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Jay Cutler’s Weird Bad Season

The franchise quarterback everyone loves to hate is guiding a strangely conservative passing attack—and is getting beaten by his statistical composite.

Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

It’s the halfway mark of the NFL season again, the Bears are disappointing again, and it’s time to check in on Jay Cutler, who’s disappointing again.

Just looking at the basic stats, however, Cutler doesn’t look too bad. By the NFL’s official quarterback rating, Cutler’s having his best season yet: 95.8, the only time he’s broken 90 in his career. It’s only good for 13th best in the NFL so far, about what we’ve come to expect from Cutler—at the bottom of the league’s franchise quarterbacks. For example, he’s above Matt Ryan and Colin Kaepernick, just behind Eli Manning and Drew Brees. Obviously the Bears would love him to be better, but it’s not bad company.

By ESPN’s Total QBR, Cutler fares a bit worse: 15th, ahead of Matt Stafford and Matt Ryan, behind Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson. But it’s still in the same ballpark, the lower tier of franchise quarterbacks. Ahead of Cutler this year are only two quarterbacks without elite reputations, Carson Palmer and Nick Foles.

As usual, Cutler is pretty much the dividing line between teams settled with their quarterback of the near future (anyone from Peyton Manning to Joe Flacco) and a potluck of mediocrity (Brian Hoyer, Andy Dalton, Ryan Tannehill), the main reason he’s so frustrating. He’s too good to dump, not good enough to trust. (Yes, he’s paid a lot; no, it’s not an unusual amount for a quarterback of his caliber.)

But delving down into the advanced statistics reveals a worse season than the top-line numbers. Take Football Outsiders’ DYAR (Defense-adjusted yards above replacement) and DVOA (Defense-adjusted value over average). By those measures, Cutler has (through week seven) had a pretty bad season.

By the former—total value—Cutler ranks 17th, between Andy Dalton and Carson Palmer. By the latter—value per play—Cutler ranks 23rd, between Nick Foles and Ryan Tannehill. In other words, by these advanced stats, Cutler falls out of the franchise tier and into the “we’d replace him if we could” tier, but not yet into the “crap, get Chad Henne’s number” tier. Or about where Bears fans think he should be.

Then there’s Pro Football Focus’s PFF rating (subscription required). Cutler comes in 18th, in between Matt Stafford and Andy Dalton.

Yet Cutler’s basic stats are good. 17 touchdowns, the sixth-most in the league. 2,093 yards, eighth-most in the league. 67.2 completion percentage, eighth-most in the league and the highest of his career by a non-trivial four percentage points.

He’s thrown a lot of picks, but his eight interceptions comes out to 2.7 percent of attempted passes, second-lowest in his career, because he’s throwing 37 passes a game, just off his career high of 38 back when he was a 25-year-old Bronco.

What’s going on? A couple things. First, Cutler is 28th in football in yards per completion. He’s throwing and completing a lot of passes, but they aren’t going very far, mostly because they’re going to Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett.

Here’s what the Bears’ reception leaders looked like in 2013:

1. Brandon Marshall 100
2. Alshon Jeffery 89
3. Matt Forte 74
4. Martellus Bennett 65
5. Earl Bennett 32

And in 2014:

1. Matt Forte 58
2. Martellus Bennett 47
3. Alshon Jeffery 38
4. Brandon Marshall 34
5. Dante Rosario 9

A running back leading the team in receptions is … unusual. Larry Centers has the record of 101, which Forte is on pace to break. He did that on the 1995 Cardinals. They were bad. LaDainian Tomlinson caught 100 for the 2003 Chargers; they were bad. You have to go back to the 1999 Rams to find a good team whose primary running back led the team in receptions; Trestman’s 2002 Raiders come close.

Matt Forte has been targeted 70 times this year, ninth in the NFL, and 20 more times than the next-closest running back (Le’Veon Bell, 50 targets, 42nd). Martellus Bennett has been targeted 65 times, one more than Rob Gronkowski, and two less than Brandon Marshall.

Wait, it gets worse. Of the 20 most-targeted receivers in the NFL, three are Bears—Forte, Bennett, and Marshall. Of those 20 targets, they have the lowest (Forte, 8.4), third-lowest (Bennett, 11.0), and fourth-lowest (Marshall, 11.3) yards per reception. Only Alshon Jeffery ranks in the top 70 in yards per reception. And he’s a couple yards behind his pace from last year. Plus Marshall has one of the worst yards-after-catch ratios in the NFL, likely because of his injury problems.

So Cutler is targeting his short-yardage options far more than last year, and far more than any team in the NFL. And his long-yardage options, Jeffery and Marshall, are gaining fewer yards per catch. Trestman is known as a short-pass West Coast offensive guru, but even by his standards the Bears’ passing offense is very strange this year. All that’s lost in the otherwise impressive numbers Cutler’s putting up.

Then there are the fumbles. Nine! He’s on pace for a top-five season all-time, though his company there—Warren Moon and Dave Krieg—takes the edge off a bit. Largely as a result of Cutler’s fumbles and interceptions, the Bears have the third-highest percentage of drives ending in a turnover.

On the other side of the ball, the Bears are also getting killed: 222 points-against on the season, a much bigger problem on the ledger than the offense. For all Cutler’s problems, it’s the defense that’s the glaring weakness. Consider this:

  TDs INTs Yards Comp. Yards/attempt Sacks
QB 1 17 8 2,098 67.3% 8.2 20
QB 2 17 8 2,093 67.2% 7.1 20

The former is everyone playing quarterback against the Bears so far. The latter is the Bears’ quarterback. And that’s the best thing that can be said about Cutler this year—as reviled as he’s been, the Bears are 3-5 because they’re being beaten by the statistical composite of their own quarterback.

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