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Monday, November 26, 2012

Jay Cutler's Value: Embracing the Unquantifiable (Sorta)

Earlier today, one of the author's at Yahoo Sports posited that Jay Cutler deserves consideration for league MVP, despite his underwhelming stats. As evidence, he used the fact that the Bears are 25-10 in their last 35 games with Jay Cutler, and just 2-6 without him going back to 2010. It's probably also worth noting that two of the losses attributed to Cutler, the 2010 Giants game and this year's Texans game, were fairly close contests in which Cutler missed the entire second half. The argument, therefore, is, basically, that Jay Cutler "just wins games."

This is unsettling to me. Not that it's untrue. It's absolutely true, in the sense that the Bears are an immeasurably better team with Jay Cutler at the helm than they are without him. What's unsettling is that this line of logic requires me to do something I'm not comfortable with. I have to disregard statistical performance and embrace some vague, unquantifiable "winning" quality that Jay Cutler has. At first glance this is terrifying, leading me somewhere into a realm dominated by people like Trent Dilfer, Skip Bayless, and Iggins! on a bad day.

Looking closer at the situation, however, I ask myself if it's really that crazy to say that Cutler's value to the Bears really does go beyond his production. Frankly, stats do still tell a major part of this story. In the eight non-Cutler games since 2010, Bears QBs have compiled a horrid stat-line, completing just 53% of their passes with a 5-17 ratio and a QB rating of 41.8, with 36 sacks in those 8 games.

Cutler, in that time period, has completed 59.8% of his passes with a 49-34 ratio and an 84.7 rating with 104 sacks in those 35 games. While those numbers seem underwhelming when compared with the NFL elites, the comparison between him and his backups really drives home what Jay has managed to do with a woeful supporting cast. It's mind-boggling, especially when you realize that, even though Jay has taken an average of 3 sacks per game during that time period, he's clearly bailed out his offensive line repeatedly (despite the narrative often stating the contrary) since they've allowed 4.5 sacks per game without him. Yesterday seemed to drive home that point, as Cutler scrambled several times to avoid sacks and had two very notable plays where he bounced outside to extend the play, with the pass to Marshall that led to interference in the end zone and the ridiculous laser to Spaeth for a a TD.

Now, it's fair to say "well, Cutler's backups suck. That doesn't excuse him for posting mediocre numbers just because they were worse." Fair point. Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie were dreadful, but Jason Campbell in his career was considerably better, even on middling Redskin and Raider teams, than he's played in two games as a Bear. Even with his history of poor protection, he seemed overwhelmed by the relentless pass rush that he faced behind the Bears line. Regardless of the dubious talent of Jay's backups, a disparity that great has to give one pause. 

The idea going into this season was that, with the acquisition of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Michael Bush, the return of a healthy Matt Forte, and a more "Cutler-friendly" offense run by Mike Tice and Jeremy Bates, Cutler would have no more excuses for statistically average production. In reality, it hasn't played out that way. Forte has been injured, under-used, and underwhelming compared to past years. The offensive line has been a roller coaster all year. Alshon Jeffery has missed half the season, and only Brandon Marshall has proven to be what we thought he'd be out of that group. Earl Bennett missed several games and has also seemed to disappear for long stretches. The team hasn't gotten even mediocre production at tight end, and Tice has called himself out for inconsistent play-calling. It hasn't been pretty, frankly. So Cutler does have excuses for an 81 rating and an average 13-11 ratio. He's also suffered from 25 dropped passes, with his receivers dropping nearly 9% of his throws, including several touchdowns.

So in the end it is safe to say that Cutler's value does, in fact, go beyond the numbers. I suddenly, mysteriously, find myself on the opposite side of the winning argument, a far cry from the days of the Cutler trade, when I had to duel with Broncos fans who cited Cutler's 17-20 record in Denver despite his excellent production as justification for getting rid of him. This, however, is not a case of football correlation not equaling causation. This isn't Tim Tebow winning while scoring less than 20 PPG as the media ignores his defense's contributions or the string of non-contending squads they defeated. Nor is this Rex Grossman or Kyle Orton riding the coattails of a masterful defense in a weak division to ride to a crown. Jay Cutler is a contributing factor, if not always the most noticeable one, to the Bears winning a lot of football games.

While the Bears may not throw the game on Jay's shoulders and tie their hopes to his right arm, like the Green Bay Packers do with Aaron Rodgers (a proposition that's been less profitable this year than in the past), they do rely on him to make an otherwise hopeless offense into a non-liability. Acknowledging this may require some uncomfortable acceptance of old-school axioms and seemingly outdated concepts like the "eyeball test", but the results are quantifiable on the scoreboard, and right now that really is all that matters.

The Story so Far (and Why it is Dumb)

Like the others, allow me to apologize for my extended absence from the airwaves. In my case, I was away simply because my job didn’t need doing. Everything coming out of Chicago was surprisingly positive for the last two weeks, and there just didn’t seem to be anything worth saying that Red or Iggins couldn’t say better.

Even the intrepid crew at the Sun-Times was pretty much on the same page as we were: the Bears are still leading their division and these losses came with a backup QB to two of the best teams in the NFL. Cutler’s absence was the death knell against the Texans, but people calmly noted that a single TD at any point in the second half would’ve changed the game completely and Cutler probably could have gotten one.

The 49ers loss was, in my book, an unfortunate repercussion of Cutler’s injury. The defense played poorly, but to me it looked like it was because they weren’t prepared. Colin Kaepernick threw the passes, but Jim Harbaugh was the one who beat the defense. He had them on their heels all night with plays they had clearly never seen before. Cutler being present does more than put numbers on the Bears’ side of the board, it gets the defense off the field. They get time to rest, to think about what they saw and try to adjust to it. Maybe they still lose, but at least they have a chance. As it was, Campbell gave them enough time to get some water and strap their helmets back on before they had to get back in there.

However, due to what I’m assuming is the magic of my birthday, the Bears got back on top of the division after a thrashing of the Vikings and an even worse Giants thrashing of the Packers. And it is with that that I get to the point.

When the Bears lost to the Texans after a punishing illegal hit that took Cutler out of the second half, people were talking about how they “showed who they truly were” and “got exposed as pretenders.” Nevermind that their offense has statistically been about three times as effective after halftime, Cutler’s presence would have been good for at least one TD in that game, and a TD might have been all it took to turn that one around; the team that lost was the real Chicago Bears, and the team that won seven games fooled us all into thinking they could play football well.

Today, the Packers were torn apart by the then-6-4 Giants. They got slaughtered at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, their superstar receivers were unable to break open in coverage, and Aaron Rodgers got sacked five times for the fourth time this season. Despite his admittedly incredible mustache, he just couldn’t get it going in the face of a fierce pass rush.

Not one person is talking about who the Packers “really” are. For three hours, not one commentator or reporter said word one about the Packers being “exposed.” The same way nobody was doing so after they lost to the Colts. The same way they weren’t when Aaron Rodgers had a hard time getting started this season. And it’s really pretty simple to explain.