only 150 yards in a 13-7 win, tell me the latter is certainly a big part of it. The sack rate drops just as much as when Peyton Manning was in for the Colts. For all his interception reputation, the interceptions dip when Cutler, instead of a replacement player, is trying to make decisions behind that line. The yards per attempt drop is huge.

Football history is littered with breakouts of all shapes and sizes, and ages. This year, the quarterbacks in the league feature established stars, and a host of young guns drawing all the raves. When I look at the landscape, though, and try to identify one guy who could make a big leap outside of those groups, I see Cutler. If I am trying to find the next magical season, where I think someone could come out and have a Mark Rypien in 1991, Brian Sipe in 1980, Boomer Esiason in 1988, or yes, Rich Gannon in 2002 type season (where now head coach Marc Trestman was the offensive coordinator), Cutler is my pick.

The die is not cast, and in fact, I think the dice looks a lot different. Better personnel, and a quarterback who has been better than his numbers, based on how the offense looks when he is gone. A prediction that Jay Cutler will be smoking in 2013 is bold, though I’m confident it won’t be the craziest quarterback prediction made today.

[photo via USA Today Sports Images]

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