My Final Thoughts on Cutler and McCown

JayJoshHug

As expected, the Bears will start Jay Cutler on Sunday in Cleveland, and I think it’s the right decision, both short-term and long-term. Though McCown has played well in relief of Cutler, which some have taken to mean that he would be the better bet for the final three games of the year, I think that’s far from a guarantee. I think McCown has played well, for sure; better than anyone could have hoped for. But I do think that there are some underlying factors that might help us figure out how a journeyman who was coaching high school football last year has been so good. For instance, I checked Football Outsiders defensive DVOA rankings (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a system Football Outsiders developed that is explained here) for teams McCown has faced. Below are those teams, along with their DVOA rank for pass defense and total defense. (Rankings found here.)

    • Washington: 26th Pass Defense, 20th Overall
    • Green Bay:    30th, 28th
    • Detroit:        19th, 16th
    • Baltimore:    11th, 7th
    • St. Louis:    18th, 12th
    • Minnesota:   24th, 26th
    • Dallas:         28th, 31st

If you’re scoring at home, that’s one pass defense ranked higher than 18th, and none in the top ten. Not coincidentally, McCown’s worst game came against Baltimore, the only above-average defense of the bunch; it also came in adverse weather conditions, of course. Which only underscores my point: in football, there’s always a context. You can’t really look at numbers and assume that because those numbers were good, a quarterback is going to perform at that level any given week. (A subject I touched on Wednesday.) There are many, many factors at play. Including the running game; as Kevin Fishbain noted on Twitter, the Bears averaged 94.9 rushing yards per game while Cutler was under center. With McCown playing, they’ve averaged 137.3. Breaking it down further, they rushed for 4.1 yards per carry with Cutler vs. 5.1 yards per carry with McCown. That’s a development for which you’d be hard pressed to credit McCown, and Trestman himself cited an improving offensive line as a key part in the evolving offense at his Thursday presser. It stands to reason that either quarterback would benefit from that improvement, and an improved, threatening running game can open things up for a passing offense. This move doesn’t hurt the floor of the offense, and it raises the ceiling. Considering the state of the defense, the Bears will need every bit of offense they can find if they hope to make the playoffs.

As to the long-term effects, I think this move is yet another sign that Marc Trestman believes strongly in Cutler’s talent. As the Tribune’s Rich Campbell noted in this piece, the head coach never wavered from his position on playing Cutler upon his recovery, and in fact referred to Jay’s skills and talents as “unique.” That’s not a sign that he believes any quarterback can step in and be as good as Cutler can potentially be. The other side of this decision is that if the Bears do want to retain Cutler going forward, they basically had to play him. Benching Cutler due to injury after promising him all along that he’d retain his starting job might have damaged the relationship beyond repair. (Emphasis on “might”; I’m not exactly close to the situation or a psychologist, I just know that Cutler hasn’t exactly been fond of bait-and-switch tactics in the past.) I’m not suggesting that it was the driving force behind the decision; in fact, I doubt it played into it much at all, just that had they gone with McCown, that’s what they’d be risking. But if Trestman and Emery really are of the opinion that any quarterback could step in and be successful within this system, as The National Football Post reported Wednesday, I doubt the Bears would have had a problem playing McCown. If Trestman thought it was the move that gave the team the best shot at winning this Sunday, and they weren’t afraid of damaging a long-term relationship with Cutler, I think Josh would be starting. Instead, he went with Jay, and since I believe that Trestman is A.) a lot more knowledgeable about their respective abilities than I am, and B.) very much interested in winning the game, I tend to agree with him on this one.

So what should they do this offseason? I’ve seen the “dump Cutler, keep McCown, draft a quarterback to develop” strategy floated out by numerous people. Aside from the obvious sample-size problems involved with basing a long-term roster decision on a handful of games, (into which I delved Wednesday) NFL contracts aren’t MLB or NBA contracts. They’re not fully guaranteed. You’re not married to the player for the full length and amount of the deal. Things are much more flexible, and the risk is much, much lower from a financial standpoint. Say the Bears kept McCown on a reasonable deal and drafted a rookie quarterback in one of the first two rounds. First of all, that’s a high draft pick that won’t be playing on defense next season. The defense is likely to be better after an offseason of re-tooling (and a regression in injury-frequency) but the odds of the unit improving from worst to even average seem long.

