Is Jay Cutler Just an Average Quarterback?

Jay Cutler jokes aside, we need to evaluate him as a passer. Is he good, or is he just average?

The Chicago Bears are off to a sluggish 2-2 start, and when this team is performing below expectation, the focus immediately turns to undeservedly notorious quarterback Jay Cutler.

Cutler is already the Bears’ franchise leader in passing yards since being acquired via trade in 2009, and is second in franchise history in touchdown passes and wins. The Bears have obviously gone through many twists and turns over the years at the quarterback position, but Cutler has provided stability to a spot that has long been treated as an afterthought by the organization. He's one of four Bears quarterbacks to have taken this team to the NFC Championship, something that has happened only five times for Chicago in the Super Bowl era.

Cutler in Chicago

The fact that Cutler has been a generally underwhelming performer in his tenure in Chicago – when compared to his contemporaries at the position – is a two-part problem. He's had four different offensive coordinators in five complete seasons. There has been minimal continuity, poor personnel, virtually no offensive line and very limited opportunity to learn and adapt to schemes. More glaring, however, is Cutler's problem with turnovers. He has 92 in his first five campaigns with the Bears.

Here's a look at Cutler's Net Expected Points (NEP) data - a measure we use here at numberFire that shows the number of points added or lost by a player over the course of a season - since joining the Bears.

YearPassesPass NEPPass NEP per Drop BackPass Success RateTotal NEP

In 2009, 27 quarterbacks dropped back to pass at least 300 times. Cutler finished 21st among this group in Passing NEP. In 2010, when Jay Cutler attempted the 17th-most passes in the NFL, the only quarterback he outperformed in Passing NEP was Sam Bradford. Cutler's 2011 was cut short by injury, yet was his most effective season as a Bear. In 2012, only Mark Sanchez, Brandon Weeden, and Joe Flacco had a lower Success Rate - the number of plays that contribute positively towards a player's NEP - than Cutler among quarterbacks with at least 400 passes. And Flacco led his team to a Super Bowl win.

You can see how Cutler’s 2013 NEP data jumps off the page by comparison, as head coach Marc Trestman played a big part in this increase in efficiency. Trestman was the man behind the MVP season of former Oakland Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon. In 2002, Gannon led all quarterbacks in Passing NEP, Total NEP, and Success Rate. Trestman's offensive design led to NFL best rankings in total offense and passing yardage. He even coaxed a top-six Passing NEP score out of Bears backup Josh McCown last season.

Though Cutler's numbers were good - not great - last year with Trestman, considering McCown's performance, Cutler has been, at best, a mediocre player as a Bear.

Cutler's currently 23rd in Passing NEP and 20th in Total NEP among quarterbacks with two or more starts. His five turnovers play a large role in the below-average metrics. Though he's been fine in fantasy football, should owners - or Bears fans - be worried about his general inefficiency?

Grading the Competition

As noted, Cutler's gotten off to a poor start in terms of real football - not fantasy - this season, ranking 23rd in the league in passing efficiency. This, however, could be due to strong competition.

We often look at fantasy points against to judge how strong a pass defense is, but our Net Expected Points metric - adjusted for strength of schedule - can give us a better idea of how good or bad a defense is. The table below charts Cutler's first four games this year in terms of NEP, and while you take a look at it, notice the opponents' pass defense ranking.

WeekPass Defense RankPassesPass NEPPass Success RateTotal NEP

Cutler has had three poor games and one below average game according to our metrics, but on his side is the fact that the secondaries he's faced are well above average. Yes, he's been mediocre on the field. But there's some optimism in that the competition has been tough.

The Verdict

Despite an inefficient start, if health remains on Cutler’s side, he will create fantasy success for his owners. He's surrounded by all-world talent in Matt Forte, Brandon Marshall, and Alshon Jeffery, and coach Marc Trestman’s system flat-out produces quality fantasy quarterbacks.

But to answer the initial question, yes, Jay Cutler has been mediocre through four games. And, really, he hasn't been fantastic since moving to Chicago. Given the competition though, there's reason to believe Cutler can turn it around on the gridiron. And if he does, his fantasy production could increase even more.