Will Jay Cutler Ever Be More Than a Good NFL Quarterback?
Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery wasted little time in re-signing quarterback Jay Cutler to a massive contract extension this offseason.
Cutler signed a seven-year, $126.7 million contract in January, long before he could become a free agent. Re-signing Cutler wasn't like any normal situation that sees a general manager retain his starting quarterback.
Emery could have decided to move on with Josh McCown, who excelled in Marc Trestman's offense during the regular season and is now the projected starter in Tampa Bay—at a far lower price tag.
Or, more realistically, Emery could have used McCown's presence to take leverage away from Cutler during the months leading up to the start of free agency. The franchise tag would always have been an option if they couldn't agree to a cheaper contract.
Instead of attempting to help his team benefit financially from the situation the Bears found themselves in, Emery gave Cutler a huge vote of confidence by immediately giving him as much money as Cutler or his agent could ever have expected.
At 31 years of age, Cutler remains a very polarizing player.
He has been a full-time starter for seven seasons after being drafted in the first round of the 2006 draft. When you look at Cutler's raw statistics, he is presented as an efficient passer. Save for the 2009 season, he has thrown considerably more touchdowns than interceptions during each season of his career.
He has a career completion percentage of 61 percent and completed 63.1 percent of his passes during his first year as a starter under Trestman. For his career, he has averaged 230 yards per game and 7.2 yards per attempt.
Cutler's numbers clearly don't suggest that he should be benched, but other factors must be taken into account when trying to understand how he is perceived.
When Josh McDaniels attempted and failed to bring in Matt Cassel to replace him in Denver, Cutler forced a trade to the Bears. Once with the Bears, Cutler was unable to play through a significant injury during the playoffs, and his demeanour on the sideline, as part of his overall attitude toward the media, made many question his passion for playing football.
Of course, those who condemned Cutler for his inability to play though pain in the playoffs conveniently overlooked the 52 regular-season sacks that he had fought through to that point. It was a season that included a nine-sack beating he somehow survived in Week 4.
Instead of using the off-field perception Cutler garnered in previous seasons to create context around his on-field play, the focus should have been put on the context of the offense around him in Chicago during that time.
After being traded to the Bears, Cutler played in the least quarterback-friendly offense in the NFL. His offensive coordinators, Mike Martz and Mike Tice, didn't play to his strengths with their offensive designs or play-calling.
His offensive line was overwhelmed in pass protection on a weekly basis, while one of his starting receivers was a converted cornerback and kick returner. The other suffered a serious back injury and was forced to retire.
Before Emery arrived in Chicago, the Bears neglected their offense. They didn't invest money or high draft picks on that side of the ball, meaning that Cutler never really had an opportunity to excel.
Entering the 2013 season, all of the Bears' problems on offense had been addressed.
An offensive-minded head coach, Trestman, was now in charge. The team's new offensive coordinator, Aaron Kramer, had previously been the New Orleans Saints offensive line coach, and he was working with four new, talented starters up front. Alshon Jeffery, Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett and running back Matt Forte were arguably the most talented group of receiving options in the whole league.
In other words, there was no longer anything holding back Cutler.
Cutler obviously did enough during his 11 regular-season starts to prove himself to Trestman and Emery, but the real question is whether he has the ability to repay that faith and become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Cutler was more accurate than his 63.1 completion percentage suggested he was last season.
On 332 total qualifying plays, Cutler threw an accurate pass 280 times. That means he had 52 plays where his accuracy either caused an incompletion or forced his receiver to make an unnecessarily difficult adjustment on the ball.
If only these plays had counted last year, Cutler's accuracy percentage would have been an incredible 84 percent. For the sake of comparison, Russell Wilson, who was exceptionally accurate last year, had an 83 percent accuracy rating under the same analysis.
Cutler is clearly a very talented quarterback with the ability to match any other player at the position in the NFL.
However, he has two issues that he must address if he wants to be considered alongside players such as Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers. The first issue is his deep ball. Cutler can throw the ball to any area of the field with ease, but his deep accuracy proved to be erratic last season.
It wasn't terrible, but it needs to be better because the Bears have so many deep threats in their offense.
As McCown proved last season, you don't need to be perfectly accurate when throwing to Jeffery and Marshall because they will aggressively go and get the ball. With that in mind, even the most minor of improvements from Cutler in this area should result in a significant boost in production.
The other issue Cutler needs to address is taking care of the football. He threw 12 interceptions in 11 games last season and coughed up five fumbles. He has a better supporting cast now, including a revamped defense, so he doesn't have any excuses for forcing throws or being reckless in the pocket.
Trestman appeared to have a positive influence on Cutler last year.
He seemingly shortened Cutler's drops and encouraged him to get rid of the football quickly. Cutler wasn't throwing the ball down the field on a regular basis; instead he was making use of screen plays and working the underneath coverage to put his receivers in space.
Of Cutler's 12 interceptions, four were the result of bad decisions.
Primary Reason for Cutler's Interceptions
Bad Decision 4
Bad Throw 2
Tipped at Line 2
Route Miscommunication 1
Hail Mary 1
Wide Receiver Drop 1
Analytical Analysis Through NFL.com
Four "bad decision" interceptions aren't going to completely derail your passing offense, but Cutler was lucky on a few other bad decisions, and he will likely continue to throw double-digit interceptions so long as he continues to make poor decisions.
There was a noticeable difference in Cutler's approach early in the year last season, but after his multiple-interception game against the Detroit Lions, he appeared to play with less poise.
Trestman has stressed the importance of the quarterback position ever since he got the job in Chicago. He appeared to understand the flaws in Cutler's game and made an effort to address them entering last season. With the coach having another offseason to help refine his starting quarterback, Cutler should be expected to be more efficient next season.
While we're unsure if Cutler will take that step forward, we saw last season that he has the talent to be that effective.
From a physical point of view, Cutler can make every throw and make it well. He has exceptional arm talent that allows him to control the trajectory and accuracy of his passes. He can throw the ball more than 50 yards through the air with ease, and his passes sustain velocity to every area of the field.
From a mental point of view, Cutler understands how to read the defense while manipulating the pocket. Just as importantly, he understands when he needs to leave the pocket and keep his eyes down the field to make throws on the move.
From a technical point of view, Cutler has some issues, but that's not uncommon in quarterbacks with his caliber of arm strength. When you compare Cutler's mechanics to those of Matthew Stafford or Colin Kaepernick, he is dramatically more efficient and consistent with his movement.
Believing that Cutler will become one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL in 2014 is believing in his head coach's ability to elevate him to that level, because there is no question that he has the talent to make that leap.