Jay Cutler, the Carmelo of the NFL (or – the foibles of sports analysis)

Bad Math
I don’t have anything against Jay Cutler personally. In fact, I find the discussion of his shortcomings – which inevitably tend toward character evaluations – frustrating. I think “body language” is a stupid basis for evaluating a player. Maybe Cutler’s teammates don’t like him, I don’t know. But that’s not his problem. His problem is that he’s just not that good. And only a maddening and ill-informed group-think is steering the conversation about Cutler in the direction it has.
The Peter Kings of the world deemed it a given that Jay Cutler was a top ten QB worth the money the Bears paid him back in January. I thought this bizarre, given that we had eight years of data on him, all of which very clearly added up to a middle-of-the-pack signal-caller who was turnover-prone. That everyone thought Marc Trestman was the key to unlocking Cutler’s allegedly vast talent took on an even more bizarre cast when a career journeyman, Josh McCown, played like Steve Young last year when Cutler missed several games due to injury. This should have, at the very least, caused some questioning of the shibboleth that you must pay through the nose “in this league” for a guy like Cutler – an ultimately middling QB, even if he does have a “great arm,” whatever that means. If Trestman is such a genius – and perhaps he is – and Josh McCown could play as well as he did, albeit in a small sample of games, maybe that fact pattern should have suggested the *opposite* of what the conventional wisdom said about the need to re-sign Jay for $126 million.

And if you were so convinced of that ten months ago, how in the world can you be so convinced that he should be dumped after one bad season?

The truth is this – Cutler is playing this year the way he always plays. His interception rate – 3.4% of his passes – is exactly his career average and exactly the same rate he had a year ago, in his first season under Trestman. True, he leads the league in picks this year, and we’re in a low interception environment, so his relative record is arguably a bit worse this year. That does not, however, change the fact that Cutler is playing right in line with his well-established baseline.

Mark Schlereth said this morning on Mike and Mike that the key to unlocking Cutler’s talent is to put him in a short, safe passing attempts, to boost his completion percentage, like the ‘Boys did this year with Romo. Apparently Herm Edwards was screaming the same thing, according to Greenie, earlier in the show.

This is simply and demonstrably wrong.

About Cutler – he is completing a career high 66.1% of his passes, easily the best of his career. His 6.9 yards per attempt is the second lowest of his career. Given that completion percentage, this means that his average yards per completion is the lowest of his career. In other words, he’s spent this entire season throwing predominantly short, safe passes. And he’s still turning the ball over.

About Romo – it is true that he’s throwing fewer passes per game than he has in the past. And he’s only thrown eight picks. But guess what? After a relatively interception-prone first three years in the league, Romo has long been a low-pick guy. This year, his interception rate is 2.1%. Last year, when Schlereth would assert that the “old” Tony Romo was still operating, his rate was 1.9% – he threw 535 passes and was only intercepted ten times. In 2009, Romo attempted 550 passes and was intercepted a grand total of nine times. And unlike Cutler, Romo is a down-the-field passer. In fact, he’s leading the league in yards per attempt this season, a full 1.5 yards per pass better than Cutler (according to ESPN.com, he’s one one-hundredth of a yard off the lead league). Romo’s completion percentage is especially high this year – 69.3%. But that’s part of a league-wide trend owing, in part, to evermore favorable rules. And Romo’s always completed a high percentage of his passes. The point is this – what distinguishes Romo from Cutler isn’t that Romo has been put in a safe offense this year. Throughout their careers, especially since 2009, Romo has the vastly superior TD-INT ratio, has long been less mistake prone than Cutler and is a bigger play quarterback.*

You know why? Because he’s better.

People can scream all they want about Cutler not being able to get his act together, or about his judgment, or his attitude. But it’s not his fault the Bears offered him the contract they did and it’s certainly not his fault that Brian Billick touted him as MVP before the season started, or Steve Young said he could be the greatest quarterback ever with a full season under Trestman.

Jay Cutler is, in some ways, the Carmelo Anthony of the NFL. And analysts of both sports need to stop imputing their own failures to the alleged character flaws of athletes whose real ability they have no excuse not to understand by now.

*all stats from pro-football-reference.com


One comment

  1. While I think he is overrated, he doesn’t have the help around him like Romo does. Jeffrey has been good but Marshall has regressed. Forte is overrated too but it could be the offensive line which has been Chicago’s big issue on offense during his tenure for the franchise. So it could be that Romo and Cutler are about the same. Such is life with football.

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