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Jay Cutler, the measuring stick, and the franchise

Jay Cutler has been quite frequently a point of contention among national pundits and Bears fans alike. But what's the appropriate measuring stick for the quarterback, as well as his place in the franchise moving forward?

Christian Petersen

I'll admit, sometimes I have trouble finding topics to talk about even during football season, but while I was out on vacation last week, I saw a tweet come up in my timeline - it may not be something that hasn't discussed on this site before, but I feel like I have to chime in now.

We talk a lot about Jay Cutler here, because let's be honest, not only is he the Bears' starting quarterback, he's among the best, if not the best, quarterbacks to suit up for the Bears. And throw in with that that for whatever reason, national pundits, non-Bears fans and Bears fans (sometimes) love to pile on the guy, for any reason from his occasional interceptions to his on-field demeanor and bumping offensive linemen down to flipping off a camera and stretching it to a "don't care" attitude on the field.

We've discussed the "issues," we've discussed the "excuses" supplied for him - I think we've discussed every aspect of him outside of a pursuit of his long-form birth certificate (/politics). But I want to stick to his football prowess, and it boils up from this tweet I saw back on Monday from 670 The Score radio personality Matt Spiegel.

And you know, it really is.

Let's start with the statement that Cutler is the best quarterback the Bears have had in a long time - nay, ever. I mean, any discussion with Bears quarterbacks starts with pretty much Sid Luckman, who played back in the '40s; Jim McMahon, whose most famous achievement is winning the Super Bowl behind the best defense of all time; Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, whose achievements largely center around which one sucked the least.

In Cutler, we're talking about a quarterback who sits at #2 in Bears history at 12,035 passing yards behind Luckman, #2 in Bears history at 81 touchdowns behind Luckman's 137, and the best quarterback rating of any Bears' starting quarterback at 81.6 (excluding legendary Chicago Rush head coach Mike Hohensee and his 2-0, 28-52 passing for 343 yards, 4 touchdowns and one interception, and the myriad of position players executing trick plays, including Marty Booker's two touchdown passes and 113.1 passer rating).

So yes, Cutler will probably go down as the best quarterback ever to play for the Chicago Bears. The problem with that measurement is that "Best Chicago Bears quarterback" is like Spongie's "Tallest Midget" or "Best Offensive Lineman on the Bears" awards (wait, those are the same... oh well) or winning an argument on the Internet. It's not exactly a history shining with exemplary passing of the ball.

One additional problem with the measuring stick of "Best Bears Quarterback" is the league Cutler plays in - currently a league that involves quite a bit more passing than other eras. So let's take a look at a couple of additional factors - some of Cutler's other numbers, and his numbers compared to some of his current league contemporaries.

Cutler's career yards-per-attempt is 7.1, and with his sacks thrown in, an adjusted y-p-a of 6.3. If you isolate the stats to only "quarterbacks", his numbers stack up to twelfth, behind Charlie O'Rourke (10.8, 1942), Greg Landry (10.0, 1984), Bob Snyder (8.5, 1939-1943), Luckman (8.4), Bernie Masterson (8.2, 1934-1940), Doug Flutie (7.8, 1986), Johnny Lujack (7.8, 1948-1951), Ed Brown (7.8, 1954-1961, and hello there ed_brown!), Josh McCown (7.5, 2011), Jim McMahon (7.4, 1982-1988), and Steve Fuller (7.3, 1984-1986), and tying him with Billy Wade (1961-1966) and Rudy Bukich (1958-1968).

Some of that can be attributed to incompletions, as well as to lack of weapons, but it's a number that doesn't really make him stand out among Bears quarterbacks, and it's certainly not a number that stands up to his contemporaries.

Start with 2010, Cutler's second season as a Bear, when the Bears lost to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game. His 60.4 completion percentage puts him at 19th in the league behind Shaun Hill (14th), Eli Manning (9th) and Jon Kitna (6th). His touchdown percentage of 5.3 puts him 9th, ahead of Kitna (13th) and Hill (23rd), but behind Manning (5th), Aaron Rodgers (4th) and Matt Cassel (3rd). His interception percentage of 3.7 put him 25th, ahead of Manning (30th) and Kitna (27th) but behind Hill again (16th), Mark Sanchez (15th), Derek Anderson (20th, and last in completion percentage) and Rodgers (10th). And his Y/A of 7.6 was 7th, but behind Rodgers (2nd) and just about on par with Manning (7.4, 11th) and Kitna (10th, same). As well as the 16th (dead center) passer rating in the league of 86.3, just ahead of Manning.

