Although he'll turn 30 in just over two months, Bears quarterback Jay Cutler still has the ability to take his career to another level and become one of the elite players at the position, if he isn't already there.
Last week I argued that Cutler could win the Super Bowl with the Bears. However, winning a Super Bowl does not necessarily make a quarterback elite. Many of the same things that need to happen for the Bears to take that step as a team need to happen for Cutler to do so individually.
I don't think there are going to be many remarkable improvements Cutler makes that suddenly put him in elite territory. In many ways he is already there, but his supporting cast makes it impossible for him to put up the kind of statistics that most use to define "elite."
Every quarterback's statistics should be put in context. That holds especially true in this era when many teams are running spread offenses, making it easier for quarterbacks to put up huge statistics.
Cutler ranked 20th in passer rating and 21st in both touchdowns and completion percentage. But when you consider what Cutler was working with, those numbers don't look bad.
To determine the strength of each quarterback's supporting cast I combined the Pro Football Focus grades of their top five receiving options and the team's running backs. I then ranked each of the teams and combined that with PFF's pass blocking rankings.
According to PFF, just over 47 percent of Rodgers' yards came after the catch. Most of his yardage came on short passes. 61 percent of his yards and 44 percent of his touchdowns on passes that traveled fewer than 10 yards. Cutler had under 40 percent of his yards come via YAC and only 51 percent came on passes under 10 yards.
Part of that is certainly the offenses they played in, but there is no evidence to suggest that shorter passes would've led to more success for Cutler and the Bears.
When you break down Rodgers' PFF grade per snap, it is 24.4 points higher than Cutler's, less than the difference in their surrounding talent. That doesn't even take into account that Green Bay's offensive line also ranked 11th in pass blocking on PFF's rankings, while Chicago's was 28th.
The argument that Rodgers elevates the level of play of those around him more than Cutler completely loses traction when you look at the performance Matt Flynn had replacing Rodgers in the 2011-12 season finale.
Over the last three seasons the Bears are 28-10 in games Cutler has started and finished, averaging over 25 points per game. In games that he has missed or left early, the Bears are just 2-10 and average under 12 points per game.
This is not to say Cutler is better than Rodgers, but if Rodgers is the best in the league, how far behind can Cutler possibly be?
In addition to doing grades, PFF does advanced ratings. Their passer rating includes dropped passes, spikes, throwaways and yards after the catch. Cutler ranked 14th amongst quarterbacks who took at least half of the snaps for their team. The only quarterbacks who ranked in the bottom 10 in terms of supporting cast yet had a higher PFF passer rating were Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
Although his off-the-field problems have made it hard for some to respect him on the field, Roethlisberger is elite any way you break it down.
Rivers had a higher passer rating on PFF, but his grade was significantly lower. Rivers received a minus-4.5 to Cutler's 8.7. That suggests his rating had more to do with the players around him than his own performance.
Where Cutler's receivers really hurt him was dropping deep passes. They averaged a league-worst 12.23 yards per drop, according to PFF. They also dropped a number of balls in or near the end zone. Had they caught even half of those Cutler's statistics would look much more elite.
There is no doubt Cutler has all the tools to be among the best in the league.
His arm strength is widely considered to be among the best in the league and he's more mobile than he gets credit for. He picked up first downs on a league-best 36.6 percent of his scrambles—according to ESPN—and his 5.7 yards per carry were fourth-best amongst quarterbacks with 40 or more attempts.
His accuracy is questioned by some, but of the quarterbacks who threw deep as often as he did, only Joe Flacco and Russell Wilson had higher completion percentages, according to PFF.
Cutler's completion percentage will almost certainly be higher in Marc Trestman's West Coast offense. Cutler played in a West Coast scheme in Denver and completed 63 percent of his passes in two full seasons as a starter. In the same offense—with better talent around him—Hall of Famer John Elway completed just 58.6 percent of his passes.
Trestman could be the key to Cutler earning more respect as an elite player at the position. When Trestman came to Oakland, Rich Gannon had completed under 57 percent of his passes for his career and 60 percent the year before. Gannon saw a huge increase in his first two seasons working with Trestman, completing just under 67 percent of his passes.
Not to take anything away from Gannon, but I find it hard to believe he suddenly became a better player when he turned 36 years old. It seems more likely the adjustments Trestman made to the offense helped Gannon find more open receivers. That made it easier to complete passes and eventually Gannon was on top of the league, winning MVP honors in 2002-03.
Gannon himself gave a lot of credit to Trestman in a Chicago Sun-Times article for helping him understand the game better.
Hall of Famer Steve Young is another player who was coached by Trestman and thinks he and his offense can make a big difference with Cutler. Young knows what it's like to go from a bad circumstance to a good one, but he had to change teams to do so. Young didn't become the starter and turn his career around in San Francisco until he turned 30, the same age Cutler will be this spring.
Many think the biggest question Cutler faces is his leadership, but that's an area few are given credit for until they win a Super Bowl. Maybe Cutler isn't always the nicest guy in the locker room, but neither was Michael Jordan.
I don't know if Cutler is going to suddenly become an incredibly different and better player. He can improve his fundamentals and play more consistently, but if the Bears improve his surroundings, those flaws won't be as noticeable.
There is evidence suggesting that if the Bears give him more help, Cutler will take the next step. In 2008-09—his final season with Denver—Cutler had a proven coach in Mike Shanahan, a decent offensive line and Brandon Marshall as his top receiver. That season he finished third in the league in passing yards, seventh in touchdowns and had the fourth-best Total QBR according to ESPN.
As he enters his eighth NFL season at 30 years old, it's hard to believe Cutler would have regressed from where he was when he was 25 and in his second full season as a starter.
If the Bears improve the roster and coaching around Cutler, his statistics should take a jump up as well. And if the wins keep piling up like they have the last three seasons, it will be hard not to consider Cutler elite.
Whether that will happen, only time will tell, but there is no question Cutler has all the tools to be one of the best in the league. Now, it's just a matter of doing it.
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