Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler cannot play at a level to take a team to the Super Bowl
First things first—the only way to definitively invalidate this claim is to see #6 hoisting the Lombardi trophy. However, there are a number of people who cling to the idea that in the modern era, a team needs a great quarterback to win it all. This camp seems to consider Super Bowl 50 in one of two ways. Some say that because the winning quarterback was Peyton Manning (at this point, we are supposed to imagine an angelic chorus singing, presumably to distract us from the battered shell of a quarterback that actually took the field last season wearing #18), it proves the value of a great quarterback. Others say that it was a freak exception made possible by a historic defense, but that in general the idea remains true.
To look at whether or not it is possible that Jay Cutler really could take a team to the Promised Land, I looked at the regular-season and Super Bowl performances of every quarterback who came within a single score of winning the Super Bowl since 2006, the year that Cutler was drafted. For those who think the game has changed too much since then, I will provide the information for both "whole career" and "second half" to enable a narrower view.
In 2012 it is arguable whether Smith or Kaepernick did more to get the 49ers to the Super Bowl, and in 2015 the same can be said about Manning and Osweiler, so I included the regular season totals from all quarterbacks who contributed at least five games to a Super Bowl victory or near victory. This gave me a pool of 17 quarterback performances in the regular season and fifteen performances in the Super Bowl itself that either won it all or came within one score of doing so.
The cumulative passer rating for all "contending" quarterback regular season performances in question was 95.7. Cutler has never hit that level of performance for an entire season in his career. However, five of the seventeen regular season performances leading to the Super Bowl were not just worse than Cutler's best year, they were worse than Cutler's third-best year (88.6). 2007 Eli Manning (73.9), 2008 Ben Roethlisberger (80.1), 2012 Joe Flacco (87.7), 2015 Brock Osweiler (86.4), and 2015 Peyton Manning (67.9). A sixth performance (2011 Eli Manning's 92.9) was within a 0.6 of Cutler's career-best 92.3 from last year. Now, it's only fair to point out that Manning and Osweiler really only contribute a single sub-Cutler season, just like it's true that Smith and Kaepernick together only provide a single better-than-Cutty season. That means that the real total is four of fifteen Super Bowl winning campaigns were actually worse than the Cutler's third-best year (with one at about the same level as his best performance).
At least during the regular season, at three points in his career, Cutler's passer rating has been as-good or better-than what was needed for a Super Bowl run. For those interested in looking only at the second half of his career, Cutler's third-best year was still better than two of the last eight Super Bowl-contending runs. So far, it's looking like it's a fiction that Cutler's not good enough to win a Super Bowl. It might not be likely, but his level of play has the range it needs to get a team within contention.
However, passer rating is only one way of measuring these things. What about moderately advanced analytics? Maybe Cutler only did that well because he beat up on weaker foes and the others only did that poorly because they ran a demon's gauntlet of contenders. Football Outsiders' DYAR and DVOA metrics have us covered, there, as they adjust a quarterback's performance for the quality of the defenses that he encounters. Although it's an oversimplification, DYAR measures a quarterback's total value and DVOA measures a quarterback's per-play value.
As a passer, five of Cutler's ten seasons have seen a DYAR at or above 392 (including last year's +659), but his best two years were in Denver (+865 and +1,172). Meanwhile, 2007 Eli Manning (-190 DYAR), 2008 Ben Roethlisberger (+97 DYAR), the 2012 San Francisco tandem (Alex Smith with +418 DYAR and Colin Kaepernick with +555 DYAR), 2014 Russell Wilson (+503 DYAR), and the Manning/Osweiler hybrid (-326 DYAR/+153 DYAR) are within range of this kind of performance. Put crudely, five of the last fifteen Super Bowl-contending runs were no better than what Cutler could be expected to turn in during a good year.
It is a similar story with DVOA, as well. Cutler's fourth-best year (2013) comes in at +5.5%, which puts him even with 2014 Wilson and ahead of the usual suspects, but behind ten of the last fifteen regular-season performances that landed a quarterback where a Super Bowl was within reach.
Narrowing the focus down only to what Cutler and others have done since 2011, only 2014 Russell Wilson and the 2015 Denver quarterbacks are in range of Cutler's two best years; on the other hand, that's another way of saying that quarterbacks who played at roughly Jay's recent level of ability have been in contention to win (or have won) the Super Bowl each of the last two years.
Now, here's a quick admission—I've only been giving Football Outsider metrics for what Jay adds as a passer so far, and there's a reason for that. For three of the last four years (the exception is 2013), Cutler has been one of the top ten rushing quarterbacks in the NFL in terms of DYAR, and he has been one of the top five quarterbacks in the NFL in terms of DVOA. This is a weapon he has, and he has been very good at it for most of his career. If playoffs were determined by how good the quarterback is at pulling the ball down and leveling a safety or two, then the Bears would have been perennial contenders since they acquired Jay. If.
Once more, however, it seems like it's a fiction that Jay's play is below what a team needs to make a Super Bowl run.
What about once the Bears get to the Super Bowl? Is there any reason to think that Jay could perform well, there? Most of us remember the game Cutler played against the Packers in the conference championship, but we probably also remember the divisional game he posted a 111.3 rating. It's fair to point out that Cutler was injured for the NFCCG, but no part of that game was pretty. On the other end of things, playing well against a 7-9 team is not as reassuring as it might be. In other words, the verdict on his ability to bring his best game against playoff-caliber opponents is still out. The combined total performance of all fifteen quarterbacks who came close to winning a Super Bowl in the game itself is 99.5. While that is a high bar to reach against such high caliber opponents, there is one more thing to consider.
In 2014, Russell Wilson was part of the team that came within one score of defeating the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. In that game, against the 2014 New England defense, he posted a 110.6 quarterback rating. Earlier that year, against the 2014 New England defense, Jay Cutler posted a 108.6 rating. That's clearly in the same ballpark, even if the circumstances are different.
Obviously, we all hope to see this one proven decisively. However, at least as far as can be determined with the numbers themselves, the verdict is in. Fiction. Cutler's demonstrated level of play has the potential to get a team into the Super Bowl, and once there he has the potential to win it.