Thursday, December 16, 2010

Cutler Relative to Protection

The Bears have the worst offensive line in the league. This isn't any great secret. When you've allowed the most sacks, manage just 3.8 YPC and have the league's 25th ranked running game, no one is surprised to find out that, according to many metrics, you have the worst o-line in the game. Despite this glaring deficiency in the Bears' offense, I still hear frequent criticism of Jay Cutler as though the offense's woes are primarily (or even heavily) his fault. Hell, I heard fans bitching about his interceptions last week, even though his first came after the Bears were already down 29 points. It's shit like this quote coming from one of the writers at WindyCityGridiron (a site I normally like, although as an SBNation site it has a grab bag of good and bad), that really pisses me off:

"As far as QB Jay Cutler is concerned, I hope when he was on the sidelines watching Tom Brady move up and down the field on a very tough defense that he was taking notes. If you want to be in that elite level with the Bradys, Mannings, and Breeses you have to put in the time. Those guys didn't just only rely on their talent; they put time in the film room and with their receivers. Their success is not only because of their talent, but because they have become students of the game. It's time for Cutler to wake up and become a student of the game."

The coaching staff's praise for Jay's work has been nothing but effusive. He met with Mike Martz before Martz was even hired to go over the offense. The idea that Cutler's problems stem from him "not putting in the time" is absolutely ludicrous. Let's look at the real reason why Cutler isn't an "elite" quarterback yet (and I don't disagree with the notion that he's not elite yet, I just think this guy is off-base in Why that's so): protection.

I think Jay Cutler has done an outstanding job this year behind a terrible offensive line. To prove this, I went to Pro-Football-Reference.com, as usual, and looked at their advanced metrics for QB statistics. PFR has what they call QB Rating+, which is a more accurate version of the standard QB rating that also shows how the QB has done relative to the league average. A rate+ of 100 is league average, anything above is good, anything below is bad. Cutler right now has a Rate+ of 105. Good, but not great by any measuring stick.

Not great, that is, until one considers another metric, Sack %+. This looks at how many times a QB is sacked on his dropbacks relative to the league average. Again, like QB Rate+, 100 is average, above is good, below is not. Cutler's Sack %+ right now is a 62. That's without a doubt the lowest in the league among the 32 quarterbacks who have taken the majority of their team's snaps this year. The differential between Cutler's QB Rate+ and his Sack%+ is a whopping +43. That's very impressive and is also the widest such differential in the NFL. Hell, Peyton Manning has a Rate+ of 108 (very low by his standards) despite a Sack% + 127, meaning he's been just "good" despite what is easily the leagues best offensive line. Tom Brady has had great protection (Sack %+ of 110) but has been even better than that with a Rate+ of 128, currently the leagues best.

Other quarterbacks that currently ranking higher than Cutler on Rate+ have a negative differential relative to their protection, including both Mannings (Eli at -20, Peyton at -19), Tony Romo (-9), Drew Brees (-9), and Matt Ryan (-7). That's not to say that Cutler is better than those QBs, at some point, regardless of how good your protection is, you're not going to be unstoppable. However, the fact that Jay has managed to overcome such a dreadful offensive line to the tune of a +43 has to be taken into account, considering the league average differential is a mere +1.3.

Not that it should have taken this article to make people realize this, but the next time you're inclined to blame Jay Cutler for something on this offense, remember that right now he's easily the best in the NFL at making the most with the least. Hopefully this offseason the Bears will completely re-tool the offensive line and next year we'll see Jay get the protection necessary to make him one of the elites, since he's already putting in the work.