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Why Everyone is Right About Jay Cutler

Chicago's quarterback finally earned a win against Green Bay. However, it will take more than a game or two to change minds about #6. What's interesting is that both Jay's fans and his critics have very valid points, and the disagreements are probably based in the way we look at the numbers.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Is Jay Cutler a good quarterback? Is he an awful one? Is he just average? The debate about how good (or not) Jay Cutler is as a quarterback is pretty tough to resolve, and it seems like every stance has a statistic or two to back up its argument. Moreover, it seems really hard for many of those on differing sides to understand where everybody else is coming from. Well, at least in this case, the problem is not with Jay Cutler. Instead, it's with the fans. More specifically, it's with how we tend to understand and misunderstand the context for the statistics that they are quoting.

I am not talking about the way that a particular statistic fails to capture the complexities of a game (e.g. are interceptions happening in the beginning of the game or on desperation plays trying to make up a two-score deficit?), but rather simply the reality that we need to evaluate the assumptions we make when we view a given statistic.

Consider the argument that because Jay is ranked 16th or 17th in whatever category, this means that he is in the middle of the pack. This is "just average," because it's hard to get more average than 16 of 32. However, we should take a moment and look at the database being checked (for example, almost all of the stats in this article are drawn from Pro Football Reference on the afternoon of November 29th). Chances are, when the stats are sorted, one of two things will happen. Either a list of more than 32 quarterbacks will appear or the list will include multiple quarterbacks from the same team, and one or more teams will be left without a quarterback on the list.

This is because the NFL is fairly ruthless toward truly bad quarterbacks. As I've pointed out in previous articles, coaches are quarterback killers more often than things being the other way around. It's not uncommon for a quarterback to get pulled before a season is over. When we look at the quarterbacks in the NFL who actually acquire passing statistics, we are not looking at the bad, the mediocre, and the good. We are looking at the mediocre with promise, the good, and the elite. The quarterback who starts in the NFL and posts below-average numbers is usually holding a clipboard before long.

The performance of each of these quarterbacks leaves an impression on fans watching the games. Think about Matt Flynn. In 2011, Matt Flynn played in five games and started one. His passer rating was 124.8 and his performance was enough to convince an NFL front office to sign him to a three-year, $26 million contract with a sizable guarantee (different sources report $9million to $10million; he ended up earning over $14 million from the deal). If Flynn did enough in 49 passes to earn millions from professional evaluators of football talent, chances are that he left an impression on fans as well.

Since 2009 (when Cutler came to the Bears), each season has seen around 50 quarterbacks attempt at least 49 passes—the number it took Matt Flynn to get his new contract and to earn his millions. Sadly, the 49-pass cutoff excludes Kirk Cousins' 2012 campaign and Jimmy Clausen's efforts in 2014, to say nothing of TJ Yates and Geno Smith this year. However, it seems ‘fair' to say that if 49 passes nets a contract like Flynn's, then 49 passes is as good of a mark as any. This number is also equal to one pass-heavy game or a couple of run-heavy games, so it represents a decent ‘audition' number in another way, as well.

Overall, from 2009 until just past the middle of the 2015 season, a total of 342 seasons of quarterback performance have been compiled with at least 49 passes (side note that may be of no interest to anyone but me—the actual ‘middle of the road' quarterback performances over the last seven years would be Sam Bradford in 2012 and Carson Palmer of 2010, who are tied for the 171st of 342 seasons in passer rating). If we look at the median performance of these seasons, we get a passer rating of 82.6. Of his 7 seasons in Chicago, Jay has had five seasons above this point. To a fan who is generally aware of the quality of quarterbacking in the NFL, it's "easy" to see that Jay is an above average quarterback.

On the other hand, Jay's career average in Chicago (85.2) would be enough to place him above only 54% of all 300+ quarterback seasons under consideration—just a hair above the middle. Pretty average. Here we have one simple explanation for why Cutler supporters and Cutler detractors are split. Is Jay regularly better than half of those who play quarterback in the NFL? Yes. Is he reliably one of the top 15 quarterbacks in the NFL? Not really. He is, however, usually better than at least 25-30 quarterbacks a year who make a meaningful number of pass attempts. This leaves the valid impression in some minds that he is among the top passers in the NFL. However, "top" in this case means "better than the middle and everyone fighting for a job," not "significantly better than half of all of the established quarterbacks."

















If I support Cutler, in nearly any given year I can name twenty quarterbacks who have played worse than he has, and most years I can name more than that (this makes him seem pretty good). This seems more impressive than it is, because it's easy to forget the churning of quarterbacks at the bottom.

Likewise, if I am unimpressed by Jay, then in any given year I can think of a dozen quarterbacks who have outplayed him, and most of the time I can name fifteen or so. Why does anybody make a big deal out of this guy? This doesn't give Jay enough credit, because he is usually turning in performances better than the majority of his peers—the few men trusted to play quarterback professionally—and because he sustains this performance unlike a large number of other players.

Another way of looking at it is to compare Cutler to Orton, the quarterback we traded away in order to "upgrade" at the position. Since the trade, Kyle compiled five seasons with at least 49 passes, and 1 of those 5 was below the median (20%), compared to 2 of 7 for Jay (29%). What a waste! Except, of course, that Jay's three best years are all ahead of Kyle's three best years, and Jay's fourth- and fifth-best years are ahead of Kyle's fourth-best performance. It's going to come down to judgment on whether or not this difference in performance was worth what was given up, but that decision should be made based on the entire context.

Admittedly, this article only looks at passer rating. However, the same trend holds up when we consider other performances, as well. For that matter, this trend still holds up even for non-quarterbacks, but that's a much longer and more detailed argument.

Is Jay Cutler better than the average quarterback? By most reasonable measures in most years, yes he is. Is Jay Cutler less reliable and consistent than at least fifteen other quarterbacks in the NFL? Most years, the answer is also yes. So far, Jay is on track to have the best year of his career, and we can hope this holds up. For now, however, we can also understand that both his fans and his critics tend to forget the broader realities of the NFL when we consider #6. What we also need to remember, however, is that whatever you think about Jay, you probably have a point.