Jay Cutler and the “Franchise Quarterback” Fallacy
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Every team would have wanted Jay Cutler behind center for them, looking at the price he commanded in the offseason.
But now? Cutler was intercepted 5 times last night in San Francisco, including twice inside the red zone, in a game where his team could have won with only field goals. The Bears fall to 4-5, and frankly, they’re lucky to be there.
Cutler’s case is an excellent example of the Bears (and to a lesser extent, the Redskins, who ended up being outbid for Cutler) making two critical errors into evaluating a player in another NFL system: the first being that they failed to see a situation when they were very obviously purchasing at a premium, and the second being that both teams made the assumption that their systems were similar, despite the quarterback differences. What Cutler’s case does not show is a case of a player who regressed from his third to his fourth season.
Jay Cutler can make, and has made every one of the throws that had impressed the Bears enough to toss two first rounders at the prodigy back in April, and in his greatest moment as a Bear, Cutler led his team to a comeback victory over the defending world champion Pittsburgh Steelers. It would not be an incorrect statement to say that the Bears got a franchise quarterback in Cutler.
But that’s just it. They acquired someone elses franchise quarterback, and they paid a premium for it. The assumption that all franchise QBs are the same would be ludicrous. Cutler is not, and will never be Carson Palmer, Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or Philip Rivers. He can, however, be competitive with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Donovan McNabb, and Jason Campbell in the NFC.
Marc Bulger was once thought to be a franchise quarterback. Kurt Warner was one, then he wasn’t, now he is again. It’s a tag that Jake Delhomme and Daunte Culpepper once wore. Right now, Brett Favre is offering the Vikings better play than most “franchise” quarterbacks are offering their teams. Heck, some considered Jon Kitna to be a franchise quarterback.
It’s not at all uncommon for a team to draft a player in the first round, fail to make the playoffs three years in, and start looking in a different direction. However, when the Broncos did this after hiring Josh McDaniels, Cutler went berserk. No one, myself included, thought Cutler wouldn’t work out in Denver, but he needed a better defense, some seasoning, and an attitude adjustment. Cutler posted very impressive 2008 numbers, ranked in the top five in DVOA, and was the least frequently sacked quarterback in the NFL.
But the Broncos new that the quarterback would not be the heart and soul of their new system, and they were willing to consider life without Jay Cutler. For suitors like the Bears and Redskins, Cutler was viewed as the gunslinger that they couldn’t miss on. A Brett-Favre clone, if you will. So, if there is in fact wisdom in crowds, what did the crowds miss on Jay Cutler?
The crowds failed to see that when Cutler is at his worst, his trademark precision and zip on his passes leaves him. When Cutler posted top five quarterback numbers, it wasn’t because of his daring style as much as it was due to the five guys in front of him keeping him in rhythm and on balance most of the season. In a system that emphazied pass protection and many receiving options, Cutler thrived.
Neither the Bears, nor the Redskins can handle NFL defensive rushes consistently enough to support a full-version NFL passing game. Both teams allowed themselves to be deluded by visions of grandeur: at his very best, Cutler can change the dynamic of a game: not only of the way the game is played when he’s on the field, but also when he’s on the sideline.
But the reason Cutler was at his best in Denver more often than not is the same reason he’s been at his worst in Chicago. In Denver, Cutler was a piece of the machine that Mike Shanahan built over many seasons. He was the 11th overall pick in 2006. No one really thinks the Broncos reached on him at that draft position. But he also joined third round pick from that draft Ryan Harris at RT, a 4th rounder the next year, Chris Kuper at RG, and the 12th overall pick in 2008, Ryan Clady at LT. Brandon Marshall was a 4th rounder in 2006. Eddie Royal was the Broncos 2nd rounder in 2008. Tony Scheffler was the team’s 2nd rounder in 2006.
Cutler was chronologically the first piece to the Broncos offensive puzzle, but the entire thing was put together before Cutler’s third season. Note that neither the Bears, nor the Redskins felt like they needed to rebuild the offense. Cutler was not to be the first piece, he was to be the missing piece. Add a franchise quarterback, and what do you get?
Well, if the Broncos had not added any of the players above, you wouldn’t have gotten very much. And that’s exactly where the Chicago Bears are right now: where they started. Kyle Orton wasn’t much of a project to work with, but he also didn’t cost the Bears as much as Cutler cost the Broncos. The reason the Broncos have been more successful with Orton than the Bears have been with Cutler is because of the picks made after the first round in 2006.
The Bears have added: WR/PR Devin Hester, G Josh Beekman, TE Greg Olsen, OT Chris Williams, RB Matt Forte, and WR Earl Bennett in the same three drafts following the Broncos selection of Cutler. Put simply, the Bears offense is ineffective not because it was missing a quarterback, but because those players don’t match-up well with any of their Broncos counterparts.
Both the Bears and the Redskins are young offensive teams. But unlike the Broncos, there isn’t much talent in that youth. Cutler represents the talent, but if you’re trying to add a piece (both the Bears and the Redskins already had young quarterbacks) to the puzzle, do not pay the “franchise” premium.
That franchise designation isn’t yours, and you can’t take it with you.