As Jay Cutler has struggled with injuries and Josh McCown has thrived in his absence, many have started to suggest the Bears change the direction of their franchise and stick with McCown. A suggestion that is simply foolish.
The question was raised on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike Tuesday morning and has been on the mind of many fans since McCown led the team to a win over the Green Bay Packers. There is very little evidence that that is the direction the Bears should go.
The basic, raw numbers do support McCown, but when you add context, they tell a little different story.
McCown has a passer rating of 103.2, but he's played against mostly bad pass defenses as the Redskins' opponents have an average passer rating of 98.8 and the Packers' are 99.5. So McCown's rating of 90.7 against Green Bay was nearly nine full points fewer than they allow per game.
Prior to injuring his groin, Cutler had a passer rating above 95 against opponents who combined to allow an average rating of 82.9. Even if you go with Cutler's season totals, adding his brief performance against the Redskins and against the Lions the second time, the opponents Cutler faced had an average rating of 85, while his rating on the season is 88.4.
I would argue counting the last two performances isn't really fair. He was just getting started against the Redskins and his rating took a hit because of an interception that hit Alshon Jeffery in the hands. He started 15-for-18 with 148 yards and a touchdown against Detroit before injuring his ankle, which coach Marc Trestman said happened with 2:56 left in the second quarter.
There's no reason to think he wouldn't have continued to gash the Lions defense or started to destroy the Redskins after a slow start.
Now, if you add even more context, it favors Cutler even further.
A lot of McCown's success has come after the catch as he's had 45.4 percent of his passing yardage come after the catch. By comparison, Cutler has had just 32.5 percent of his yards come post-catch.
The Bears receivers are averaging 5.8 yards after the catch per completion from McCown, compared to just 3.7 for Cutler. That two yards per completion adds up quite quickly.
A large part of the reason for that is because the two are operating with different play calls. According to his splits on ESPN, McCown has thrown 77.1 percent of his passes under 20 yards, while Cutler has thrown 72.8 percent that short.
Shorter passes should lead to increased efficiency and accuracy, right? Not in this case.
Cutler has completed 63 percent of his passes, while McCown is right at 60 percent. In McCown's defense, he has had some drops and has thrown six passes away—compared to nine for Cutler—but he still hasn't completed a very high percentage of his passes considering the distance he's throwing them.
Prior to injuring his ankle against the Lions, Cutler was completing 66.3 percent of his passes.
The statistics, when put in even the most basic context, support Cutler as the better player.
The next argument goes to operating the offense, which McCown has done a wonderful job on. He's also had a lot more help.
The thought that McCown has a better grasp of the offense than Cutler is something Trestman quickly shot down during his press conference Monday.
While the Bears scored 41 points against the Redskins and 27 against the Packers, keep in mind they also had their two most productive days on the ground, running for 140 yards against Washington and 171 against Green Bay. In their seven other games, they've averaged 98.3 rushing yards per game.
Against Green Bay, the Bears had to go more than six yards on just seven third downs and converted two. Against Detroit, the Bears had 11 third downs with over six yards to go and they converted five. They started 5-for-6 in such situations before Cutler injured his ankle.
Of course, the obvious anti-Cutler arguments are that he doesn't beat good teams and has struggled against Green Bay.
For starters, this isn't the same Green Bay defense. Over the past three years, opposing passers have had an average rating of 74.9 against the Packers. This year it's nearly 100. Just because the team's name is the same doesn't mean it's the same caliber of team.
Cutler led the Bears to wins over three playoff teams a year ago, Rodgers and the Packers beat two playoff teams. In fact, Cutler has led the Bears to 10 wins over playoff teams the last three years, while Rodgers has defeated nine.
The biggest reason the Bears need to stick with Cutler is because he has special talent and he's starting to tap into it.
Even with his pre-injury struggles against Washington and post-injury woes against Detroit, he's still the 10th-highest rated passer in the league.
Throws like his 32-yard touchdown on the team's first series or any number of throws that Trestman described simply don't happen with McCown or most other quarterbacks.
Cutler may make mistakes, but history suggests you're much better off with quarterbacks who push the envelope than ones who play it safe. Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning make as many mistakes as Cutler and both have two Super Bowl rings. Chad Pennington and Matt Schaub both have career passer ratings over 90, yet they have never even sniffed a Super Bowl appearance.
This is to take nothing away from McCown. He has played very well and he deserves credit for getting the job done when he was called upon. He's a good backup quarterback, but that's all he is.
Nobody likes to play the "what if" game, but what if Alshon Jeffery holds on to two passes in the end zone and Ndamukong Suh doesn't come from nowhere to tip a ball near the end zone. Then we're talking about a gutty, four-touchdown performance for Cutler and the first-place Bears. Three plays that he did just about everything he could have on, but he got bad breaks.
Sticking with Cutler is a no-brainer. Trestman seems to know it and everyone else should too.
All advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required) unless otherwise indicated.