What (rather, where) is the Problem?
A new coach took over in Chicago and, as so often happens when power changes hands, the way things were done was transformed. The Bears finished second in the NFL in total points, behind only the Peyton Manning-led Broncos. The team earned 344 first downs while giving up 353. A breakdown of those numbers reveals that the Bear's earned more first downs by passing than their opponents (215-184), while they gave up significantly more first downs to rushing (102-147) and lagged behind the opposition in terms of first downs earned by penalty as well (22-27). The touchdown stats tell a similar story; the Bears outpassed their way to the end zone over their competition 32-25 but conceded nearly twice as many rushing (13-22) and struggled to keep up in the DTD category as well (6-8).
The Bears offense reached new heights this season under new head coach, Marc Trestman, setting records in several categories and defying Chicago's long-standing reputation as a unidimensional team. Matt Forte put up stellar numbers, Alshon Jeffery and Brandon Marshall became the best receiving duo in the league, and the revitalized offensive line allowed only 68% of last year's sack total. All this leads to one conclusion:
Jay Cutler is not the problem in Chicago, but he's not the solution.
The two-part assertion can be explicated piece by piece. It takes a glance at the numbers above and a look at where his QB rating of 89.6 places him among the top NFL quarterbacks (13th) to tell you just how well Jay has done this year. In a new system, with improved weapons, and a more protective offensive line, Cutler has flourished. Nevertheless, the interesting case study that was afforded to Bears fans during Cutler's long-term absence saw Josh McCown put to the test with the same system, weapons, and line, and Cutler doesn't come out looking like the untouchable Achilles in the numbers. The stats favor McCown, who put up a 109 QBR (good enough for 3rd in the league behind only Nick Foles and the Peyton Manning). In fact, McCown trumps Cutler in essentially every category: completion percentage (66.5-63.1), yards per attempt (8.2-7.4), touchdowns per game, and even TDs per attempt (5.8%-5.4%).
Six times two is twelve, but 6 had way more than twice as many picks as 12 this season. - via sinfl.files.wordpress.com
For those who want to second guess the numbers based on strength of opponents, Cutler's nagging injuries, or any other confounding variables, they really only need to consider the one category that has always no. 6's Achilles heel: interceptions. In six games, Josh McCown threw 1 pick; Cutler racked up 12 in ten. That means for every time the Bear's offensive coordinator called for his QB to drop back for a pass, a different number on the jersey meant a 3% difference in the likelihood that just that single attempt would result in an interception.
But this isn't about Cutler versus McCown. The only point I mean to prove by raising the situation of McCown's extensive presence under center this year is that the system, the tools, and the protection are all there. Everything is in place for a quarterback to be successful in executing his offense. So does it make sense to spend millions on the man you have taking the snaps?
Dolla, Dolla Bills, Y'all
Bear's GM Phil Emery - via www.suntimes.com
As of 2013, the Bears have the most expensive roster in the NFL. Cutler's contract had him earning 3rd-most on the squad, putting him among the highest paid players in the league. With Cutler's salary alone (reportedly worth up to 18 million a year), they could hypothetically afford free agents Brian Orakpo (2.8 mil), Karlos Dansby (1.2 mil), and Kevin Williams (4.9 mil) with hefty pay bumps. That would be more than enough to restore the run defense (which, to be fair, had been crippled by the injuries to stars Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs, and Henry Melton) and allow the Bears to re-sign most of their key components on both sides. Although CB Tim Jennings has already extended his stay in Chicago, Melton and others will have to be dealt with as well.
Bears GM Phil Emery has already said he'd like to see McCown return and Coach Trestman has noted that safeties Major Wright and Chris Conte had inconsistent years."We’re going to have to draft to get younger," said Emery, "It doesn’t have anything to do with (Charles) Tillman, (D.J.) Williams or Lance Briggs." The prospect of drafting to replace Tillman, Briggs, and co. is a daunting one, and certainly not as certain as replacing them with proven free agents. On the other hand, it seems likely that the deep draft class of 2014 might have enough to offer a serious option for the Bears under center.
The Curious Case of Andy Dalton
Dalton's Bengals are 30-18 (62% wins) in his three-year career reaching the playoffs each year, while the Bears have gone 44-36 (55%) in five years with Cutler, with just one playoff appearance. - via sports.cbsimg.net
In Andy Dalton's short three-year career, he has thus far completed five fourth-quarter comebacks and nine game-winning drives. Cutler, at the ripe old age of 29 has more than doubled that total with twenty. This is a funny little stat, one that can't always be counted on to prove or disprove a QB's clutchness (Tony Romo ties the likes of Steve McNair and Roger Staubach at 34th with twenty three), but I wanted to mention a trend in Dalton's numbers for a moment. Andy's game-winning drives have fallen each year, from 4 in his rookie season to 3 in his "sophomore slump" year to just 2 this season. Does this mean Dalton has been decidedly less "clutch" when it came time to put money to mouth? It seems to me that the stat most nearly represents how a team, and especially a quarterback, are playing up until the fourth quarter. We can take a look at Dalton's win record to see another telling trend. As the number of game-winning drives have gone down, the win-loss ratio has gone up. The Bengals went 9-7 his first year, then 10-6, then 11-5. Obviously, this has at least as much to do with changes at other positions, but in a division with the reigning Super Bowl champion Ravens, the orange cats were able to secure the title and a place in the playoffs.
GM Emery told the truth of the situation when he told the Tribune, "Jay doesn't have to be better than Aaron Rodgers. Our team has to be better than the Green Bay Packers." Well, apparently, that isn't the case. Are the Bears a better team than the Bengals? I'd like to believe so, yet Cincinnati made the playoffs from arguably a tougher division, and the Bears will watch from home this week. Maybe Cutler isn't the reason why Chicago won't be featuring in the postseason, and maybe Andy Dalton isn't the reason why Cincinnati will be; I'm just not sure the discrepancy in the payroll reflects the difference between the men. If you can surround a QB with a great receiving corps, a solid offensive line, and a stout defense, he can achieve great things, no matter how much he costs you. That much, Dalton has proven.
Jay doesn't have to be better than Aaron Rodgers. Our team has to be better than the Green Bay Packers.
- Bears GM Phil Emery, The Chicago Tribune
My disappointment, then, lies with the decision to spend a small fortune to retain the services of a guy who hasn't proven himself to be the golden goose. Why not try to re-sign McCown for a few years, and use the money the Bears would save to chase proven talent in free agency? This year's draft will be so deep at the quarterback position, there has to be another high bang for your buck option like Andy Dalton out there, one that, like him, would improve each season, and thrive in a system built to make the QB's life easy. But instead of going after the best free agent safeties and linebackers to fix their ailing defense, the Bears have re-signed Cutler to a seven year deal worth millions, calling him "a winner." Never mind that he was 5-5 this year and threw the interception that ended Chicago's playoff hopes.
In fact, calling Cutler "a quarterback we can win with," was Emery's biggest faux pas. 50% of the time, he's right every time.