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Cutler Fact of Fiction: Accuracy

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Sports fans are no strangers to exaggeration. However, in the third part of a series looking at the claims surrounding Jay Cutler, it's time to challenge a long-held belief about his accuracy.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

After looking at Jay's injury history and red zone struggles, I wanted to tackle one of the biggest complaints made about Cutler. It is stated by casual fans, members of this community, and talking heads that all of the strength in Jay's arm has limited value because he just isn't that accurate with it. "He has a cannon," somehow becomes a putdown, suggesting that he's wild with his throws.

Before I dig too deeply, I have to admit that I go into this article with a lot of prior work to lean on. Dramatic long bombs are some of the most popular parts of the game, and lots of people have studied the subject thoroughly before me—as we'll see soon.

With that out of the way, it is very simple to answer the question of whether or not #6 is somehow a loose cannon in terms of overall accuracy. He's not. Since Cutler has been in Chicago, Sporting Charts has recorded 123,616 passes in the NFL. The average completion rate for all of these passes is 61.4%. This total includes balls thrown by All Pros and punters alike, with running backs targeting quarterbacks and any other combination coaches might think is fun or clever. When we eliminate the noise of trick plays and one-offs, looking only at passers with at least 100 attempts (a cutoff that for last year includes Kellen Moore at 104 but not Mark Sanchez at 91), the average completion percentage for quarterbacks in the NFL falls to 61.2%.

Over this same time, Cutler's completion rate is 61.9% (it goes up a hair if you give him his years in Denver). So, purely from a metric of "does Cutler spray more balls than the average quarterback?" the answer is decidedly "no." He's a sliver better than average, actually, but not in a way that would be all that meaningful to the bigger picture.

However, what about simply bad passes? Maybe Cutler connects well enough overall but he has more truly bad passes than others. Not in 2015, when he was 26th out of 35 ranked quarterbacks in terms of the percentage of his balls labeled uncatchable (15.1% of his passes were ‘bad throws', compared to a league average of 16.5%). 2015 wasn't a Gase-inspired fluke, though. In terms of what percentage his passes were wild, 27 quarterbacks were worse than he was in 2014 and 29 were worse in 2013. Perhaps people are focused on the stretch between 2012 and 2011, when he was 9thand 8th, respectively. However, in 2010 he was 23rd and in 2009 he was 16th. In other words, there were a couple of bad years in the middle, but in more years than not, he was more likely to throw a catchable than the typical quarterback.

Those two years (2011 and 2012) are the only points during his time in Chicago when the percentage of his passes that were labeled uncatchable were worse than the average in NFL. Again, the label of ‘inaccurate' just doesn't hold up. For the majority of his time in Chicago, Cutler was one of the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL in terms of avoiding ‘bad' or uncatchable passes.

Perhaps the problem is that he doesn't deliver on big plays? This is also a fiction. Again, when looking at raw numbers from Sporting Charts, he has a better-than-average number of big passing plays per season, as well, and for at least four of his seven years in Chicago, he's been ranked 11th through 13th by that metric.

So, when looking at completion percentage, avoidance of bad passes, and the ability to deliver big passing plays, Cutler is at least better-than-average. Most of the time, he's even better than that. With that sort of raw reporting out of the way, it's time to look at some of the other research I mentioned earlier on. Others with access to more specific charting data have looked at this, and they find little to support the idea that Cutler misses on deep balls.

In 2013, Dead Spin ran a piece looking at the most accurate deep passers of the time, using Pro Football Focus's data over 6 years to track who threw passes at least 20 yards down field the most often and with the most accuracy. Cutler came in 10th in terms of how many of his passes went deep, throwing it at least 20 yards downfield 13.7% of the time compared to a league-average 11.9%. He was "only" 20th in terms of accuracy at 40.5%, but this was still a hair above the league average of 39.9%, because of the big dropoff after #24 (Ryan). So this study found that Cutler took long shots more often than most of his peers and that his accuracy was no worse than theirs. It's worth noting that this data includes Cutler's dreadful 2009 season, one of the worst of his career.

In 2015, Mike Tanier looked at deep passes and set a threshold of 20 yards. Pulling data from Football Outsiders for just the two most recent years he had available (2013 and 2014), he tracked 4200 passes. He found that on average deep passes in the NFL had a completion percentage of 33.6%, with 11.6 yards per attempt. Across a 16-game season, a truly average passer would have 133 attempts with just over 11 touchdowns and a hair under 9 interceptions. Cutler had 137 attempts with 14 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, a 36.5% completion percentage, and 12.8 yards per attempt. For those who dislike math, that's better in every category. More attempts, more yards, more touchdowns, more completions, and fewer interceptions. The same article concludes that Cutler is the fifth-best deep passer in the NFL at the time: "Another controversial selection that should not be. It's not like this guy is in the league for his sparkling personality."

There you have it.

Fiction. Cutler does not have problems with accuracy. Even with all of the ups and downs of his receiving corps and his at-times shaky o-line, Cutler is at worst average in terms of accuracy, and on the deep balls he's actually one of the better quarterbacks around.

I do, however, have an explanation for why this myth is so persistent. In 2009, Cutler was third in the league in terms of his raw total number of bad throws (with 85, or more than 5 per game) even though he was still a bit better than average in terms of bad passes as a percentage of his total pass plays. After 2009, he never cracked the top ten again, and he was typically 15th through mid-20s. However, the first impression Cutler made on Chicago fans was that he made a lot of errant passes, and it doesn't seem as if fans or media types have let their perceptions catch up with the reality of his arm.