What the Bears Are Gaining and Giving Up By Starting Jay Cutler

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IDecember 13, 2013

Ask anyone inside Halas Hall who the starting quarterback of the Chicago Bears is, and you'll get the uniformed response of Jay Cutler

Inquire with head coach Marc Trestman, whose opinion is the only one that really matters, and he'll make it abundantly clear that he's already decided on Cutler as his starting quarterback over 34-year-old Josh McCown. 

On Thursday, Trestman declared Cutler the starter for Sunday's clash with the Cleveland Browns, per the Bears' official Twitter account

The simmering national debate, centered around how well McCown has played while Cutler rehabbed ankle and groin injuries, insisted that Chicago had a quarterback controversy on its hands. But that's been nothing more than outside noise. 

Trestman is sticking with Cutler, and McCown, who won NFC offensive player of the week honors after taking part in five touchdowns against the Dallas Cowboys Monday, will go back to the bench. 

"I look at it like Jay is our quarterback and when he was ready to play, he was going to play," Trestman said, via Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune. "That was the same view I used a month ago. And there's no change today."

Time will tell if that decision is the right one. The Bears are currently tied with the Detroit Lions atop the NFC North with three games to play.

Here is what the film review says the Bears are gaining, and potentially losing, by starting Cutler over McCown.


Arm Talent

McCown is averaging a full yard more per attempt than Cutler this season (8.2 to 7.2), but don't let that confuse you: Cutler is one of the NFL's special arm talents.

The term "arm talent" is somewhat overused in NFL jargon, but it applies in full to Cutler. He can make any throw to any part of the field, and even the smallest windows are exploitable with Cutler pulling the trigger. This leads to many of the "wow" throws you see from Cutler as well as many of the head-shaking interceptions. He has a great arm and knows it, and sometimes that confidence backfires. 

McCown has certainly proved the ability in his arm. He has five touchdown passes and zero interceptions over 20 yards this season. But his arm strength—an even more vague term—doesn't come close to matching Cutler's. 

Check out this throw from Cutler in 2012. Few in the game have the kind of velocity needed to complete this scoring play:



Accuracy is one area in which you can look at the stats in 2013 and make a reasonable assumption about which quarterback is better. 

Over eight games this season, Cutler is completing 63.0 percent of his passes. It's a 2 percent jump over his career number (61.0), and it stands to be his second-best season ever completing passes (only his 63.6 mark in 2007 would be better). But even Cutler's 63.0 completion percentage fails to crack the top 10 of quarterbacks this season. He's always been in the middle of the pack in terms of accuracy.  

Accuracy: Jay Cutler vs. Josh McCown
Jay CutlerJosh McCown
Comp %, 201363.066.8*
Comp %, Career61.059.4
*Career best

McCown is a different story, but only because of this season. His career mark of 59.4 percent doesn't paint the picture of a very accurate quarterback. But with Trestman in Chicago, McCown's percentage has skyrocketed to 66.8. He's completed at least 70 percent of his passes in three different games, and only once (at Green Bay) did he finish under 60.0. 

Career numbers would suggest Cutler is more accurate passer, but McCown has put that case to rest. In the Trestman offense, McCown wins accuracy by a slight edge. 

And the "Cutler is more accurate down field" argument doesn't fly. Cutler has completed 17 of 42 (40.5) attempts over 20 yards, while McCown is 10 of 23 (43.5). 



Neither quarterback is what you'd call dangerous as a runner, but each has shown an ability to move in the pocket and create on the run. 

Cutler has four different seasons with over 200 yards rushing, but those yards are earned exclusively by scrambling. He can improvise in the pocket and escape pressure, and he's a tough runner who isn't afraid to take a hit in the open field. He doesn't possess breakaway speed by any measure, but Cutler has more than enough athleticism to make plays on the move. 

The same probably wouldn't have been said about McCown before this season, but his stint as the Bears starter has proved otherwise. Of McCown's 12 scrambles, five have created first downs, and another put the Bears into the end zone (versus Dallas). His 72 rushing yards over seven games would put him on a 16-game pace of over 160, which would set a new career high. 

The edge here still goes to Cutler, who is a better overall athlete and more creative escaping pressure. And his big arm allows him to make throws on the run most quarterbacks wouldn't even think of attempting, including McCown. 



Here's where we get to the nuts and bolts of the argument for McCown to play over Cutler. 

For all his ability as a quarterback, Cutler's main weakness still resides in consistently making the right decisions. Even with Trestman aboard, the big mistakes haven't escaped Cutler's game. 

Over his eight-year career, Cutler has thrown 108 interceptions, or one every 29.8 attempts. He has eight picks in 2013, including at least one in five of his eight games. He was on pace to throw 16 over a full season, which would have marked the fourth time Cutler has thrown at least 16 interceptions in a single season. 

McCown has been the polar opposite in 2013. 

Over 220 attempts, McCown has thrown just a single interception (at St. Louis). He has a sterling passer rating of 109.8, which highlights not only how productive he's been but also how protective of the football he continues to be. 

Rarely do you see McCown forcing a throw or trying to fit a pass into a tight window. He stays within the offense and relies on his playmakers (of which there are many) to produce the big plays. It's a safe, efficient strategy that has worked wonders for McCown and Trestman. 

The question now is whether Cutler can do the same. His turnover ways didn't look fixed early in the season. And the Bears probably can't afford turnovers over the final three games. Putting McCown back on the bench increases the probability that Chicago will need to overcome mistakes on offense. 


Big Plays

It would be easy to assume that the Bears offense took a hit in terms of big plays with McCown under center. But that wouldn't exactly be true. 

Cutler has attempted 265 passes this season. Those attempts have provided 22 gains of over 20 yards and five over 40. 

McCown has 45 fewer attempts but only one fewer gain of over 20 yards (21) and two fewer gains of over 40 (three). Clearly, McCown's average attempt of over eight yards (only Nick Foles, Aaron Rodgers, Russell Wilson and Michael Vick are averaging more than eight yards per attempt this season) shows that McCown isn't afraid to push the football down the field. 

Alshon Jeffery has been the biggest benefactor of McCown under center, as 14 of his 22 plays over 20 yards have come since Cutler was injured. He likely would have blossomed into the breakout star he is with Cutler healthy, but McCown has certainly played a role in his emergence.

Contrary to popular belief, the Bears aren't gaining much in big-play potential by bringing Cutler back into the starting lineup. It's clear Chicago didn't lose its ability to attack down the field with McCown under center. 


What Does It All Mean?

There is a reasonable argument to be made for McCown to be the starter for the Bears moving forward. But that argument means very little, as Trestman has stuck to his guns with Cutler and made very clear the quarterback hierarchy in Chicago. 

Maybe that decision will backfire. Maybe it won't. 

Overall, the Bears are returning a quarterback with a top-10 skill set to an offense tailor-made to make the position successful. Cutler will bring his elite arm, surprising athleticism and big-play ability back into the fold. 

In the process, the NFL's No. 2 backup (Foles has to be No. 1) will return to the bench. And he'll take with him a red-hot arm that has protected the football and put up big points and yards. 

It's a gamble for Trestman, but it's one he committed himself to early in the process. When healthy, Cutler is the starter and McCown his backup. With three games left, the Bears must now hope Cutler is the correct choice at quarterback. 


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