Chicago’s First Scapegoat: Jay Cutler

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If I told you that the Bears would be the NFL’s biggest newsmakers this week, you would assume they had fired somebody. Defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer. Head coach Marc Trestman. General manager Phil Emery. Maybe all four. In the midst of a frustrating and disappointed season, many Bears fans have wanted to see heads roll first before identifying the deposed later. Nobody, though, could have figured that the first scapegoat for the 2014 Bears would be Jay Cutler.

When the news broke Wednesday that the Bears were benching Cutler for Jimmy Clausen, my reactions were similar to others I saw on Twitter and heard around the NFL. It seemed aggressive and desperate, an attempt by an embattled coaching staff to distance themselves from a player whose flaws should have already been well known. At the same time, it also seemed wrong to treat Cutler as beyond reproach, given how poorly he’s looked in recent weeks, including Monday night’s embarrassing home loss to the Saints. It seemed like benching Cutler might not be a terrible move in a vacuum, but that it would offer nothing resembling a cure to the bigger problems afflicting the Bears.

Let’s take a step backward and examine the question. Should the Bears have benched Jay Cutler?

The Numbers Are In

Most of the criticisms surrounding Cutler focused on his propensity for turnovers. He leads the league in interceptions with 18, having thrown three to a previously porous Saints defense. He is also tied for the league lead in fumbles with Andrew Luck, having lost control of the ball on 12 occasions, with six of those fumbles going to the opposition. The interceptions have hardly been fluky, either; while one of Monday’s throws amounted to a failed Hail Mary, he also threw behind Martellus Bennett and poorly placed a throw to Alshon Jeffery on a go route.

And yet, the idea of benching Cutler because he’s turning the ball over too frequently seems absurd. It’s part of the package. Cutler is really not turning the ball over any more than we might have expected heading into the season. He’s throwing interceptions on 3.4 percent of his passes. That’s pretty high, but last year, the Bears signed Cutler to a contract extension after an 11-game season in which he threw interceptions on … 3.4 percent of his passes. During his time in Chicago, Cutler has averaged 8.8 fumbles per 14 games; is the fact that he has 12 in 14 games this year really cause for alarm?

In fact, most of Cutler’s numbers are right in line with what the Bears could have expected from him. Here are his rate statistics, split between his first four seasons with the Bears (2009-2012), his abbreviated 11-game debut season with Trestman (2013), and his 14 starts this year:

There’s not enough in that drop-off to bench Cutler; his raw interception and fumble totals are up because he’s stayed healthy this year for the first time since 2009, his debut season with the Bears. It’s fair to wonder whether the numbers are skewed by how frequently Cutler has been throwing against prevent defenses during the second halves of blowout losses. On Monday, for example, Cutler entered the fourth quarter 9-of-19 for 87 yards and three interceptions, only to finish with an 8-for-12 stretch for 107 yards and two touchdowns while his team was down multiple scores.

It’s fair to say Cutler’s numbers have been inflated by game situation. Arbitrarily defining garbage time to be any series in which a team is down by 14 points or more in the second half, the average starting quarterback in 2014 (minimum 200 attempts) has thrown 9.7 percent of his attempts and 9.9 percent of his passing yardage during garbage time. Cutler has thrown 17.1 percent of his attempts in those situations and gained 20.1 percent of his passing yards. He’s also posted a 102.7 passer rating in garbage time, up from the 87.5 figure Cutler’s hit during all other situations.

That’s a big difference, but it’s not otherworldly. Several other quarterbacks on bad teams — notably Cam Newton, Blake Bortles, and Derek Carr — have produced a higher percentage of their attempts and pass yardage in garbage time. Ben Roethlisberger has thrown 15 percent of his passes in garbage time, and we’re not having the same debate about him. And the advanced stats that adjust for game situation hardly peg Cutler to be a total failure. QBR has him as the 19th-best passer in football. Football Outsiders’s DVOA has him 22nd.

The other underlying metrics don’t suggest that there’s anything particularly extraordinary about Cutler’s struggles. The Chicago offensive line has allowed pressure on only 22.1 percent of dropbacks, the seventh-lowest percentage in football. Cutler is averaging 7.6 yards in the air per pass, the 11th-fewest in the league. Chicago receivers are dropping 4.4 percent of Cutler’s passes, the 11th-highest rate in the league. They’re also ninth in the league in average yards after catch. None of these numbers cry out for a quarterback change or provide a decisive alibi for Cutler’s play.