"But the line and receivers and the continuity!"

Okay, so we'll keep Martz for a year and flash to 2011 (and the reason I'm using percentage, with the whole "missed six games" thing). Completion percentage, 23rd at 58.0 (Rodgers 2nd, Manning 14th). Touchdown percentage, 18th at 4.1% (Rodgers 1st, 9.0; Manning 8th, 4.9). Interception percentage, 10th lowest at 2.2% (Rodgers 2nd, 1.2; Manning 19th, 2.7). Y/A, 15th at 7.4 (Rodgers 1st, 9.2; Manning 4th, 8.4).

"But the line and receivers and the continuity!"

Well, the continuity thing didn't work, except for the whole "continually getting Cutler killed" thing, so Martz left and Mike Tice comes in; to address receivers, the Bears trade for Brandon Marshall and draft Alshon Jeffery. And the Bears got back Gabe Carimi, who returned from a knee injury that cost him all 2011. And the results... Completion percentage, 58.8, for 23rd (Rodgers 4th, 67.0; Manning 20th, 59.8). Touchdown percentage, 14th at 4.5% (Rodgers 1st, 6.8; Manning 19th, 4.1). Interception percentage, 31st (fourth highest) at 3.5% (Rodgers 3rd, 1.6; Manning 22nd, 2.9). And Y/A, 6.9, for 21st (Rodgers 6th, 7.7; Manning 13th, 7.3).

"But the line and receivers and the continuity!"

I can't disagree that continuity can be a stabilizing force in an offense, but continuity for continuity's sake isn't the way to go, just like playcall-balance for playcall-balance's sake isn't the way to go in the middle of a game. In the same way as play-calling adjusts over the course of a game, you stick with what's working and find ways to continually make it work, or you move on to something else. Mike Martz as an offensive coordinator had some good points, but his playcalls and what he wanted his quarterback to do often left Cutler standing in the backfield to be devoured by a defensive end (which makes me thankful Julius Peppers is a Bear and not a Packer or Lion). And I wouldn't be surprised to see a new offensive coordinator again this coming season - it'd be another year with a new coordinator, but when some rookies and young players are having the impacts they are in their first go-arounds in the league - maybe it's an impact of not having enough tape on a player, or maybe they're just picking up NFL offenses quicker than they should, but it's possible to have an impact/good year on a first-year with a coordinator or player.

That brings us to the offensive line, which is why I included the numbers of Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning, two quarterbacks who've succeeded with about the same difficulties at offensive line as Cutler - and there's another number I'd like to bring to the front: sack percentage.

2010: Cutler (10.7, 32nd), Rodgers (6.1, 18th), Manning (2.9, 2nd)
2011: Cutler (6.8, 23rd), Rodgers (6.7, 22nd), Manning (4.5, 7th)
2012: Cutler (8.2, 32nd of 36 eligible), Rodgers (8.2, 33rd (!)), Manning (3.4, 1st)

That's right, Rodgers the last two years has been nigh equal with Cutler in terms of sacks, and Manning's never really been one to take a sack. Rodgers takes sacks in efforts to live another day and take another play. Manning gets out of the pocket and gets rid of the ball. Cutler doesn't seem to know that the ball can be thrown away. Our own Lester Wiltfong Jr. has Cutler estimated with ten sacks to blame on him; that drops his sacks to 26 on the year (to be conservative, let's say half, or 5, to bring him to 31 sacks on the year). If he throws the ball away five times, even if they're incompletions, that sack percentage drops to 7.1 from the lofty 8.2, which at least moves him to 24th.

I can already see the comments being typed - "Steven, you've turned into a Cutler-hater, haven't you?!" To which I reply - when have I ever been a lover or hater of anything? But to get to the point, no.

