The elephant in the room that has been emerging out of this NFL season lurks in the Mile High City. Statistical data suggest the large gray mammal can no longer be ignored. The comparison of a young talented quarterback to a first ballot Hall of Famer hardly seems fair.
In many ways it’s not fair to compare John Elway and Jay Cutler until you compare them statistically side by side as they would rate at the exact same spot during their NFL careers.
John Elway played in the very first game of his rookie year with the Denver Broncos while Jay Cutler had to wait until the 12th game of the 2006 season to replace Jake Plummer. While Elway got an earlier start to his career than Cutler did, it is interesting to note that the two have landed in a similar place statistically as Jay Cutler heads into the sixth game of his third season in Denver.
Throughout this comparison it is imperative to remember both of these careers are being compared over the exact same time frame through two seasons and five games unless otherwise indicated.
One of the most surprising statistics is that Cutler only trails Elway by a total of only 40 passing attempts. Elway had two rushing touchdowns and Cutler has only one. Ironically enough, Elway’s efficiency statistics trail Cutler’s by 66 pass completions as well as a full 10.6 percentage points in completion percentage and one touchdown pass.
So what do these pieces of data suggest? On one front it appears to confirm something the Denver Broncos knew all along. In his rookie year, Elway was thrown into the fire far too soon, starting in games that probably should have been in the hands of veteran QB Steve DeBerg.
Moreover, these statistics suggest a slightly more conservative offensive scheme that Dan Reeves was known for during Elway’s first years in Denver. Reeves's approach was rooted from his days with the Dallas Cowboys playing and coaching under Tom Landry.
That philosophy, simply stated, was to keep the games close and open up the offense only as needed in order to win the game at hand. In Denver, the offense remained immeasurably more conservative than other offensive schemes of the day.
The Broncos have apparently learned their lessons from the past in giving Jay Cutler time to develop into a system quarterback who could make a higher percentage of completions. During the same time period of Elway’s career, the West Coast Offense was starting to bloom in San Francisco with the 49ers under Bill Walsh and Joe Montana.
The West Coast Offense is an offensive scheme that has had a large impact on the way offensive football is executed and coached in today’s game by lending a versatile approach to attacking problems defenses pose. Innovations like offensive system development have helped Cutler to progress and develop rapidly as an NFL quarterback.
Given the statistical data, it’s incredibly hard to ignore the fact that Cutler is the closest thing to Elway the Denver Broncos franchise has ever seen outside of the man himself. Both quarterbacks were from well-respected colleges where the academic environment is highly competitive and cerebral.
Elway played in a fairly competitive Pac-10 conference that had the likes of USC, UCLA, and the arch-rival Cal Bears to contend with. Cutler played in the South Eastern Conference (SEC) against the likes of Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, Alabama, and the list goes on.
Both quarterbacks were clearly battle tested, so it made sense that they were both drafted in the first round. What didn’t make sense was that Cutler had to wait to be drafted at the No. 11 spot in the 2006 draft by the Denver Broncos.
Elway was drafted first by the Baltimore Colts No. 1 overall and eventually traded to Denver in exchange for Mark Herman (QB), Chris Hinton (OL), and a first round draft pick which eventually became Ron Solt (OG) because he refused to play for the Colts' organization.
Elway was drafted on April 26th and Cutler was born on April 29th 1983, immediately following the NFL draft weekend.
The biggest number of all that stands out is the contract terms. Cutler’s contract is worth $35.16 million more than Elway’s contract when it was signed just over 25 years ago. Elway became a sound business personality in metro Denver and quickly had car dealerships worth over $35 million back in the early days.
Given all of the statistical data, it’s obvious these two quarterbacks have led parallel careers in workmanlike fashion. Both of these quarterbacks are amazing talents, but in some fundamental areas, there is some separation while some of the grading remains subjective.
In the area of leadership, this is probably John Elway’s greatest strength and Jay Cutler’s greatest weakness. At this same point in their careers, Elway had been in two playoff games and had won a division championship. The Broncos eventually wound up losing a tough physical battle in the divisional playoffs to Pittsburgh at home after John's second year in the league. Cutler has been on a team that has been slightly behind the curve of those Broncos teams in their development and have failed to reach the playoffs yet. However this current team is showing a great deal of promise to make the playoffs this season and to contend for years to come.
With regard to reading defenses, this was one of Elway’s weaker points. This was probably due more to the system, coaching, and the time period John played in than it anything else. Today the game is entirely different, so it’s easy to see how the Broncos' staff has nurtured the maturation process of Cutler into their offensive scheme.
Completion percentage is probably the single strength advantage that Cutler (63.3 percent) has over Elway (52.7 percent). The other piece of this puzzle, however, is that Elway was turned loose much earlier to throw the deep ball than Cutler had been prior to this season.
Ironically enough, Cutler’s completion percentage through the first quarter of the 2008 season is actually up to an amazing 65.4 percent. Elway finished his third year with a 54.0 completion percentage.
As a rusher, there are few quarterbacks in the history of the NFL who have been better than Elway was. Certainly the only comparable quarterbacks who have run and thrown as well are probably Donovan McNabb and Jay Cutler is on his way to being the other.
