One of the universally acknowledged critiques of Jay Cutler is that his "mechanics are bad." Even Cutler's most ardent defenders (like yours truly) have a tendency to preface their defenses with "of course, he needs to improve his mechanics, but.." before moving on. Guys like Trent Dilfer feast upon this unargued talking point in order to condemn Cutler as a player who tries to skate by on his talent and doesn't improve his game. The question I have then, is two-fold: what are "bad" mechanics and are Cutler's really that bad?
When most people discuss throwing mechanics when it comes to football, I generally assume they're discussing the following:
1. The Drop- When the QB takes the ball from under center, does he take the proper amount of steps? Does he plant his back foot? Does he shift his body forward before throwing?
2. Pocket Presence- Does the QB step up in the pocket when he feels pressure, or does he fall back resulting in sacks and negative yardage? Does he scramble only when necessary? When he throws on the move does he he set his feet?
3. Throwing motion- Does he plant his feet correctly? Does he have his shoulder and lead foot aimed towards his target? Does he throw across his body?
So I took a look at these two highlight videos of Cutler's career with the Bears and, in addition to previous experience, have made some conclusions about Cutler's mechanics:
Now, there are obviously some issues with judging a quarterback based on highlight videos, since you aren't going to see many plays that showcase his negatives, but there's enough of a sample size there to make some observations about his mechanics.
As far as Cutler's drops go, I don't think that's ever been much of a problem. He played in a pro-style offense at Vandy and Shanahan utilized him almost exclusive under center in Denver so he's never had the problems with that some have had. I think it is interesting that, watching the 2010 highlights (and something I'd noticed throughout this season) is that Martz likes to have Cutler take an old-school backpedal-style drop back with his shoulders parallel to the line of scrimmage, rather than the more typical sideways, cross-legged drop back with the shoulders perpendicular to the line. I think Martz probably does this for a couple reasons, since it makes it easier for Jay to survey the entire field while he's dropping back and allows him to straighten up and set his feet faster than he does in the usual style. This may have been one of many compromises Martz made to allow Jay to still look downfield for long throws while also giving him the quicker drop he needs to get the ball out in case of trouble. It also seems to fit with Martz' origins as a Don Coryell-disciple, since any highlight footage of Dan Fouts shows him taking very similar drops.
Pocket presence is an area where I think Jay's lack of protection has damaged his reputation. Any quarterback that takes 87 sacks in two years is going to have accusations of holding the ball too long, but in general I think Jay's a fairly sound player within the pocket. He knows more often than not to step up against the pressure (which I think is particularly evident in the video several times, notably his scrambling shovel pass to Forte through the mob in the Eagles game and his 15+ yard scrambles against the Vikings, Packers, and Dolphins). He very rarely runs backward in the pocket in a futile attempt to escape pressure (something Rex Grossman was very fond of), so he often minimizes the losses the team takes from sacks, like the season opener against Detroit when he took 4 sacks but lost just 10 yards total.
I also think Jay's a very smart and very selective scrambler. As Football Outsiders notes, he was the best quarterback in the NFL last year in rushing for 3rd down conversions and it's frightening to think just how high the team's sack total could have been had he not been able to escape and create on his own.
As for throwing on the move, this is one of Jay's greatest strengths and one that has been surprisingly under-utilized by both Ron Turner and Mike Martz. Jay's mechanics are actually pretty sound when he's scrambling, which is odd given that most quarterbacks tend to be much more mechanically sound within the pocket. I'd say one play that really demonstrates this is the throw to Hester during the Eagles game this year where Jay scrambles out of the pocket and heads for the line of scrimmage but pulls back, sets his feet, and throws to Hester for a big gain after the linebacker left his coverage responsibility in order to make the tackle. Another good example in the 2009&2010 highlight video is his throw to Johnny Knox in the opener against the Lions this year. Cutler has the arm strength to throw without setting his feet, but he still sets them whenever he doesn't have a defender draped around him.
I also think Cutler's tendency to "throw off of his back foot" is both overstated and completely misunderstood. If you're going to be a successful quarterback in the NFL you have to be able to throw and complete passes off of your back foot. Pressure will come, protection will break down, and you will have to be able to complete passes in less than ideal conditions. Hell, some plays are designed to be back-foot throws. Two examples of this are the TD throws that Cutler lofts to Johnny Knox in the 2009 highlights against the Falcons and the Vikings. Both are back foot throws that Cutler completes for scores because he has the arm strength and accuracy to do so. If you don't buy my argument about this, go watch a replay of The Catch and look and see which foot Joe Montana's got planted on the ground when he's tossing the ball to Dwight Clark. The trick when throwing off of your back foot, however, is to keep your body straight and to prevent your momentum from going backwards. When a quarterback is pressured from the front and is falling backward, it's nearly impossible to keep the ball from sinking and falling short of it's intended target. The DeAngelo Hall pick six in this year's Redskins game is a perfect example of Cutler attempting to make a throw when he should just eat it since his momentum is carrying him to the ground.
As for his actual throwing mechanics, I think Jay vastly improved this year but also was never truly as bad as he's been made out to be. The best example of picture-perfect mechanics that he's ever shown would be his three touchdown passes against the Jets this year, particularly the last touchdown throw to Knox, where he sets his feet, very quickly shuffles his feet in the pocket while shifting his shoulder to his targets as he goes through his progressions, then fires the ball over Knox's shoulder for the TD.
What I'm trying to say here is that these videos illustrate my main point, which is that Cutler's mechanics aren't inherently bad, given that he appears to be a textbook quarterback when he has the time to set his feet and throw, whether he's on the move or not. The problem is that Cutler will indeed regress and slip up when he's pressured consistently throughout the course of a game. This isn't really the damning evidence against his work ethic or ability that it is often made out to be. Almost all quarterbacks will begin to slip up if they're pressured regularly. The Bears allowed pressures, hits, or sacks on 308 of 522 drop backs this year (60%), so naturally Cutler's worst tendencies are going to be exacerbated. Does this make him an inherently bad or risky player?
Maybe, but it's also worth noting that Peyton Manning was sacked fewer times than any QB in the league this year, but had 11 interceptions in one three game stretch in which he was pressured more than usual. Drew Brees "regressed" and threw 22 interceptions this year when the Saints offensive line struggled with some injuries and their sack totals and total pressures both increased from the previous year. Almost all quarterbacks have a natural tendency to force the issue in an attempt to make plays when conditions are breaking down. You simply have to minimize the opportunities for bad play by reducing the pressure on the quarterback, because Jay Cutler sure looks like a nice pocket passer...when he has a pocket.