In the wake of the dramatic restructuring of the Denver Broncos, the big story has not been the acquisition of a new coach or changes in offensive and defensive philosophy, but the trade of Jay Cutler to the Chicago Bears.
Many people have been so caught up in the loss of Cutler that they consider the Broncos' season over before training camp has even begun. What do the numbers really say about Cutler and his success in Denver?
The most impressive thing about Cutler is his arm. No one in football has a stronger arm. Add to that Cutler’s mobility and ability to throw on the run, and he can be a formidable weapon as he has proven in his brief career. Cutler has the ability to make any throw on the field.
Oddly enough, Cutler’s one weakness is that he is much less effective when forced to stay in the pocket.
During his brief tenure in Denver, Cutler was surrounded by great offensive talent at the receiver position and was one of the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league. One would expect great numbers from a great quarterback in this situation, and Cutler delivered, but how do his numbers compare to other great quarterbacks in similar situations?
The Broncos were 7-9 in Cutler’s first year and 8-8 in his second, but much of that is blamed on Denver’s defense.
How bad was Denver’s defense?
That’s not as easy to evaluate as one might think. In 2008, the Broncos had a turnover differential of -17. In 2008, Bronco opponents got 101 points off of Broncos' turnovers.
In 2008, Cutler alone threw 18 interceptions and fumbled five times. This might be forgivable if Cutler was under great pressure all the time, but Cutler was sacked only 11 times all season. Cutler had 20 of the team's 30 turnovers.
The 448 points given up by the Bronco defense made them the third worst in the NFL, but 101 of the points given up were from turnovers directly attributable to Cutler. Had the Broncos only given up 347 points, they would have been a middle-of-the-road defense. Even a more realistic 400 points would have potentially been good enough to make them a playoff team.
The Bronco defense was still not very good, and had they gotten into the playoffs, it would only have been because the Chargers had an off year. The point is that Cutler added to the defensive woes by giving his opponents extra possessions and short fields to work with.
How do Cutler’s stats measure up?
Cutler’s passer rating ranks him 14th in the league and his completion percentage is 16th in the league. Only one passer threw more times than Cutler in 2008, but Drew Brees has a significantly higher QB rating and completion percentage.
Cutler’s yardage stats are impressive, but they suggest Cutler is only great between the 20s. When you look at Cutler’s completion percentage in the red zone, it drops all the way down to 56.9 percent. By comparison, Brees’ percentage goes up to 71.4 percent in the red zone. In fact, Cutler's red zone percentage puts him in 11th place in the NFL, again mediocre.
The Broncos were second in yardage per game but only 16th in points scored. When you rate Cutler and the Denver offense by yardage, they were great, but if you go strictly by scoring, the Broncos were a mediocre team.
Cutler’s team or Shanahan’s team?
One of the things people tend to forget when they look at Cutler is just how loaded Denver is on offense. In 2008, Cutler was surrounded by two receivers who were close to 1,000 yards in receptions; Brandon Marshall was well over and Eddie Royal just under, along with one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. Cutler was also working behind an offensive line that gave up only eight sacks. In a lot of ways, Cutler was in the ideal situation for a young quarterback.
Mike Shanahan had designed his offense for John Elway, and Cutler has very similar skills. Between Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, Cutler was being carefully groomed in the mold of Elway. Cutler’s decision-making in the Shanahan system was minimized.
Shanahan had already been successful with a running system that left only very basic decisions to the running back. For years, he could plug in any running back and boast a decent running game.
The quarterback spot was being run in a very similar way. Brian Griese, Jake Plummer, and Cutler all had similar success over the years. Griese’s third year saw him with 19 touchdowns to only four interceptions and a quarterback rating of 102.9. Plummer’s best years as a pro were in Denver.
Comparing Cutler to his post-Elway predecessors, Cutler has better yardage but many more interceptions than Griese, while he has similar yardage and slightly fewer interceptions than Plummer. Both Plummer and Griese had higher winning percentages than Cutler though. Neither Plummer or Griese would ever be mistaken for a franchise quarterback.
One thing that is very different though is that both Griese and Plummer were better at diversifying the offense. Cutler’s 181 throws to Marshall was unusual for a Shanahan quarterback.
Any Broncos fan of the last 12 years will always have a soft spot for Shanahan. Without Shanahan, Elway retires a loser and the Broncos are just a team that wants to win a Super Bowl.
He was brought in because he was an offensive genius, and he proved it with back-to-back Super Bowl wins. The offensive scheme Shanahan created was good enough to work even after other teams in the league had caught on to it and knew how it worked.
Shanahan gained a large part of his reputation early on by working with Elway in the early part of his career. He furthered that reputation in San Francisco when he helped Steve Young turn his career around after Joe Montana was gone. One thing Shanahan does very well is build an offense around a quarterback.
Shanahan’s success with quarterbacks like Griese and Plummer suggest that he can make even a questionable quarterback look very good.
When the Cutler trade was announced, Mike Ditka was quoted as saying;
"People ask me one question: Is he a good quarterback? Well, he has a great arm. He had great receivers up in Denver, they had an offense that threw the football a lot, so it highlighted his strengths. If he's in an offense that doesn't highlight his strengths, what's his strength going to be? It has to be leadership, like Tony said. And he has to prove that."
Tony Dungy said:
“He is a very talented guy who can throw the ball very well. But quarterbacking is so much about leadership and so much about doing things under pressure. There is going to be a lot of pressure on him."
"We'll see about his maturity level. That's what I would question. And some of the things that happened leading to him leaving Denver ... that would concern me as a head coach. He can make all of the throws, but quarterbacking is much more than just making throws."
These two former coaches both recognize one thing. Cutler has spent all of his three years as a pro in an offense designed for him and with a coach who carefully led him through the game. Lovie Smith is not Mike Shanahan; he won’t alter his offense drastically to suit Cutler.
Cutler won’t be surrounded by the kind of offensive talent he had in Denver. He will be surrounded by the winds that Chicago is known for. He’ll be expected to adapt his play to a more conservative game plan which emphasizes protecting the ball.
Shanahan’s magic is gone. Will Cutler disappear without it?