Last week, I looked at Jay Cutler's injury history and came to the conclusion that Cutler really is injured more than is typical for other quarterbacks with his level of experience. I also pointed out that his injury history has been made worse by the way the Bears have failed to build a team that can succeed when he goes down. The next belief about Cutler that I wanted to investigate was the claim that he struggles in the red zone.
There are obviously a number of quarterbacks who have a year or two in the NFL, and as they adjust to the professional game they will have their own struggles. Additionally, the particular circumstances of their own teams will have an exaggerated impact on how they play. Therefore, I only wanted to compare Cutler to the other "established" quarterbacks in the NFL. I feel comfortable with this, however, because Cutler should be compared to such veterans. I therefore set a minimum of 200 passes in the red zone (for a frame of reference, this excludes Blake Bortles with 130 but includes Russell Wilson with 231) in order to qualify. I just want to emphasize that this skews the data significantly, because the more a quarterback struggles, the less likely he is to keep playing. In other words, I am only comparing Cutler to other, proven quarterbacks—not the entire field.
Counting Jay, there are 19 active quarterbacks who have made at least 200 passes in the red zone over their careers. Their red zone passer rating ranges from 100.3 (Tom Brady) to 83.2 (Joe Flacco). Cutler is 17th on this list at 83.9, ahead of only Eli Manning and Joe Flacco. Note that this is not simply a matter of Cutler struggling overall, since his career passer rating is 86 (12th among this group).
One way to understand his struggles more completely would be to compare his red zone passer rating to his average passer rating and to determine how the relative change compares. For this same group of 19 quarterbacks, twelve of them see their passer rating rise inside the 20 (even though with Eli Manning the rise is only from 83.5 to 83.7) and seven see their passer rating fall (though for Cam Newton it is only a fall from 88.2 to 87.8). Of quarterbacks with at least 200 passes in the red zone, only four do worse compared to their own standard of play than Cutler: Ben Roethlisberger, Tony Romo, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers. This is strange company to find Jay in, honestly. However, because of how passer rating weights touchdowns and interceptions, even the worst of these drops (Rodgers drops to 95.5% of his own career passer rating) is pretty minor.
Likewise, the five at the other end are Ryan Fitzpatrick, Alex Smith, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannenhill, and Andrew Luck. These men all gain at least five points to their passer rating in the red zone, and Fitzpatrck jumps from a 80.1 to a 93.1 inside the 20 (a jump to 116% his average). Put simply, at least in terms of passer rating, while a few quarterbacks are decidedly better than the rest in the red zone, there's not a lot of variation. Additionally, this ability to "step up" in the red zone is hardly the defining trait that should be used in judging a quarterback.
Jay's real problem comes when looking at another number. Of these 19 quarterbacks, Jay is the worst when it comes to interception percentage in the red zone (3.7%), followed by Eli Manning (3.6%). Carson Palmer is the only other player in the group to hit 3%. Cutler's interception rate cannot be ascribed to his high-risk, high-reward style of play, because Jay's worst-in-group interception percentage is only balanced out by being the eleventh-best in terms of touchdown percentage. Inside the opponent's 20, #6 offers the highest risk but only average reward. It wasn't always this way, however. Playing in 2011 and 2012, Cutler saw his passer rating rise in the red zone, in no small part because for those two years, he recorded no interceptions despite attempting 80 passes and completing 19 touchdowns.
One closing note—sometimes I hear it stated that Cutler is best "between the 20s," and that he's a hindrance to his own team inside his own 20 as well as his opponent's 20—the claim is that he's only really any good in the soft middle of the field. This turns out to be a fiction. Every quarterback in the group assembled suffers inside his own 20, but of the 19 in question, Cutler is tied for fourth place in terms of best relative performance (94.8% of his usual passer rating). In fact, in terms of raw passer rating, he's ninth inside of his own 10 yard line and sixth in terms of retained value.
Fact: Cutler really does struggle in the red zone. He is middle-of-the-pack in terms of delivering on touchdowns, but his interception percentage is even worse than might be expected. It is not true that elite quarterbacks are the ones who deliver in the red zone, and it's equally untrue that red zone performance defines a quarterback's ability, but even in 2015, Cutler saw his red zone performance suffer. Whatever else happens, he needs to get back to the discipline he showed in the years immediately before Marc Trestman came to town.