In all, I don’t think there’s a strong quantitative case for benching Cutler. The numbers say he’s been below-average this season, and I can understand why that might be disappointing, given the quality of the skill-position players around him and the expectations of Bears fans. But you don’t bench your franchise quarterback 14 games into a seven-year, $126 million contract extension because he’s been a little disappointing.

The Qualitative Case

The numbers, of course, are only part of the story. There might not be another player in football who is judged less on his performance and more on inane psychological insights than Cutler. Trestman was answering questions on Cutler’s oft-discussed sulky body language the day before Cutler’s benching. Cutler has been picked apart in the press for yelling at subpar teammates and took flak from opposing players for leaving the 2010 NFC Championship Game with a serious knee injury. America likes its quarterbacks to be overemotional and emphatic; Cutler is the quarterback most likely to embody ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Whether it’s a blessing or a curse, I have no use for this and no reliable way to detect it. I didn’t notice Cutler’s body language standing out one way or another in recent Bears games. What I did see was a quarterback who — and this is as far as I’ll delve into psychology  seemed uncomfortable under center. Cutler was checking down far more frequently, missing the occasional receiver open downfield in the process. Passes weren’t coming out in any sort of rhythm at the end of his dropback. His footwork was inconsistent. His ball placement, as a result, was erratic. And he was jumpier about the pass rush than most quarterbacks are. That last point, as you’ll see in a second, is understandable.

After the benching story broke, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport tweeted that the Bears had considered benching Cutler at halftime of the team’s Week 12 contest against Tampa Bay.1 Cutler’s numbers in the first half against Tampa Bay — 10-of-18, 72 yards, a fumble — weren’t exactly flattering, but they were again not the numbers of a guy who inspires benching talk.

Cutler wasn’t awful against the Buccaneers. He was victimized by four first-half drops, but made up for it in the blame game by making a couple of unwise decisions with throws into tight windows that could very well have been interceptions. The turnover came when Gerald McCoy turned reserve guard Brian de la Puente into dust before attempting to bench Cutler directly through the Soldier Field grass:

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That doesn’t seem like it’s Cutler’s fault. The habit of players coming through with relative ease to take their turn hitting Cutler was even more egregious in the Saints game. Here, the Bears just let David Hawthorne run right through the A-gap for an easy sack:

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Later in the game, Hawthorne again employs his invisibility cloak to go completely untouched for a sack:

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There’s also a slide protection where the Bears send Bennett all the way across the formation to block outside linebacker Kasim Edebali. It appears that Edebali can’t believe his good fortune and actually hesitates rushing Cutler until after Matt Forte has gone past the mesh point, but he gets help when Bennett misses his block anyway:

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Trestman also rightly calls for a screen to try to take advantage of the active pass rush, only for the Saints to immediately sniff it out while Junior Galette tosses left tackle Jermon Bushrod aside and lays out Cutler before the quarterback can even find a viable location to throw the ball away:

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That’s not to say that every one of Cutler’s problems came from the breakdown of his pass protection. He wasn’t great when the line kept him upright too. Here’s a play when he just seems to go dark against the Buccaneers. It’s a little hard to see because Soldier Field has the worst All-22 angle in football, so I kept it as an image:

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There are three very viable targets downfield here, players who are running their routes into spaces that Cutler can hit with his combination of anticipation, arm strength, and accuracy. When Cutler is on his game and confident, he tries to fit a pass into one of those windows, even if it doesn’t work. Instead, Cutler checks it down to the covered back after a tackle-end stunt by the Buccaneers begins to hint that pressure is coming. A Bucs defender breaks on the pass and nearly picks it off.

Here, a Bears wideout is running a useful-looking out-and-up while Cutler checks to his underneath option:

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It would be wrong to say there are receivers running open on every play, just as it would be inaccurate to suggest that pass-rushers are bombing into the backfield on each Cutler dropback without any resistance. But nobody’s playing great. The receivers aren’t getting especially open. The offensive line is inconsistent at best. And Cutler looks downright lost at times. I can understand why Rich Gannon was suggesting last month that the Bears should sit Cutler.

The Long-Term Plan

Here’s the part that I really don’t understand. Why now? It’s not as if Cutler has been so bad that the team can’t be competitive, and even if he had been that bad, a franchise that isn’t making the playoffs would get better draft picks by losing a bunch of games. Why not let Cutler play out the string, give him those final two games, and avoid the talk of a quarterback controversy altogether? Or sneak Cutler onto injured reserve with some phantom injury that wouldn’t affect his trade value?

