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Friday, May 14, 2010

Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, or All Sacks Are Not Created Equal

Pictured: Cutler (Top) runs for life, while Rodgers (Bottom) stands tall in pocket.

I've been a pretty fervent defender of the season Jay Cutler had last year. While I agree that Jay should have simply eaten the ball on a number of the interceptions he threw, there's still no doubt in my mind that most of his problems last year stemmed from a god awful offensive line. One of the rebuttals I've heard to this argument is that "Aaron Rodgers took more sacks than any other quarterback in the league and he still had a great season."

On the surface, this argument is solid and compelling. Rodgers did, in fact, take 50 sacks, which makes Jay's 35 seem paltry by comparison, and Rodgers (who, though I'm loathe to admit it, is a phenomenal quarterback), did have an outstanding season, with a 64.7 completion %, 4434 yards passing, 30 tds, 7 ints, and a stellar 103.2 rating. However, there are a number of different reasons why quarterbacks take sacks, and, quite frankly, almost all of the other evidence supports the notion that Green Bay had a better offensive line than Chicago this year.

1. Rodgers took sacks because he threw the ball deep.

As the 42.8 sacks averaged each year by a Mike Martz offense will attest, any time you have a quarterback take mostly 5-7 step drops and go for a vertical passing game above all else, your quarterback is often going to get hit before he can let it loose. Rodgers averaged 8.2 yards per attempt, good for 4th in the NFL, and he averaged 12.7 yards per completion, good for 5th in the NFL. That's indicative of a high number of completed deep balls, and Rodgers was 9th in the league with 55 passes over 20 yards, and 1st in the league with 17 passes that went over 40 yards. In an offense that features that many deep balls, the chances for sacks goes up.

In Cutler's case, the deep ball wasn't as much of an option. While Cutler actually had 1 more completion over 20 yards than Rodgers, he had just 6 passes go 40 yards or more. He averaged a career low 6.6 yards per attempt and a mere 10.9 yards per completion (vs. the 7.4 ypa and 11.8 ypc he managed in Denver (11.8 yards per completion? Why that's the exact same as Peyton Manning's career average! Odd)). Jay took far fewer 7 step drops than Rodgers and was forced to dump it off much more, thus bringing down his averages in those categories, since we know it isn't out of any physical inability to throw the ball deep.

2. Rodgers holds the ball too long.

This is one explanation that gets thrown out any time a quarterback takes that many sacks, but in Rodgers case, it seems to be true. I won't dwell on this very long, because it's the weakest part of the argument and it's hard to prove statistically, but from what I've seen in the games, Rodgers should take at least some responsibility for holding the ball too long.

Cutler, unfortunately, tends not to hold the ball long enough and rushes throws that become interceptions, but the sacks he does take tend to come rather quickly after the snap.

3. The Packers actually had a running game.

While some offensive lines are much better at pass blocking than run blocking or vice versa, there's generally some level of correlation. If you're good at one, you're probably not awful at the other. The Bears offensive line sucked at both, with the 35 sacks surrendered going along neatly with their 29th ranked rushing attack.

The Packers? Well, their run game was actually pretty good. They rushed for 1885 yds (118 ypg), good for 14th in the league, and we're 13th in the league in yards per rush (Bears were 26th). This means that teams actually had to respect the run when playing the Packers.

Simply put, Cutler had to face far more pressure against defenses that knew, more often than not, that the Bears Had to pass if they had any hope of moving the ball. He was alone on an island with little help from the run game and inexperienced wide receivers. Rodgers had the threat of the run to take the pressure off, as well as one of the best wide receiver corps in the game with Greg Jennings and Donald Driver, who were much better at making adjustments and coming back to the ball than the young Chicago corps.

4. The Packers offensive line improved as the year went on.

After 10 games, the Packers had given up 43 sacks and were stuck in the middle of the pack at 6-4. Over their last 6 games, however, their offensive line showed drastic improvement and gave up just 7 sacks as the team went 5-1 to clinch a wildcard spot. Rodgers was sacked just once in each of the Green Bay's last five games.

The Bears? Well, they remained consistently awful. Granted, most of us will remember that they actually did improve slightly after Orlando Pace was benched, but they still remained far below average, as they gave up at least 2 sacks in all but 3 games last season. On average, Cutler was sacked 2.5 times per game as the Bears folded down the stretch, while Rodgers went down just 1.2 times per game as Green Bay raced to the playoffs.

So there you have it. Now, let me make this clear to anyone who thinks I'm being completely irrational: Aaron Rodgers is better than Jay Cutler (right now). You'd have to be really thick-headed to take the league leader in interceptions over a guy who currently holds the highest career passer rating in NFL history. However, it is not, as I've said, an invalid argument to blame many of Cutler's problems on a poor offensive line while ignoring how well Rodgers played despite 50 sacks. Frankly, all of the other numbers outside of those 15 extra sacks clearly show that Green Bay had a much, much better offensive line.

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