Detroit Lions: Matthew Stafford or Jay Cutler, Who'll Be Better in 2012?
On July 2, I wrote this article about the biggest media misconceptions about the Lions. By far, the most responses to it were concerning the Lions vs. Bears debate.
The debate comes down to the simple question of who will be better, the Lions or the Bears in 2012?
They also cite the offseason additions of Brandon Marshall and Michael Bush as reasons why the Bears should be ranked higher.
Lions fans, on the other hand, point to the scoreboard. The Lions finished with a better record and no one wants to hear the Bears' injury excuses. Besides, the Lions had their own rash of injuries that claimed key players: Jahvid Best, Nick Fairley and nearly the entire secondary.
Stafford's hand injury clearly played a role in the Lions losing at Soldier Field on November 13 as well as their poor overall record in that month.
Each fanbase has valid points to their arguments and it's a great, if not contentious, debate to have. However, there can't be a clear-cut winner. At least not right now.
In this case, the debate will only be won at the conclusion of the regular season. Who has the best record? Who made the playoffs? Who won the head to head series? The answers to those questions will ultimately decide the winner.
But who wants to wait that long?
Here's a compromise. We all know that there's one player on every team whose performance is most indicative of wins and losses: the quarterback. I've already alluded to Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler above.
Determining which player is better should give us a good idea of which team will end up being better.
While the quarterback is the most important position, he can't excel at his job without great players around him. So let's look at the weapons that Stafford and Cutler have at their disposal.
Lions: Jahvid Best, Mikel Leshoure, Calvin Johnson, Titus Young, Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew.
Bears: Forte, Michael Bush, Brandon Marshall, Earl Bennett, Devin Hester, Kellen Davis/Dane Sanzenbacher.
The injury to Johnny Knox certainly hurts the Bears here. He's no Pro Bowler but he is a speedy end who can stretch the field for them.
Calvin Johnson a more dominating receiver than anyone the Bears have—including Marshall. So the Lions have, hands down, the most dangerous weapon on the field. I doubt anyone would argue that.
Chicago's "other guys" are merely average receivers. Bennett's never had more than three touchdowns in one season and Hester might be the best return man in the game but as a receiver he's mediocre at best.
Young and Burleson combined for much better numbers than those two last season. Burleson has been effective everywhere he's played and Young is a second-year stud poised for a break-out season.
The Lions have the advantage in the tight-end department as well. Pettigrew was their second-leading receiver in 2011 with 83 receptions, 777 yards and five touchdowns. He's big, athletic and can rack up yardage after the catch. The Bears have no tight end on their roster that is even close to his equal.
The one area that the Bears might have the edge is running back. Forte is a better overall player than both Best and Mikel Leshoure and when paired with Michael Bush they make an impressive duo.
But there's tons of question marks. Will Forte play or will he hold out? If he returns without a deal how well will he perform?
Best is the wild card. He has the potential to be just as dominant out of the backfield—primarily in the passing game—as Forte but his health impacts his effectiveness. No one knows if he can bring it the whole year.
I'll give the Bears the edge as far as the running game goes. It doesn't matter though. Overall, Stafford has more weapons
Clearly, a quarterback can't excel without good players around him. At the same time, he can't excel laying on his back either. The offensive line play is huge in predicting who's better.
During his career in Chicago, Cutler has been sacked more than any other quarterback in the NFL. As ESPN's Matt Williamson says in this article, the Bears offensive line was especially "horrible" in 2011.
They gave up 49 sacks—Cutler was sacked 23 times in only 10 games—which was good enough for bottom five in the league while the Detroit Lions offensive line only gave up 36 sacks.
On the surface that might not seem that much better.
Let's look closer. Stafford made 663 passing attempts while Cutler, Caleb Hanie and Josh McCown combined for only 471. So, even with 200 more attempts the Lions still protected Stafford much better.
Chicago has made an offensive scheme change and that might result in more offensive line-friendly play calling. That's a big "might" though. Their personnel is no better and their left tackle, J'Marcus Webb has been an absolute liability.
Scheme change or not the Bears line is no better.
Stafford vs. Cutler
When all else fails, what better way to determine who is better than to simply compare them side by side.
Both players have suffered major injury setbacks in their careers. Cutler's first was last season and he missed more time than in all his previous seasons combined.
Stafford's injury history is well document but 2012 was his first where he started all 16 games. Cutler has certainly demonstrated more durability.
Numbers-wise, Cutler can't touch Stafford in 2012. Even considering the games he missed, he wasn't on pace to sniff Stafford's production. In fact, in no previous season had Cutler come close to putting up 5,000 yards passing and 41 touchdowns.
With that said, Cutler is a very good quarterback who has five seasons of solid numbers. Stafford only has the one season of elite numbers.
Bears fans are not the only ones who use the "one-season wonder" argument to rationalize ranking Cutler higher either. He's in front of Stafford in every preseason list of quarterback's I've seen.
Yet one can't simply dismiss the type of season Stafford had. Very few quarterbacks have done it and very few will ever do it. No one is suggesting Cutler will accomplish that feat any time soon but many would say that Stafford has at least a chance to. He's young enough, talented enough, and has enough weapons around him to make that realistic.
There's no question that the NFC North will be a battle this season. The Lions and Bears are evenly matched and both are worthy of challenging the Green Bay Packers—the obvious favorites—for the division title.
If we just focus on the quarterbacks though, there is no question, the Lions are in a better position to win with Stafford taking snaps.
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