Is Jay Cutler Worth His New Contract?
It’s very easy for a fantasy football player to view the NFL world with a fantasy football mindset.
Don’t have a quarterback for Week 11? No problem, go ahead and hit the waiver wire and pick one up. Did your running back get hurt? Just start the one that you had riding the bench, who was set to rush for over 1,000 yards this season anyways.
The business of the National Football League doesn’t work that way. If a player goes down, you’re (the team) forced to start someone who, at times, has little or no experience. And if a player’s contract is up, it’s not as simple as hitting the wire to get another starting-caliber guy. You have to think about every possible angle, more than you’d even imagine while managing a fantasy football team.
I’m not saying that everyone thinks this way, but judging by some of the reactions on Twitter today when it was announced that Jay Cutler would be a Chicago Bear for seven more years, the thinking that players are easily replaceable certainly exists.
And no, it’s probably not a direct result of fantasy football, though I’m sure that could play a subconscious role. The bottom line is that fans often times don’t see the other side – the other result – of a transaction. They don’t look at the opportunity cost of foregoing a particular front office move.
To me, that’s what’s going on with Jay Cutler in Chicago. There’s a hefty split amongst folks who think Cutler’s overpaid and not worthwhile compared to those who believe Chicago’s signing was a smart one.
I’m part of the latter group.
Does the Deal Line Up With the Metrics?
It was reported today that Cutler re-signed with the Bears on a seven-year deal, one that takes him through the 2020 season with Chicago. According to Rotoworld.com, it’s one that would allow the Bears to have some flexibility after three seasons, and during that time, Cutler will average about $18 million a year. That’s around the same type of money Tony Romo makes, which is top-six or -seven cash at the quarterback position.
Cutler’s played eight years in the NFL, five in Chicago. Before comparing him to some of the passers making similar money, let’s take a look at how he’s performed so far throughout his career using numberFire metrics.
|Drop Backs||Passing NEP||Passing NEP/Drop Back||Successes||Success Rate|
It hasn’t been pretty, but throughout his career, Jay Cutler has added .05 expect points per drop back for his two teams, including a 46.16% Success Rate (Click here to read more about these metrics). He’s never been a huge detriment to his team, as his -9.88 Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) total in 2012 was the worst season he’s had in his career. For some comparison, a -9.88 Passing NEP is about seven points worse – one touchdown – than Ryan Tannehill’s 2013 season.
We’d almost expect these types of numbers from Cutler. A couple of Pro Bowl-worthy seasons mixed in with slightly above average play. That is, in the end, Jay Cutler in a nutshell. He’s always had the talent to be a top passer, but he’s only showed it off in small instances throughout this career.
Now, to give you an even better idea of how he’s performed, I thought it’d be interesting to see how his metrics stacked up against the recent high-end quarterback market. Why? Well, doing this type of exercise can at least show us if Chicago’s move was smart in relation to moves being made by other NFL franchises. And if Cutler’s metrics line up with some of these passers, we can at least take away any feeling of this being an absolute horrible signing.
|Player||Drop Backs||Passing NEP/Drop Back||Success Rate|
Overall, Cutler seems to fit well within this group, though you'd argue that he's the third-best passer among the four. Not surprisingly, Cutler analytically lines up with Flacco more so than Romo and Ryan, seeing similar per drop back numbers and a slightly better Success Rate, which measures the number of passes that contribute positively for a team's offense. The main difference between Cutler and Flacco is, obviously, wins, which transitions us nicely into the next section.
Cutler Doesn’t Win
Perhaps my least-favorite argument in all of football is, “But he doesn’t win games.”
On one hand, writers, analysts and fans preach that the game of football is the most team-oriented one in all of sports. Yet, on the other, we have people citing win-loss records with quarterbacks, as if these passers single-handedly control the destiny of every team they play on.
I compared Cutler to Romo, Ryan and Flacco above, showing that his metrics line up best with Flacco over the other two. But the difference to people reading this is that Flacco got his deal because he “wins”, whereas Cutler hasn’t done that.
That’s not incorrect: Flacco’s team wins more than Cutler’s. Throughout his six-year career, Flacco has led the Ravens to an impressive 62-34 record, while Cutler has brought his teams to a barely above average 56-48. Flacco has made the playoffs in all but one year (2013). Cutler has made the playoffs once, losing the NFC Championship to the Packers in 2010 (he was also injured during that game).
But, like I mentioned, the NFL is a team game. Just to show you that this is the case, I compiled the rankings for Joe Flacco’s team vs. Jay Cutler’s team, providing a quick comparison. I looked back to 2007 for Cutler, as he played just five games during his rookie season. Flacco’s team metrics begin in 2008, when he was a rookie.
I quickly analyzed two categories: the teams’ Rushing Net Expected Points and the teams’ Defensive Net Expected Points. Because you can see how these quarterbacks performed above (similarly) there was no need to add Passing NEP to the chart.
In addition, these rankings are adjusted for strength of schedule.
|Bal RNEP||Bal DNEP||Den/Chi RNEP||Den/Chi DNEP|
As I mentioned earlier, Jay Cutler’s made the playoffs in just one season of his career, 2010. That season was the first time Cutler had any semblance of a defense, as Chicago’s defensive squad ranked third in the league in Adjusted Defensive Net Expected Points.