As is customary in today’s NFL, the offense is the more important side of the ball, and that’s even more true for the Bears, who hired Marc Trestman specifically to foster an evolution into an offensive-minded team. They have a wonderful collection of offensive talent, with the best duo of receivers in the league (I’m finished using arguably to modify that statement) and a top-five all-around running back. The complementary players are also either skilled or promising. Offensively, they are set up to be good next season, and probably for the few seasons after that. Why jeopardize that window by taking a risk on your quarterback situation?  You don’t get an infinite number of seasons with this offensive talent. Matt Forte will pass the 1500 career carry mark this year, and he just turned 28. Brandon Marshall will be 30. Alshon Jeffery will be in line for a big raise at some point. The defense will be a question mark, even if Phil Emery were to throw a bunch of newly-freed cap space at free agents. What if McCown gets hurt or regresses back to a level of performance nearer to his career numbers, and the quarterback prospect either isn’t ready or isn’t good? (Which is quite possible; Luck, Wilson and Foles have been very good, but Ponder, Locker, Gabbert, and Geno Smith have been very bad; it’s still a positional crapshoot.) If those two things happen, the Bears have just wasted a year of a competitive window, even if the cap savings from letting Cutler go resulted in a mid-tier defense. Decent defense and bad quarterback play won’t win a Super Bowl anymore.

Why take that chance? To me it seems that if there was ever a situation in which a team SHOULD be willing to spend money to ensure quality quarterback play, it’s this Bears team for the next few years. Cutler isn’t Brees, Rodgers, Brady, or Peyton Manning. But the Bears aren’t getting any of those players to replace Cutler, and odds are they aren’t going to luck into the next one, either. They have a player who by most accounts is in the tier of quarterbacks just below the top group from a talent standpoint. He will be 31 next season; that gives the Bears at least four prime years left to work with. Trestman obviously believes in him. The window for what has the potential to be a Super Bowl-winning offense will be open for a span of time that would coincide with Cutler’s deal. For a cross-sport analogy, look at the Cubs rebuild. When have they said they’d be willing to spend big on a free agent? When they’re ready to compete, and that free agent can fill a need. The Bears are ready to compete. Jay Cutler certainly fills a need. And as I noted near the top, NFL contracts carry a lot less risk; this isn’t going to be a Robinson Cano albatross in eight years. Given the makeup of the team and their competitive timeline, it seems to me as though extending Cutler would be a low-risk, high-reward move, that would set the Bears up with a competitive offense for the foreseeable future.

Jay Rigdon is the editor and lead writer at Bleacher Nation Bears, and can also be found @BearsBN on Twitter.

34 responses to “My Final Thoughts on Cutler and McCown”

  1. Adam

    Glad my point could be used for part of this post. I used ESPN.com to look up the defensive rank and went by average yards against per game ranking. Many people expect the Bears to draft a QB in 2014, but I actually believe we will see both Jay and McCown back. There are too many holes in the defense in order to “waste” a pick on a position where you already have an above average starter and backup. I don’t want to see the Bears use a late round pick on a QB either. Trestman has shown that he prefers to keep only 2 QBs on the active roster, and I don’t see a 6th round pick being the #2 ahead of McCown. (nor do I want them to be) In a league void of QB talent, it is harder and harder to stash one on the practice squad. (see Matt Blanchard, Dan LeFevour). Perhaps 2015 could be a better time to look for a QB in the first 3 rounds, but all of those picks should be defensive players in 2014.

    1. J. F. Edwards

      ^^Agreed. 2015 is the more likely “Draft-a-QB-year” which is why you will likely see the Bears want Cutler’s contract to end in 2018 at the latest (And why they prefer 2017 and he prefers 2019).

      And another good insight well-put, “in football, there’s always a context.”

  2. #1lahairfan

    If Cutler demands too much in free agency I think we should just keep McCown and draft a QB first round

    1. Mark

      Isn’t that exactly what Jay said we shouldn’t do? What happens if we draft the next Blane Gabbert or Brandon Weeden?

    2. frank

      The problem gets back to sample size, as Jay mentioned. And yes, McCown has played fairly well (remember too, he only put up 20 points and lost against a horrendous Vikings defense). People say that Cutler’s been in the league 8 years, we know what he is, etc. McCown has been in the league 11 years (but played only 9 because for two years nobody wanted him). Look at his overall career. After 5 games people act as if he’s “the answer” at quarterback. He’s not. He’s a good backup.

  3. Ross

    This article was amazing. Nice job!

  4. Brett

    Well done, Jay.

