A little word association to start off: First thing that comes to mind when I say “Jay Cutler”. Hold that thought.
Jay Cutler is a pretty unique guy. His advocates will pretty universally agree that he comes off as a douchebag and does himself no favors with media or otherwise. The detractors will at least usually concede that he has phenomenal physical tools and wins a whole lot of games. There are surely radicals on either side that will tell you he is a saint or will tell you he is trash beneath comparison to Matt Cassel. If you have no opinion on Jay Cutler, your opinion probably goes back and forth. This is more or less the norm with Cutler and we h;ave settled into a really nice groove of being able to go back and forth on him as a quarterback while universally condemning his attitude. Generally speaking, I have no issue with this. We remember Ty Cobb as a great baseball player and a hall of fame asshole. T.O. will likely shoulder a similar legacy. This is nothing new. But with both of these players we can acknowledge their great play and also acknowledge that they might not be the ideal role model for children. However, with Cutler, we can’t get past his public perception and facial aesthetics. In our appearance over substance era, hating Jay Cutler has become a perfect microcosm of a cultural ill.
Jay Cutler has a phenomenal arm. No one argues this. Those who dislike him as a quarterback take issue with his decision making, and this is a completely fair assessment. It is particularly fair against the rival Packers who seem to have his number. The general dividing point on Cutler is how much we should account for his offensive line. His critics say he needs to adapt to the line in front of him and that it is no excuse. Others (myself included) think that when given time, Cutler is elite and his bad decision making stems largely from his lack of time in the pocket. This has been a huge part of Tom Brady’s success over the years. While I certainly think the offensive line problem is a substantial one, I am not trying to sway your opinion on Cutler’s decision making. It is a little flawed, and we can agree to disagree on its cause. We can even agree to disagree that maybe part of this decision making issue has to do with how many offensive coordinators he has been with over the years. We can write that all off and just look at his performance week to week.
Over the past two-plus years, Jay Cutler has started 30 games. He has had a passer rating over 95 fourteen times, and a passer rating under 70 eleven times. Those are both pretty substantial numbers. In those good (statistical) games, Cutler has been sacked 30 times for an average of 2.15 sacks/game. There were a few 4 and 5 sack games in that sample size too. In the bad games, Cutler has been sacked 48 times, which works out to 4.4 sacks/game. This includes, among other high totals, the 9-sack game vs the Giants. This bad games stat also requires a bit of an asterisk. These “bad” games include quite a few wins in which Cutler was sacked 2 times or fewer (5-6 W-L record in those games, and sacked twice or fewer in 4 of those). Looking up and down the stat-sheet doesn’t tell us how many of his picks were pressured or what have you, but there is a pretty strong correlation between Cutler’s protection and performance. This doesn’t solve any argument, but only goes to show that when given protection, he is a very good and effective quarterback.
In another statistical breakdown, we find that Cutler appeared to be a douchebag in 30 of those 30 games, though it may be 28 or 29 depending on whose indices you use. This narrative has probably been the dominant one in Cutler’s career. When he tore his MCL, he was labelled a quitter. When he yells at teammates, he is just being a prima donna. His body language gets more attention than just about any sports figure I have seen in years. It appears he can do nothing right.
This should all be a nice big warm blanket to worried Bears fans. Everything is ok because Cutler’s tangibles are great and his intangibles aren’t necessarily his fault! Yet intangibles matter, at least a bit. I’m not going to sit here and tell you intangibles can replace tangibles, because they can’t. But if players in the Bears locker room have the same perception as the media (I doubt this), then there is a serious issue. More than any other sport, belief in your leaders and faith in winning matters. Why? Because if you are going to go put your body and livelihood on the line, you’d best believe in the guy next to you. Buying into the coach is important in basketball, clubhouse chemistry at least carries SOMETHING in baseball since you spend months on end with the same 25 guys, but football is different. With the nature of injuries in the sport, with the non-guaranteed contracts year to year, and for many players, week-to-week, if you don’t believe in your guys, you are not going to put it all on the line and, generally speaking, you are probably not going to win a bunch of games. It is clearly more complex than this, but on some basic level, this is undeniably true.
I will say that I do not see Cutler’s personality as an issue, and that the Bears are a damn good football team year after year with him at QB. The hypothetical issue I mentioned above doesn’t seem to be at play here. But the fact that it is even a possibility that Cutler’s talent could be trumped by not giving off the right vibes is astounding. More incredible than all that is that this seemingly absurd idea being is central narrative with Cutler.
As a side dish, this is not only fair, but interesting and insightful. It serves as a great talking point about leadership, different leadership styles and our public and cultural perception of people and athletes. Yet even after a masterful game against a pretty good Dallas defense, the first talking point is Cutler walking away from his offensive coordinator for about three seconds, then Tice coming up and talking to him while standing. What did we say when Brady yelled at Bill O’Brien or Andy Reid got into it with a D-Lineman (in the preseason no less)? “These things happen in football”. When Cutler did it? “What the hell is he doing”. I am beating a dead horse and I know that. Give the man his credit for his phenomenal skills and then, if you so desire, critique his attitude or body language or whatever.
Remember your word from the word association at the beginning? If you needed any persuading from this column at all, the word was probably asshole, douchebag or something of the sort. Try your best to change that, if only by moving it to the second word because Jay Cutler is one hell of a quarterback haunted by a random intangible he likely can’t control.