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Cutler Fact or Fiction: Coach-Killer

Is Jay Cutler a coach-killer? What does it even mean to be a coach-killer? Before returning to actual football discussions soon, it's worth looking at one of the other labels Cutler carries around.

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Of all the labels tossed around Jay Cutler, one claim in particular has always struck me as odd: "He's a coach-killer." In a previous article, I explained how the reality is that quarterbacks are typically replaced at a faster rate than head coaches, who in turn are replaced at a faster rate than general managers. Basically, those with the decision-making power dump those down the line in efforts to save themselves, and so the concept a coach-killing player seems somewhat novel.

First, some perspective. How long does a typical head coach last in the NFL? This is a tricky question to answer, because no one ever knows the actual ‘end date' of the current batch of coaches, and because a couple of truly established coaches can skew the numbers. However, some facts are available for comparison.

According to ProFootballRumors, as of January of 2016, only 11 of 32 (34%) of head coaches had been with their teams for more than 3 years. Meanwhile, Sports Illustrated looked at coaches hired and fired over the time spanning 2005 to 2016 (which conveniently includes all of Cutler's career) and they found that the average length of tenure for coaches fired in that time was 2.93 years while the average tenure for all coaches at that time was closer to 3.13 years. So, three years seems pretty typical for a coaching career, with some circumstances allowing a coach to last longer.

With that out of the way, we can consider what it takes for a player to be a true coach-killer. He should cycle through coaches at faster than the average rate for the NFL in terms of how long a coach lasts, and his presence should notably shorten a career. That is not what we find when we look at Cutler's head coaches. Jay has had four head coaches in a 10-year career, with John Fox still going strong. That means than in the nine years prior to John Fox, he has averaged one coach every three years.

Mike Shanahan had a 14-year career as a head coach in Denver (well above average), and spent 3 of those years as Cutler's head coach. In other words, there's no sign Cutler shortened Shanahan's career, as he spent an average NFL head coach's tenure (3 years) as Cutler's head coach. If Shanahan was truly poisoned by Cutler's presence, then he should not have lasted so long with him. He had a ‘full career' with Jay.

The story is the same with Lovie Smith. Smith spent 9 years as head coach in Chicago, and he spent 4 of those years with Cutler as his quarterback. He actually lasted longer with Cutler as his quarterback than the average NFL head coach lasts in general.

Finally, Marc Trestman spent only two years with Cutler, and if after all this time you still believe that Trestman was head coach material, I'm not sure how anyone can reach you. However, it's worth pointing out that even including Trestman's brief (yet, somehow, painfully long) stint in Chicago, the average NFL head coaching career of Cutler's former head coaches is at 8.33 years, well above average. Additionally, the average Cutler-coaching career of Cutler's former head coaches is right at 3 years, or the average for the NFL. Finally, one third of Cutler's coaches passed the 3-year year mark with him, right on average for the NFL.

Fiction. Cutler is not a coach-killer. In fact, Cutler is a coach-survivor. Because Cutler has managed to have a longer career than most quarterbacks (or most NFL players in general), and because he has seen what looks like exactly his fair share of coaches, he has played for a number of different head coaches. However, his presence does not seem to hurt these men at all. A case can actually be made that he has an opposite effect.
Two of the fired head coaches took a break before going to other places in the NFL. Shanahan lasted four tumultuous years in Washington, but he had (at most) two years with Grossman and two years with Griffin, so he found greater stability with Cutler than he found at his next stop. Likewise, Lovie Smith only lasted two years in Tampa Bay, half the amount of time he was able to hang on back when Jay was his quarterback.

Again, the outlier is Marc Trestman. Trestman has not found a head coaching job, but there has been a lot of interesting speculation about his impact at his new job in Baltimore. Again, Trestman's merits as a head coach might be a matter of opinion, but when the biggest charge that can be laid against Cutler is "he forced Trestman out of Chicago," that's not much of a downside.

In short, Cutler is a solid and established player in a league where that is rare. It is so rare, it's hard to recognize it for the feat that it is.