While looking into Alshon Jeffery's place among his peers earlier this summer, I stumbled on a few interesting similarities between Jeffery and Jay Cutler. Because I compared their injury histories, one question that came up was whether or not Cutler's injury history was really as bad as it seemed, at least compared to other quarterbacks. That got me thinking about some of the assumptions made about Cutler, and it seemed like a good place to start looking would be his injury history.
To determine Cutler's peers, I wanted only active quarterbacks who spent four or more years as the designated starters for their current teams. I wanted active players because while there were iron men back in the day, but that's not really relevant for the discussion of how Cutler compares to his contemporaries. I wanted at least four years because the NFLPA says the average career is around 3 years and the NFL itself says the average career is 6 years, so something in the middle seemed about right. Therefore a quarterback with at least four full years as the designated starter would seem to be an established figure his team might reasonably to rely on.
One note about my methodology is that because I excluded a player's first year unless he was the designated starter from day one, my numbers might differ from a given player's official win-loss record. Because the goal of the article is to get a sense of one player's injury history, this sort of discrepancy seemed acceptable.
My approach got me a list of 16 players (including Jay Cutler). On a whim, I also pulled information for Sam Bradford. Bradford spent five years playing for the Rams and only started in 61% of the games available to him. To put that into perspective, the next-worst among this group is Tony Romo—who played in 81% of available games since his first season as the starter. Luck is the only other player with a worse starting percentage than Jay. In other words, Cutler is actually the thirteenth of these sixteen men in terms of being ready to play for his team.
Eli Manning, Phillip Rivers, Russell Wilson, and Ryan Tannenhill all lead the way at 100%. Brees, Ryan, Newton, Dalton, and Flacco have all made it to more than 95% of the games available to them since they started a season with the top spot on the roster. Brady and Rodgers follow closely behind at 93% each, although Brady has a fractional edge before rounding. The next group is clearly Jay's group, and the names are not too surprising: Roethlisberger (89%), Cutler (87%), Luck (86%), Stafford (83%), and Romo (81%). Just to clarify something regarding Cutler's record—it really doesn't matter if you count him as missing the game where Trestman benched Jay to save his own skin or if you set that game aside, as the total rounds to 87% either way.
So, yes, Jay is injured more than other established starters. Worse, perhaps, is when and how he is injured. Whatever you might think about the NFC Championship Game, where he was injured, and how he was playing—it was a big state to be injured on. The following year's 7-3 run had the Bears headed to the playoffs for a second straight season until he broke his thumb. Overall, even with the ‘magical' McCown run, the Bears have gone 5-10 (33%) without Jay and have seen at least two seasons functionally end due to his injury, compared to the 50-47 record the Bears have with him (52%).
Of course, that's what happens with a backup, right? In fact, across this admittedly small sample size of established starters who miss substantial time, their teams go a combined 34-58 (37%) without them. That seems pretty consistent with what happens when #6 goes out. However, that little number needs some clarification. Since his first full season as a starter, Roethlisberger has won an enviable 64% of his starts, and without him the Steelers slip to a 55% winning rate. That's a notable drop, but it's not the sort of "near automatic defeat" Bears fans worry about when Jay takes an extra hard hit.
By comparison, Andrew Luck has also won 64% of his starts, but the Colts won actually won 67% of the starts without him. Yes, there are some unusual circumstances behind that, but it still suggests an organization that finds a way to win.
Closer to home, Matt Stafford has an unfortunate 42-51 record (45%), but without him the Lions fall to 23%. At this level of number-crunching, that's basically the same sort of dip as what the Bears see without Jay. Tony Romo provides an even bigger swing. Since his first season as the designated starter, Romo has won 62% of his games, while without him the Cowboys fall to 26%.
What this means is that the problem is not just that Jay is injured too often, though he is, nor is it that his injuries have cost the team at least a season or two, though they have. The problem is that the Bears are clearly more of a ‘Lions or Cowboys' organization than they are a ‘Steelers or ‘Colts' organization.
Fact: Cutler really does get injured more than most other established quarterbacks in the league. It is, however, a fiction that a team needs to collapse when this happens. Other organizations facing similar challenges find ways to win.