It would be one thing to bench Cutler to give a high-profile draft pick or a really promising young passer with no pro experience some NFL reps. But the Bears aren’t doing that. They’re handing over the starting gig to Jimmy Clausen, their 27-year-old backup, who had one of the worst seasons by a quarterback in recent history as a rookie in 2010. Clausen completed 52.5 percent of his passes, averaged 5.2 yards per attempt, threw three times as many interceptions as touchdowns, and successfully ensured that the Panthers ended up with Newton. He then proceeded to go three seasons without throwing a pass before briefly filling in this season.

Unless Clausen has taken some unprecedented leap that’s clearly stood out in practice (and if so, why did it take this long to get him in there?), he’s filler, a backup quarterback encased in glass that nobody will ever want to break. I don’t have any premonition that rookie sixth-rounder David Fales will be good, but at least his ceiling is higher than Clausen’s. Surprisingly, though, Bears players seem to be very high on the Clausen decision:

I don’t doubt the veracity of Silver’s report, but there’s something bizarre if Bears players actually think that’s true. Maybe they’ve never seen Clausen play. Maybe they’ve forgotten that they play the Lions and their second-ranked defense this week. If Clausen can light it up against the Lions just by following the rules of the scheme to a tee, doesn’t that make the scheme so incredible and valuable that the Bears should lock up Trestman and Kromer to 20-year contracts?

Regardless of what happens versus Detroit, this is basically an act of war against Cutler that will likely bring his Bears career to a close. The only way he stays with the team is if the Bears fire everyone — Trestman, Kromer, Emery, the whole bunch — and the new regime decides to build around Cutler. And even if a new head coach/general manager combo comes in, the team might very well decide to move on from Cutler anyway.

What will happen then? Well, for one, the Bears will need to find a trade partner. As I mentioned when I wrote about the possible 2015 quarterback trade market last week, Cutler’s deal is structured in such a way that precludes him from being released. His 2015 base salary of $15.5 million is already guaranteed, so if the Bears cut him by this March, they would pay $19.5 million in cap penalties, sinking their 2015 team in the process. If they don’t cut him before then, $10 million of his 2016 base salary will become guaranteed, leaving the Bears stuck even further into the future with Cutler as their quarterback.

If the Bears trade Cutler, the base salaries go to the new team. If they traded Cutler by March, the Bears would be responsible for only $4 million in dead money left because they restructured his deal this offseason. A possible trade partner might try to create cap space and force the Bears to eat more of the deal by insisting they turn part of Cutler’s guaranteed base salary into a signing bonus before making the swap, a move that would leave the Bears — not the opposition — on the hook for that amount of the deal.

If the Bears converted $8.5 million of Cutler’s 2015 base salary into a signing bonus, they would pay the actual cash up front and technically spread the bonus across the length of the deal, only for the deal to accelerate onto their cap next season if Cutler were traded elsewhere. That would leave the Bears on the hook for $11 million next season. The acquiring team, meanwhile, would see its cap obligation fall from $15.5 million to $7 million. That sort of move might net the Bears a better draft pick as part of a trade.

Chicago could use an excuse to ask for a better draft pick, because it eliminated a lot of leverage by benching Cutler. It’s clear the Bears don’t want to keep him around in 2015 and beyond, and given that they can’t possibly justify cutting him, a lot of teams are going to send Chicago lowball offers in the hopes of acquiring their franchise quarterback on the cheap. It’s such a weird move, in fact, that it makes me wonder whether the Bears have already arranged for an offseason deal with another team and don’t want to see Cutler get hurt and scupper the trade.

We’ll eulogize the Jay Cutler era in Chicago when it comes to its actual end, a move that may very well be in the near future. It’s not clear which coaches and personnel men he’ll be dragging out of town with him. It will be disappointing for many Bears fans if the team trades him for a couple of conditional midround picks, but the market for Cutler will be fascinating. We’re fans of Emery over here at Grantland, but having a good process doesn’t guarantee good outcomes. And as it turned out, the Bears simply weren’t satisfied that Jay Cutler was always going to be Jay Cutler.

Filed Under: NFL, Jay Cutler, Chicago Bears, Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer, Phil Emery

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Bill Barnwell is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ billbarnwell