Thursday, January 2, 2014

The Jay Cutler Problem

Note: The Problem Is Not His Face
The hardest personnel position to fill in the NFL is quarter- back. Teams can go decades without finding a guy that's at Pro Bowl level or better... and then there's the Bears. Who have gone for something like half a century without, well, mostly competent QB play.

And now, this year, they actually got it from two different guys. Mostly. And saw their starter finally break the 70-year-old records of Sid Luckman, who was a hell of a QB, but, um, 70 years is way too damned long for your QB record to stand, especially given what's happened in the modern era.

Jay Cutler turned 30 this year, and played his best football to date -- yes, better than the Denver years that made Chicago send a boatload of goodies to get him. He threw too many picks, but he'a always thrown too many picks. He fumbled too much, but he's always fumbled too much. By rating, he was at 89.2 this year, the best of his life, and significantly above his career numbers of 84.6. If you want to tell a happy story about that, he's growing into the role, and responding to his new coach; if you want to tell a sad story about it, the emergence of WR Alshon Jeffery, TE Martellus Bennett and the change in OL from turnstile to tolerable made that gain inevitable.

About the only parts of his game that appear to be in clear remission is making plays with his feet, and frankly, you can probably live with that, since we're only talking a reduction of about 100 yards a year. Any team that gets him has a clear #1 QB with no real qualms, and so long as he stays healthy -- and with 12 games missed in his last 3 years, that's not a given -- you have a credible triggerman. He ranked 13th in the NFL in rating among the 37 qualifying players in 2013.

Which, well, no one wants.

Until you don't have one.

Cutler at 30 isn't going to turn into Tom Brady. He's not going to develop great wheels and become a threat in the read option, or cut the picks down to game manager mode. The Bears need him, on some level, to be better than Aaron Rodgers, or at the very least, fight him to a draw. That's probably never going to happen.

For the most part, this level of QB doesn't break through to a ring, and if he does, it's a one-off where the rest of the team carries him. I've always thought of Cutler as kind of the new Jim Plunkett; a high draft pick with a pedigree, moved from his original franchise. He's not really comparable to Trent Dilfer or Brad Johnson, who everyone knew was just there to hand off most of the game and take the safe short routes, or a Joe Flacco, who has always kept the INT count down despite throwing deep, because he secretly throws a great deep ball. Short of the idea that he's basically Eli Manning -- a reasonable career comp, but a unique presence in terms of timing his hottest career moments in two perfect playoff months -- there seems to be a clear but difficult decision to cut loose from him and take your lumps with some high draft pick and/or physical freak that QB Whispering Coach Marc Trestman can coach up over the years.

But, well, that's not what Chicago is, or does.

As a top media market with big ticket prices and a yard that's not necessarily an auto-fill, rebuilding projects are not an easy sell. As easy as it sounds to trade up for an intriguing Johnny Manziel type and move on from Smoking Jay, the real problem for the Bears is that the defense turned thin, old, and terrible in 2013. If the defense was at their usual level, Chicago wins the NFC North in a walk, has the third seed instead of the Eagles, and would be a 5 to 7 point home favorite this week against the Saints.

Personally, if it's my franchise, I've seen enough of Cutler and I want to move on. But it's really not an easy call, or an obvious one.

And if I were Cutler?

I'd be trying like hell to stay in town, because I'm not going to get into a better situation than Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte, Jeffery and Bennett, and the not at all fearsome defenses of the NFC North for six games a year. Hell, Rodgers got hurt this year; if he does that again, maybe Cutler can get past him, finally, and have that magic year that puts his career and legacy into a whole new strata.

Besides, where does he go if he's not in Chicago? Jacksonville, St. Louis, the Jets... not exactly filled with weapons, right?

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