Now, you may be wondering why Cutler wasn’t able to, then, make the playoffs in 2011 and 2012, as the metrics were very similar compared to 2010. Well, 2011 saw just 10 games from Cutler, and to note, he led the team to a 7-3 record. In 2012, Cutler started 15 games, and the Bears ended up 10-6, missing the playoffs.
To put it simply, when Jay Cutler has a defense that ranks even close to Joe Flacco’s, his team is more than capable of winning 10 or more games in a season. It’s just unfortunate that, despite a 17-8 record as quarterback for the Bears in 2011 and 2012, Chicago wasn’t able to make the playoffs. Meanwhile, Joe Flacco got that opportunity in 2009 with a 9-7 record, and 2012 – his Super Bowl winning season – with a 10-6 one.
This isn’t to say that Jay Cutler is better than Joe Flacco, or the other way around. Rather, I’m attempting to show that quarterback “wins” are flawed because it’s a team statistic, and Flacco’s team has been far superior compared to Cutler’s throughout their careers. These two quarterbacks have been very similar performance-wise, and we should leave it at that.
Perhaps Jay Cutler would have won more playoff games if not for health issues and seeding misfortune. After all, more opportunity in the playoffs would bring more potential – a higher probability – of success, wouldn’t it?
What Else Would Chicago Do?
This is all just to show that Jay Cutler is just as good as the other quarterbacks who have received lucrative contracts, despite some believing he’s not worthy of a long-term deal.
But aside from comparing him to the situation we know Chicago is in, let’s think of this in a different way: What would happen if Chicago didn’t sign Jay Cutler?
Let's first keep in mind that “best” doesn’t always equate to “richest.” What I mean by this is that a player’s talent level won’t always yield more money, and vice versa. Do you think the entire Baltimore Ravens staff thinks that Joe Flacco is a top-three NFL quarterback? Perhaps some do, but I’d assume most realize that someone like Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees or even Ben Roethlisberger are better quarterback options.
But Flacco is in that elite category money-wise because of lack of replacement players and competition. Unlike fantasy football, the Ravens couldn't just hit the waiver wire and pick up another quarterback. And they weren't about to get on the phone and try to trade for an elite passer, either, because the price would be too steep. The Ravens had little choice, driving up Flacco's cost. They knew they could win a Super Bowl with him (because they did), so why risk giving that up?
That’s how Chicago feels with Cutler. Is he a top-six passer in this league? No way. But at this current time, in this current situation, the Bears had no other choice.
Unless, of course, you consider Josh McCown.
This is where things get a little questionable. I wrote an article a month ago showing that the Bears were, in fact, better when Josh McCown was under center this year. But when you consider how he had performed in the past, it seemed clear that it was more of a result of Marc Trestman's coaching than anything else. That, and McCown frequently played against bottom-of-the-barrel defenses, giving him some inflated statistics.
There are folks out there who wanted McCown to simply step in, be the immediate future, and let the Bears draft a passer to be the actual future. The problem with this is pretty obvious. First, McCown will be 35 years old next season. While age is just a number, investing anything - not money, but the opportunity to win a championship - in a previous quarterback failure who will be closer to 40 than 30 when the season starts is borderline ridiculous.
Second, why is there a constant assumption that any team in need of a quarterback can all of a sudden draft a franchise signal-caller? Are we so positive that Chicago - a team that is known for having quarterback problems - would be able to ride McCown and even find "the future" in the meantime? What happens if that doesn't occur? Then they're stuck with an aging quarterback, no future at the position, and a pair of stud wide receivers wanting more.
Lastly, why take a five-game sample, the number of starts McCown had this season, and assume that pace can be kept up throughout one, two or three more seasons? After being a well below average quarterback, why should the Bears front office now think that Josh McCown has a legitimate future - a Super Bowl winning future - as an NFL quarterback? Because Brad Johnson won one? Because Trent Dilfer did? Well, this isn't 2002, and the Bears defense certainly isn't the Bucs or the Ravens of old.
Wanting Josh McCown to lead your team to the Super Bowl would be like wanting your C average son to get accepted to Harvard. It's not happening, and any sort of investment in it happening is more of a risk than signing Jay Cutler to a fairly lucrative deal.
There's no doubt that Jay Cutler has potential in this league. He's already shown it. And with arguably the best receiver duo in the league, a great pass-catching running back and a tight end that towers over defenders, he's in the position to really take this team to the next level.
Will the money he makes line up to how he actually performs? Maybe not - he'll have to become a top quarterback in order for that to be the case, and there's a lot of league-wide competition at the position. But NFL contracts have just as much to do with opportunity cost as they do actual talent. And the cost of not signing Jay Cutler could be disastrous.
Objectively, I hope Cutler can be the guy Bears' fans want and need him to be. But more importantly, I hope football fans begin to realize that there are many more dimensions to a contract than just a simple comparison of player versus money. Jay Cutler may not deserve it, but that's just what the market currently dictates.