Projecting the NFC North: the Chicago Bears' Jay Cutler

USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to another edition of APC’s Projecting the NFC North. We take a look at key players on the Packers’ divisional rivals and project how they’ll fare in 2013. Today we dissect the most polarizing quarterback in the division, Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears.

In the world of NFC North quarterbacks, Jay Cutler is unique in very significant way: he's the only one not under contract past 2013.

Seldom do teams allow franchise quarterbacks enter the final year of their contract. The reasoning is simple: quality quarterbacking is a rare commodity. The lack of options across the league gives these players considerable leverage in contract negotiation. One of the few ways teams can reduce salary is by negotiating extensions before the final year of the player's contract. By doing so, the team takes on the burden for potential injury in exchange for a reduced rate.

So when a team doesn't extend a quarterback early, it says they aren't sure if he's truly a franchise passer. Last offseason, following Joe Flacco's agent declared that his client was a top five quarterback and should be paid accordingly, the Ravens allows the negotiations to be shelved until after the season. Though Flacco failed to produce like an elite quarterback during the regular season, he played well enough in the playoffs for the Ravens to secure a championship. Flacco entered free agency with a Super Bowl MVP and all the leverage in the world, ultimately netting him a record annual income of $20.1 million. While most observers still wouldn't peg Flacco as the league's top quarterback, the Ravens ended up paying him as such because they didn't extend him early.

The Bears potentially face a similar situation in 2014 with Cutler. While Chicago isn't viewed as a Super Bowl contender the way Baltimore was last season, Cutler could perform well enough to earn a far bigger pay day than if the Bears re-signed him now.

Cutler's shortcomings since coming to Chicago can largely be attributed to a poor offensive coaching staff and the Bears' porous offensive line. It appears that GM Phil Emery has improved both this offseason. The offensive line should benefit from the signing of veterans Jermon Bushrod and Matt Slauson as well as first round pick Kyle Long. Emery also replaced the defensive-minded Lovie Smith with offensive guru Marc Trestman. With a new offensive scheme designed to play to Cutler's strengths as well as an offensive line better equipped to keep him on his feet, Cutler is positioned to have his best season since 2010.

So how well can Cutler be expected to play?

By looking at touchdown percentage, yards per attempt, and interception percentage, we can get a taste for the kind of passer Cutler is. While his numbers place him in the league's upper half, Cutler trended towards the back end of that group. To further put this in perspective, let's look at Cutler's career index numbers for the enumerated metrics:

Jay Cutler's Career Index
Passing TD% Index 105
Yards/Attempt Index 94
Interception% Index 104

For those unfamiliar with these figures, they come from Pro Football Reference. They compare a player's performance in a given statistic to the league average. The league average is always set to 100, and the higher the number is the better the player performed. This allows us to better compare players of different eras by showing how a player performed relative to his peers.

Cutler's index numbers confirm the popular perception of him: a strong armed, risk taking quarterback that makes big plays as well as critical interceptions. Accordingly, he was significantly above average in passing touchdowns and yards per attempt while subpar in the pick off department.

So what other quarterbacks in NFL history possess comparable index numbers?

To find players matching Cutler's profile, I searched for players with at least 1,000 pass attempts and index figures within 2 points of Cutler. Surprisingly, Jeff George didn't come up as a match. More surprising still, the search yielded only one quarterback with a similar score in each area: Eli Manning.

Eli Manning's Career Index
Passing TD% Index 107
Interception% Index 94
Yards/Attempt Index 102

The Manning comparison may seem awkward at first, but it starts to make sense after a little digging. While Manning has quarterbacked two Super Bowl champions, winning MVP honors in both, and participated in three Pro Bowls, these are ultimately superficial factors when looking purely at the players' numbers. Like Cutler, Manning is a strong armed, risk taking quarterback who likes the deep ball. His talent allows him to make plays most quarterbacks can't make. Yet, his turnover control and accuracy vary week to week and sometimes season to season. Take a look at how the two compare using traditional statistics:

Cutler/Manning Player Comparison
Player Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD TD% Int Int% Y/A Rate
Jay Cutler 1796 2955 60.8 21316 136 4.6 100 3.4 7.2 84.0
Eli Manning 2612 4457 58.6 31527 211 4.7 144 3.2 7.1 82.7

In many ways, Manning is perfect case study for what Cutler's career might have been under more favorable circumstances. In New York, Manning lined up behind solid offensive lines with quality players at the skill positions. Manning also benefited greatly from a coaching staff capable of building an offense around his skills. The same could not be said for Cutler during his time in the NFL. Had he been blessed with quality blocking and talent in his receiving corps, Cutler's career might have been more illustrious than it is today.

But here's the kicker: with their personnel and coaching changes, the Bears might finally have set Cutler up for success. There's still much to learn about Chicago's new look offensive line, but with their offseason additions, it's hard to imagine them giving up 44 sacks again. As we discussed last week, the Bears have a true number one receiver and a stable of competent pass catchers around him. Most importantly, Trestman's arrival signifies the organization's commitment to improving the offense.

Does that mean Cutler is about to have Eli Manning level success? Absolutely not, but he should be more successful if he stays healthy. As Cutler's yards per pass attempt and touchdown percentage have remained steady his entire career, those figures will probably hold. However, his interception has fluctuated throughout his career. If he makes the projected jump in limiting turnovers, the metrics suggest Cutler could have a year similar to Manning's 2012 season in terms of efficiency.

Eli Manning's 2012 Season
Index Metrics 107 TD%+ 105 Y/A+ 99 Int%+
Traditional Statistics 4.9 TD% 7.4 Y/A 2.8 Int%

Using those efficiency indexes, we can project Cutler's 2013 production. Since his first full year as New York's starting quarterback, Manning has attempted under 500 passes only once. Cutler, on the other hand, finished under 500 attempts in all but one season in Chicago. That figures to change under Trestman. Assuming good health, Cutler should be around 510 attempts this season. That projects out to 3774 yards, 25 touchdowns, and around 14 interceptions. That may not place him in the same class as Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady, but it will net Cutler a big contract offer next offseason.

Jason Hirschhorn covers the Green Bay Packers for Acme Packing Co. He has previously written for Lombardi Ave, College Hoops Net, LiveBall Sports, and the List Universe. He is also currently a senior writer for Beats Per Minute, an indie-music webzine. Follow him on Twitter: @JBHirschhorn

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