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Jay Cutler is good, but he's no Sid Luckman

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For fans who hope to see Jay Cutler break another team record, it's worth taking a moment to reflect on the career of the man who set that record--Sid Luckman.

EDITOR: With this being the 75th anniversary of the invasion on Normandy, we wanted to share an article about one of the men that stormed the beach that day, Bears’ Hall of Famer, Sid Luckman.

This article originally published on November 9, 2015.


There is a pretty good chance that by Tuesday morning, the Chicago Bears will have a new all-time touchdown leader. Jay Cutler has passed many of the marks set by Sid Luckman, and this mark is just another that seems likely to fall. This feat will further the claim that Jay Cutler is the most accomplished quarterback in Bears history. If you’re like me, you’re too young to have watched Sid Luckman play football, except maybe on shaky footage streamed online. Your understanding of pre-1960s football might be dim. As a result, you might find it easy to dismiss Luckman’s career.

I like Jay Cutler. I like what Jay brings to the Bears. He is the best quarterback I have seen play for the Bears in anything other than a historical perspective. However, Jay Cutler is no Sid Luckman, and I think that on the eve of yet another record potentially falling, it’s time to spend a moment contemplating a simple observation: 42 > 6.

I typed that sentence not to diminish Jay, but rather to honor a man most Chicago fans should probably know more about.

When considering the legacy of Sid Luckman, it’s easy to simply throw out some simple numbers. Four league championships. Three seasons leading the league in passer rating. A record seven touchdown passes in a single game. League MVP. However, without context, it’s tough to really appreciate those numbers.

If we look at modern quarterbacks who have led the league at least three times in passer rating, we get a short list of heavy-hitters: Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Steve Young. Aaron Rodgers and Kurt Warner only show up twice. Already, Luckman is in pretty strong company. However, this only tells part of the tale.

In 2004, 2005, and 2006, Peyton Manning led the league in passer rating for three straight years. His marks in that time were 121.4, 104.1, and 101; 2004 was truly the peak of his performance, because in this year his passer rating was more than 46% above the league average of 82.8. Incredibly, in each of his three years at the top, he was at least 25% better than the league average, which hovered around the low 80s. Manning’s rival for greatest of the generation, Tom Brady, does even better. His three years at the top involve season-long passer ratings of 117.2, 111, and 115.8. With average passer rating climbing a little over the same time, from the low 80s to the mid-80s, Brady displays the same sort of dominance.

Now, in order to understand Luckan’s best years, we need that same context. How did Luckman compare to his own peers? Well, during the years that Luckman led the league, the average passer ratings were 39.6, 48.4, and 47.8. Applying a Manning/Brady-like multiplier, we might hope to find that Luckman would record ratings in the 60s or 70s. And, for 1946, that’s exactly what we find. His passer rating was 71, which put him a little over 48% better than the league average 47.8 that year.

However, the 95.3 (1941) and 107.5 (1943) he recorded in his other two years should really boggle the mind. He played the game at a level so far above his peers that only Sammy Baugh and Otto Graham could come close to matching him. If, in 2007, Tom Brady had posted a perfect rating of 158.3 instead of 117.2, he still would have been closer to the average his fellow quarterbacks were turning in than Luckman was to his fellow quarterbacks in his two dominating years. In fact, Luckman played at such a high level that after more than 70 years, his statistical performance in 1943 is still the 24th best ever posted by a quarterback.

Luckman enlisted in the Merchant Marine during World War II, which kept him from practicing with the Bears (though he was apparently still able to play games). In fact, his championships and his playing career straddle the war, leaving endless room for guessing about what might have been.

Still at a loss to understand how far ahead of his time Luckman was? Even with all the changes to the game over time, Luckman sits in second place all-time when it comes to career passing yards per attempt (8.4). If Jay were to play another five years and were to throw for 10 yards per attempt over that time, he would probably still not catch Sid Luckman’s career average. In order to have any chance, he’d have to exceed his current average of 32 passes per game and still hit an efficiency he has yet to find.

I am going to cheer for Jay and the rest of the Bears. I am hoping to see him race past Luckman’s career touchdown record. I am hopeful that at some point the Bears will have a quarterback and an offense that lead the team to a championship, let alone four. However, while I am hoping that Jay will soon reach another milestone in his development as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Bears history, I can’t get away from that simple observation: 42>6.

Note, I am indebted to Cold Hard Football Facts, Pro Football Reference, 100 Things Bears Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame for a lot of the information included in this article.