Can Bears QB Jay Cutler Stay Healthy for a Full Season in 2014?

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Can Bears QB Jay Cutler Stay Healthy for a Full Season in 2014?
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Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman knows he needs a healthy Jay Cutler for the Bears to get over the hump and back into the postseason in 2014. 

Unfortunately, staying on the field has been an issue for Cutler over the last four seasons.

In 2011, he missed the season's final six games after undergoing thumb surgery. Last season, a groin tear and a high ankle sprain cost him another five starts. He also missed one game in 2010 and 2012, both times because of a concussion. 

Cutler's recent injury history likely has little to do with his offseason training regimen, but Trestman says his quarterback has been putting in the work this summer to protect his body for the September through January grind.

"He’s bigger, he’s stronger than a year ago, and he has really focused on staying physically well for the entire season," Trestman said on SiriusXM radio, via Rich Campbell of the Chicago Tribune. "That’s No. 1—we’ve got to keep him standing, keep him safe."

Jay Cutler Injuries Since Joining Chicago in 2009
Games Missed Injury
2009 0 N/A
2010 1 Concussion
2011 6 Thumb surgery
2012 1 Concussion
2013 5 Groin, ankle

*Cutler has missed 13 starts since 2009

The Bears know all too well how detrimental losing Cutler to injury can be for a season's outcome. 

Chicago lost a chance to go to the Super Bowl in 2010 when Cutler left at halftime of the NFC Championship Game with a torn MCL. The Bears would lose by a single touchdown, as B.J. Raji's interception return for a touchdown against third-stringer Caleb Hanie provided the final difference. 

In 2011, Chicago started 7-3 and looked ready to clinch a playoff spot under Cutler's control. Then his thumb injury in Week 11 put the Bears into a fatal tailspin, as Chicago lost five of its final six games and finished just 8-8. During the final six games, the Bears averaged just 14.2 points and 141.8 passing yards per contest with Hanie and Josh McCown under center. 

Alex Brandon/Associated Press

A year later, the Bears started even better—seven wins in eight games—but again crumbled down the stretch. Cutler's concussion suffered against the Houston Texans cost him the next week, and the Bears lost both games with Jason Campbell at quarterback. Chicago would go on to lose five of six games, costing itself a sure-fire playoff appearance in the process despite a 10-6 overall finish. 

Last season, a 4-2 start was thrown into the disarray when Cutler suffered groin and ankle injuries. The Bears fared just fine with McCown this time around—he went 3-2 as a starter and posted a 109.0 passer rating—but Chicago still lost four of its last six games (including each of the final two with Cutler under center and a chance to clinch the NFC North) to finish 8-8. 

Since Cutler arrived in Chicago in 2009, the Bears are 39-28 (.582 winning percentage) when he starts and 5-8 (.385) when he doesn't. 

"Hopefully we can get him through safe and get him to play a 16-game season," Trestman said. "I know that’s predominant on his mind. If we can keep him safe and healthy, we feel like we can be in every game."

Keeping a quarterback healthy for a full season is a difficult task in today's NFL.

Quarterbacks Playing 16 Games, 2009-2013
QBs w/16 Starts QBs w/14+ Starts Cutler Starts
2009 13 22 16
2010 12 18 15
2011 14 19 10
2012 20 25 15
2013 17 19 11

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Last season, only 17 quarterbacks started all 16 games. In 2010, only 12 lasted the entire season. 

Since 2009, quarterbacks have started 16 games in a season 76 times, or roughly 15.2 per season. On average, less than half of the NFL's starting quarterbacks are making it through a full season every year. 

Only four quarterbacks—Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Eli Manning and Philip Rivers—have started all 80 games since 2009. 

Yet despite missing 13 starts since arriving in Chicago, Cutler's 67 starts still rank 11th over the last five years. He's started just two games less than Tony Romo and four less than Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger. This highlights how little longevity and durability currently exists at the position. 

Cutler's health will be even more important in 2014. While Trestman—now dubbed the "quarterback whisperer"—has shown an immediate ability to maximize production from the position, McCown is now in Tampa Bay. Behind Cutler next season will be some combination of Jordan Palmer, David Fales, Jerrod Johnson and Jimmy Clausen. There's no guarantee the Bears will get backup play anywhere near what McCown delivered in 2013 next season. 

Without Cutler for 13 games since 2009, the Bears have averaged just 19.3 points, 190.5 passing yards and over two turnovers per contest. And these putrid numbers exist despite McCown's heroics last season. 

Chicago Bears Offense Without Cutler, 2009-2013
Year Opponent Points Passing Yards Turnovers
2010 CAR (W, 23-6) 23 51 4
2011 OAK (L, 20-25) 20 229 3
2011 KAN (L, 3-10) 3 88 3
2011 DEN (L, 10-13) 10 86 1
2011 SEA (L, 14-38) 14 89 5
2011 GB (L, 21-35) 21 242 2
2011 MIN (W, 17-13) 17 117 3
2012 SF (L, 7-32) 7 58 2
2013 GB (W, 27-20) 27 271 0
2013 BAL (W, 23-20) 23 215 0
2013 STL (L, 21-42) 21 344 3
2013 MIN (L, 20-23) 20 345 1
2013 DAL (W, 45-28) 45 341 0
TOTALS 5-9 251 2476 27
AVG - 19.3 190.5 2.1

Source: pro-football-reference.com

Keeping a quarterback healthy has everything to do with reducing the amount of hits he takes. While every quarterback will take a hit or two during the season, the healthiest at the position are the ones who consistently avoid getting sacked.

Last season, the top nine teams in sack percentage (a stat that measures sacks against the number of dropbacks) were the following: Denver Broncos (2.9 percent), Detroit Lions (3.5), Cincinnati Bengals (4.7), Bears (4.9), Indianapolis Colts (5.2), New Orleans Saints (5.4), Dallas Cowboys (5.6) and New England Patriots (6.0). Of those nine teams, seven had their quarterback play all 16 games. Only the Bears and Cowboys (Romo played in 15 games) had quarterback difficulties.

Unless Cutler is inherently injury prone, another season of top pass protection should keep him healthy. The Bears are now strong along the offensive line, and Trestman's offense preaches quick, timely decisions from the quarterback. 

However, Cutler's injuries have been somewhat freak occurrences.  

If Jay Cutler plays 16 games next season, do the Bears make the postseason?

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He took a hit to the outside of his knee in the NFC title game. He hurt his thumb attempting to make a tackle in 2011. His first concussion came during a first half in which he was sacked nine times. His next was on a dirty hit from Texans linebacker Tim Dobbins. Last season, a routine sack caused considerable groin damage. 

The Bears can only do so much to protect him. Maybe the extra work this summer will pay off in the form of better luck on the injury front. 

"Jay has really worked hard in the offseason, and he has always been a hard worker in his conditioning and his training, but he has really amped it up," Trestman said. 

A season's outcome is never as simple as the quarterback simply staying on the field, but the Bears are 27-19 during the three years in which Cutler has played 15 or more games. A full season of Cutler and Trestman working together in 2014 would likely produce similar results.

 

Zach Kruse covers the NFC North for Bleacher Report. 

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