Elway had an escape-ability that could only be matched or surpassed by talent like McNabb, Michael Vick, Randall Cunningham, Vince Young, or Cutler. Without a doubt Elway wins this one hands down, in part because he had no choice but to run with his poor protection and conservative system. Nonetheless, he has outrushed Cutler by over 200 yards at the same point in their careers.
With regard to their playmaking ability, this is a dead heat on a high level. There really isn’t a single throw that one of these quarterbacks can’t make. Additionally, there is not one throw that one of these quarterbacks could make that the other couldn’t make, and this may just be the biggest tell as to just how similar these two quarterbacks really are.
Elway built part of his reputation for carrying the Denver Broncos on his back. With the current play of the Broncos' defense, it’s very possible Cutler is molding himself to become Elway in this regard as well. Elway never had a talent like Brandon Marshall so early in his career, although Shannon Sharpe proved to be a welcome addition when he started out with the Broncos.
In terms of their passing technique, this is Holy Grail Territory; it’s the one thing both quarterbacks will always defend about themselves, as well they should. Even as this article is being put to press there is now news that Cutler has told the Sporting News he has a stronger arm than Elway did during his career. For the money, both of these quarterbacks have as good an arm as can be found in NFL history, save Brett Favre and Dan Marino. Elway in his prime could throw a football just over 80 m.p.h. at will and Jay Cutler can do the same.
The largest differential or gap here is in the fundamental passing technique. Elway had one of the fastest releases, with exceptions to the likes of Dan Marino, Jim Kelly, and Brett Favre. Elway would hold the ball up near his shoulder in tight and would gun it out in a hurry.
This is part of the internal clock system that allows quarterbacks to get rid of the ball or escape and run as needed. Cutler has a technique that is probably too relaxed, because his release literally starts down near his stomach and hip area. This is the single area where Cutler must improve his technique, because with this technique a quarterback is more susceptible to fumbling the ball away when attacked from the back side.
This technique will also lead to more balls falling out on his throw due to the whip motion. Does this sound familiar, San Diego? This has indeed been the case early on in Cutler’s career. His internal clock has sharpened up, but he needs to consider using Elway’s technique, since it will make him better than he already is. The added benefits are fewer turnovers, a sharpened release, and a sharper internal clock.
Inside the pocket Elway was highly effective in a conservative system. Cutler’s offensive system is sound through years of testing by the Broncos and he reaps the benefits in that regard. Out of the pocket, both Elway and Cutler are as lethal as it gets. Defenses know they better get the sack or a pick or else they are in trouble. The biggest difference is that Elway was highly skilled in rolling out, setting up, and gunning the ball out.
Cutler appears to be more fluid out of the pocket than Elway was, to the point of where he throws on the run better than Elway did. That is probably a direct result of Cutler learning under Jake Plummer, one of the best quarterbacks at throwing on the run.
However, Cutler will probably discover over a period of time that there is an added advantage to finding enough space to set up and gun the ball out in a manner that Elway made famous. So when it comes down to their overall scrambling ability, Cutler and Elway are in a dead heat.
Cutler is probably faster than Elway was, but Elway had a much better clock telling him when he had to exit the pocket and make something happen. Elway was also a master at creating space for himself to create the big plays.
Finally, it is far too early to say Cutler’s career truly compares to Elway’s entire career. The greatest gap and reason for that is that Cutler must help the Denver Broncos make the playoffs regularly and he must eventually win AFC Championships and win in the Super Bowls before a fair comparison can be made.
Cutler has proven that he has all of the potential in the world, and it will be fun to see him up against the best the game has to offer over the coming years, but his potential to get the Broncos back to championship contention is apparent and highly ironic at this point in time.
Cutler has a lot to live up to in following Elway’s legend; his play and statistics to this point in his career stack up well against Elway’s accomplishments and show he could have a very bright future in Denver.
Elway and Cutler through the Same Point in Their Careers (Game Five, Third Year)
QB Comparisons John Elway Jay Cutler
College: Stanford Vanderbilt
Draft Position: First overall, Baltimore Colts 11th overall
Head Coach: Reeves / Phillips / Shanahan Mike Shanahan
Games: 31 26
Passing Attempts: 830 795
Completions: 437 503
Percentage: 52.7 63.3
Touchdowns: 38 39
Interceptions: 37 23
Rushing Yards: 480 267
Passer Rating: 69.2 90.6
Wins and Losses: 19-12 13-13
Playoff Record: 0-2 0-0
Original Contract: Six years, $12.7 mill Six years, $47.86 mill $11 guaranteed
Intangible Edges (year 3 in the NFL)
Leadership: A- B-
Reading Defenses: B B+
Rushing: A+ A-
Playmaking Ability: A+ A+
Supporting Cast: B+ B-
Passing Technique: A+ B+
Arm Strength: A+ A+
In the Pocket: A- A
Out of the Pocket: A+ A
Scrambling Ability: A A
Division Champs: 1 0
Wild Card: 1 0
Overall Career Championships
AFC Championship Games: 6 0
Super Bowl Games: 5 0
Super Bowl Champs: 2 0
Years Played: 16 3