There is no quarterback in the NFL whose public perception is as far removed from reality as Jay Cutler. Based on my extensive experience, I can say with certainty Cutler is not acknowledged as a top-10 NFL quarterback entering the 2012 season. That assessment is wrong.
I remember studying Cutler when he came out of Vanderbilt in the 2006 NFL Draft. It was the same year in which Vince Young and Matt Leinart were the two highly celebrated college quarterbacks, much more so than Cutler. As always, the tape told the story. While Young and Leinart had some passing deficiencies that were blatantly evident, I was wowed by Cutler’s ability to throw the football. He was a big-time arm talent who could drive the ball at the intermediate and deeper levels with velocity. Not many delivered the ball the way Cutler did.
You may recall one issue raised in the evaluation process was Cutler’s tendency to force throws into coverage. Those who said that were wrong. Cutler was throwing to wide receivers matched one-on-one on the outside. Here’s the way it works in the passing game: The best you can get is man coverage. When that happens, the quarterback expects his receivers to get open. If your receivers do not win, it’s not the quarterback’s fault. At Vanderbilt, Cutler threw a lot of passes to receivers that could not win against more talented SEC corners. That was viewed erroneously as a troubling indication of poor judgment and decision making.
When you watch as much tape as I do, only the most singular plays from years past remain embedded in memory. Yet, there’s one from Cutler’s third NFL start with the Denver Broncos — against the Arizona Cardinals — that still stands out in my mind. Cutler, off play action, rolled by design to his left. He turned his front shoulder, balanced his feet with his back foot planted, and then, in the face of pressure, threw it 65 yards in the air. It dropped accurately and easily into the hands of Javon Walker, as if Cutler had handed it to him. It was one of the best throws I had ever seen, one very few NFL quarterbacks would have even attempted, never mind completed.
I always believed the pairing of Cutler and Mike Shanahan in Denver would have yielded positive results over time. Unfortunately, circumstances prevented that from happening.
It was Cutler’s first season in Chicago, 2009, that has likely tainted Cutler’s public perception. He threw 26 interceptions, the most in the NFL. He threw 15 of them in four games, three of those games nationally televised. In addition, six of those 26 interceptions came in the red zone, which also led the league. That season painted a negative portrait of Cutler as a reckless, careless, irresponsible quarterback who lacked the necessary control and discipline to play at a consistently high level.
There was certainly an element of truth to that indictment. Cutler was a confident, aggressive and at times arrogant quarterback who pushed the envelope. A guy who believed he could make every throw, every play. He seemed to play with no conscience, no regard for game situations and game management. The result was throws that looked about as bad as could be, head scratchers that left many wondering what he possibly could have been thinking.
Let’s drill down a little deeper, separate reality from perception and evaluate Cutler after five full seasons as an NFL starter — focusing solely on the measurables of his play and not subjective observations like body language or press conference demeanor. Cutler is one of the best pure throwers in the NFL. His elite arm strength gives an offense every dimension in the pass game. He throws the deep digs (about 20-22 yards between the numbers) as well as any quarterback in the game. He has deceptive movement skills, with the ability to make throws down the field on the run. There’s little hesitation to his game; he intuitively turns it loose.
Cutler is often what I call a “see it, throw it” passer. By that I mean he must see his receiver break open before he pulls the trigger. His powerful arm allows him to do that. He’s not a true anticipation passer, throwing the ball before receivers begin their breaks. He’s capable of it, and there are instances in which he has done it, but that’s not the signature of his play. While accuracy is certainly not a negative, his ball location can be a little imprecise at times. And I mentioned his red-zone struggles in 2009. In fact, in the three years from 2008-10 (2008 was his last season in Denver), Cutler was poor in the red zone. He threw 13 interceptions, easily the highest total in the NFL. That’s unacceptable. In 2011, he started 10 games before injury ended his season. The improvement was evident: He did not throw a single red-zone interception.
I remember Cutler’s first playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks in the 2010 season, when the Bears were NFC North champions. He threw for two touchdowns and ran for two more. He was controlled, disciplined and aware — not turning over the ball once. Seemingly forgettable plays like an eight-yard scramble on third-and-2 on a third-quarter touchdown drive showed his understanding of game situations and his ability to manage them. I don’t hear many people reference that game when discussing Cutler. My sense is it doesn’t fit the pre-determined narrative.
Rarely talked about is Cutler’s ability to take over games — the most recent example last year against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday Night Football. He can do that as a result of his throwing ability. It comes back to a simple point: Cutler can make throws that not many others can. As I’ve stated many times in previous blogs, it’s a function of attributes. Cutler has all the necessary traits to play at a high level. Are there some inconsistencies he must clean up? Absolutely. I have documented those.
Don’t lose sight of one other point. The Bears were 7-3 when Cutler got hurt last season. Then they lost five in a row. All the talk had been about Matt Forte, how the offense ran through him, how he was the key. Again, perception suppressing reality.
Cutler, in many ways, is still a work in progress as he begins his fourth season in Chicago. He likely will always make some throws that seem ill-advised at best, and just plain foolish at worst. Those throws can’t be defended. They result from the belief and trust he has in his own ability. But make no mistake: Cutler is a “wow” passer with the ability to carry an offense, and a much better player than he’s perceived to be.
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