We keep seeing the same things out of Cutler, even from his time back in Denver - locking onto a receiver, holding onto the ball too long, relying on solely his arm strength to get the job done, having all the tools but not making the correct on-field decisions - are they traits that, as good as they make him, hold him back? Holding onto the ball and using his mobility help keep the play alive, true - but they've cost him several sacks over the years because he won't throw the ball away. He makes the throws that no one else in the league can make, but as daring as he is, sometimes those throws get picked. So there's a couple questions to answer.

Is Jay Cutler a bad quarterback? The answer there is "no." The following quarterbacks actually have starts in 2012: Byron Leftwich, Charlie Batch, Anybody from Arizona, Blaine Gabbert, Matt Cassel, Anybody from the Jets, and on Sunday I think we can add Browns quarterback Thad Lewis to that list. And there's still Nick Foles, Chad Henne, Jake Locker and Christian Ponder taking snaps - there's a lot of guys you wouldn't pass up Cutler for.

Is Jay Cutler a good quarterback? The answer there is "stop me when you get to a quarterback you'd put Cutler in front of": In order in passing yardage before you get to Cutler: Brees, Matthew Stafford, Tony Romo, Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Andrew Luck, Carson Palmer, Rodgers, Josh Freeman, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, Matt Schaub, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton, Philip Rivers, Sam Bradford, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ben Roethlisberger, Robert Griffin III, Ryan Tannehill, and Russell Wilson - then after Cutler, Christian Ponder, Mark Sanchez, Michael Vick, and Jake Locker.

But passing yards aren't fair, Cutler missed time, so how about passer rating - Rodgers, Griffin, Alex Smith, P. Manning, Ryan, Brady, Wilson, Roethlisberger, Brees, Romo, Schaub, Flacco, Newton, Dalton, Rivers, Palmer, E. Manning, Bradford, Fitzpatrick, Freeman, and Matt Hasselbeck. That's 22nd.

Net yards per attempt? P. Manning, Ryan, Griffin, Brees, Brady, Newton, Romo, E. Manning, Wilson, Freeman, Schaub, Smith, Rodgers, Roethlisberger, Palmer, Flacco, Stafford, Luck, Dalton, Tannehill, Fitzpatrick, Bradford, Vick, Weeden and Locker. That's 26th.

The numbers aren't there to say Cutler's in the top half of quarterbacks this season. That doesn't necessarily mean that he's a "bad" quarterback, but is there enough to say he's been a "good" quarterback?

When it comes to deciding the quarterback's future with the team, there are a couple questions to answer. The first is "Is the quarterback capable of getting the team to the next level?" The answer there for me at least is "I think so." And prior to Angelo's firing, there's no doubt that's what the team thought. There are some people that think because Cutler "whined his way out of Denver" that he won't stay unless the situation is perfect for him. If that's the case, why would he stay and try to build the "perfect situation"? The Emery regime seems to think that way too - trading for Brandon Marshall solved at least one portion of the "trinity of problems" with the Bears' offense.

The other question comes to how much development the quarterback has in him, and how many more productive years he has. Jay Cutler is 29 years old (yes, that's older than Brandon Weeden). He made his first Pro Bowl at the age of 25. Quarterbacks do have longer career-spans than other positions - say, running back - but at what point does Cutler hit the development wall, if he hasn't already? And then there's the concussions to worry about - he's taken his fair share of hard hits over his 146 career Bears sacks, and among his injuries the last few years have been a concussion (his first game missed ever), a knee injury, a broken thumb, and another concussion costing him a game and a half this year.

Cutler's contract sits at 8.47 million next season plus the prorated share of his signing bonus at 1.4 million, plus a 500K workout bonus, meaning next year is a 10.37 million cap hit. After that, he's a free agent - and if the Bears feel that Cutler's body of work hasn't been there, or if they continue to add resources to the offensive line and the results still aren't there, going in a different direction in 2014 is a possibility the Bears would have to consider - even in 2013's draft, looking at a mid-round quarterback as a step.

Jay Cutler may statistically be the best quarterback in Bears' history. But compared to the rest of the current league, is he the right guy for the Bears?