What is a realistic expectation for Jay Cutler?
- Updated: August 7, 2013
For as long as they have been in existence, the Chicago Bears have been defined by defense. That proud tradition has been carried on in the past decade, when the head coach was defensive-minded Lovie Smith and the face of the franchise was middle linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Both of those men were jettisoned this offseason, however, as general manager Phil Emery looks to change the Chicago Bears to keep up with the modern NFL that is constantly shifting in an offensive direction. New head coach Marc Trestman brings with him a resume full of successful offenses, and he will be expected to add to that list in Chicago.
Every successful NFL offense, of course, starts with the quarterback, which brings us to the enigmatic Jay Cutler. The Chicago Bears gave up a hefty package—including two first-round draft picks—to acquire him from the Denver Broncos in 2009, and Cutler has largely underwhelmed since then. Trestman’s first task will be to maximize Cutler’s production.
The obvious question then becomes, just how good can Cutler be? After all, he has already been a starter in the NFL for six years and thrown almost 3,000 career passes. In that time, his best passer rating is 88.1, and his career passer rating is an extremely average 84.0. Is it reasonable to expect a huge jump in production from someone who has already been playing so long?
One thing we can say for sure is that Jay Cutler is not going to suddenly become a top 5 NFL quarterback. If he was going to morph into a Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Peyton Manning, that would have shown itself by now.
It is not out of the realm of possibility, however, to think that Cutler’s performance could improve as the play calling and weapons around him improve. For some perspective on how that could go, let’s take a look at the history of quarterback performance under Marc Trestman. There have been five instances in which Trestman has taken over as a quarterback coach for a team with a quarterback who has started at least three seasons. Those players are listed in the table below, with the previous three years’ average passer ratings next to the passer rating in their first year with Trestman.
|Year||Quarterback||Previous Passer rating||Passer rating under Trestman|
Looking at those five quarterbacks, the only thing that is clear is that we cannot know what to expect. Two of the five (Steve DeBerg and Rich Gannon) improved greatly under Trestman, two of the five (Bernie Kosar and Scott Mitchell) stayed about the same, and one of the five (Steve Young) actually saw his performance drop, although it still remained at a very high level.
So what does this tell us? In all honesty, not much. The sample size is too small to say “Cutler has a 40% chance of improving his passer rating by at least eight points” or something like that. And ultimately each situation will be different.
This does offer some hope that Cutler will indeed be able to improve his performance, although it is not likely his passer rating will suddenly jump by 20 points. I think a best-case scenario would be that it improves by eight to 10 points, AS Gannon’s and DeBerg’s did, putting Cutler solidly in the low- to mid-90s. But it is important to note that is a best-case scenario. It is also possible that, after six years as a starter, Jay Cutler is what he is: an average NFL quarterback.
There is one other possible comparison that I find more interesting because it has occurred more recently. Alex Smith was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers one year before Cutler, and both were high first-round picks. Both failed to live up to expectations for the first six to seven years of their career as they dealt with a new offensive coordinator almost every season.
In 2011, Smith was finally partnered with a reputable offensive mind in head coach Jim Harbaugh. He responded by putting up a passer rating of 90.7 — more than eight points higher than his previous career best — in his first season and improved that rating to 101.0 in two playoff games. In his second year, Smith was posting a 104.7 passer rating before he got hurt and was benched after his backup played extremely well.
Obviously, Bears fans hope Cutler doesn’t get himself benched after a season and a half (although I doubt they would mind if the new quarterback turns out to be as good as Colin Kaepernick), but they would not complain at all if Cutler can mirror Smith’s rise to success.
So after all that, what can we say about Jay Cutler’s chances for success under Marc Trestman in 2013 and beyond?
Nothing for certain, but there is precedent for a quarterback to show notable improvement mid-career after finding himself in the right situation. Of course, plenty of quarterbacks also have stayed what they are after not changing for so many years.
Based on history, I would say that is the worst-case scenario for Jay Cutler, while a best case brings him to a new level of improved production. He’s not going to evolve into Aaron Rodgers, but he could perhaps find himself producing like Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, or Tony Romo, and you can certainly do a lot worse than that at quarterback.
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