  5. Robert

    Your best article yet. Good job

  6. ssckelley

    I definitely hope they resign Cutler but I am hoping they draft a QB as Cutler has not shown he can be reliable and McCown may have played his way out of a backup role in Chicago.

    1. Funn Dave

      Yeah, I hope Cutler resigns, too.

      Wait a minute….

    2. frank

      Another point is that the CBA requires that McCown hit free agency–he signed a contract (I forget what it’s called) whereby only a portion of what he makes is counted against the cap. It was designed specifically to encourage teams to sign older players. This type of contract requires that he hit the free agent market, and the Bears are not even allowed to talk contract with him until free agency begins (that’s not to say that they don’t have–or haven’t had–conversations sub rosa).

  7. Junior Lake, Presumptive Left Fielder and Other Bullets | Bleacher Nation | Chicago Cubs News, Rumors, and Commentary

    […] offers his comprehensive thoughts on the enduring Cutler/McCown debate for the Bears fans among […]

  8. ABQ Rich

    Fantastic article Jay, hopefully you will help a few people come to their senses over the Cutler return.

  9. Caleb

    Good article! I agree with all the stuff that I don’t disagree with. Can’t wait to see Cutler destroy Cleveland tomorrow! Plus, with McCown, you know that if something were to happen to take Cutler right back out again, you have a ready and solid backup ready to go.

    I’d like to see the Bears draft the Michigan State defense as a unit next year, first round. Probably end up with half of them as starters within a few years!

  10. Jay

    This might be the best evaluation of the situation—and of the idiocy of dumping Cutler—that I’ve seen yet.

  11. DrReiCow

    “… with the best duo of receivers in the league (I’m finished using arguably to modify that statement) …” – while I love our WRs, and I hope we keep them and Forte for a long time, I can’t agree that we have a better pair than Atlanta (Julio Jones & Roddy White).

    Moo.

    1. frank

      Well, we have the best pair of healthy receivers anyway.

  12. Toby

    The last few games brought up the question of whether or not the Bears should invest the kind of dollars on the QB position that Cutler might command on the open market or whether to go with the more inexpensive option in McCown. As well as McCown has played, I tend to think that the Bears should move forward with Cutler. My reasons are that it has taken how many years for the Bears to have a franchise type QB (remember when Favre played Chicago and the graph of the number of Bears QBs to play in the amount of games that Favre played), Cutler has taken to Trestman’s offense better than any of his previous coaches and offensive coordinators, and finally, Trestman’s offense allows for the backup to play well.
    McCown probably has played himself into one of the biggest contracts he will ever get on the open market, but there will be plenty of QBs in FA that the Bears can go after for the backup or the Bears can draft a QB that will fit into Trestman’s system and learn. I don’t believe that the offensive additions that the Bears have invested in were made with McCown in mind, but with Cutler.
    Well, what about the cap situation for 2014 and beyond? There are a couple of players that will be let go because of salary cap reasons which are Peppers and Bush. The savings for those two players could be used for any long term contract for Cutler. The Bears could do something creative and lower Cutler’s cap number even further. There are five players on the team that the Bears need to think about when it comes to the future: Long, Mills, Jeffery, Wooten, and Jennings (although Paea could be a sixth) The Bears can create more cap space by releasing some of the players that can be replaced through the draft or by undrafted free agents such as Earl Bennett, Bush, Podlesh, Weems and Conte.
    With so many holes to plug, the upcoming draft will be one of the most important in recent years and last years trade between NE and Minnesota could be a blueprint for the Bears to follow. Minnesota traded picks in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 7th to move up to #29 in order to select WR Corderelle Patterson. Bears should be more inclined to do this type of deal because the number of holes that the Bears need to fill is more important that drafting in the late first round.

  13. jmc

    you are a hell of a writer son. Congratulations keep up the good work

  14. The Bears are in First Place and Other Bullets | Bleacher Nation - Bears

    […] misinterpreted his position, and things spiraled from there. Attempting to read the tea leaves (which I already sort of tried to do) I really do think Emery wants to sign Cutler to the most team-friendly deal he can get; whether […]

  15. A Tale of Two Quarterbacks: What Can We Expect From Cutler and Rodgers? | Bleacher Nation - Bears

    […] year. It stands to reason that things could get even better, and that’s one big reason why I’ve advocated for Cutler’s […]

  16. On the Cutler Deal, and Other Bullets | Bleacher Nation - Bears

    […] I do think it’s the right decision. I think I most accurately summed up my feelings on it in this post, mostly this final […]