Cover-1: What's Wrong with Jay Cutler?
by Doug Farrar
(Note: My apologies for the abridged "Cover-1" this week; I got through most of the Cutler piece just in time for a nasty head cold to whomp me upside the head. Back to normal next week. -- Doug)
It's safe to say that the trade sending Jay Cutler to Chicago hasn't worked out for either the quarterback in question or his new team. After throwing 18 interceptions in all of 2008, Cutler has already tossed 20 through 11 games in 2009. And the Bears, having spent Kyle Orton, two first-round draft picks, and a third-round pick (not to mention the contract extension Cutler signed in October), didn't give up all that scratch for a guy flanked in this week's DYAR rankings by Brady Quinn and Josh Johnson.
After watching Cutler struggle with all manner of issues through his first Chicago season, my original idea was to analyze his footwork and see if mechanical degradation was the key to his sub-par performance. It didn't take long to realize that while Cutler will probably never join the "perfect-plant-and-throw" ranks, his ability to look like a marquee quarterback was pretty far down in the list of problems. The numbers bear that out for the most part; his completion percentage isn't down discernibly from previous years, with one notable exception.
|Jay Cutler's Completion Percentage|
Where you see the difference is in the manageable deep throws (throws of 16 to 25 yards) that had become a hallmark of Cutler's skill-set -- the big-play ability and downfield arm that made him a very big problem for opposing defenses. The bombs of 25-plus yards or more are generally more about straight line receiver speed and broken coverages unless they're designed plays. (See: Brady to Moss.) What the current Bears don’t show at all is the array of effective route combinations common to all great passing offenses. (See: New Orleans Saints. Then, see them again. Wow.)
I had the opportunity to ask Greg Cosell of NFL Films and ESPN's State Farm NFL Matchup where the problem really lies. Cosell believes that Cutler, an idiosyncratic quarterback at best, is falling apart in a system that plays to none of his strengths. "He’s always been a guy that’s struggled with mechanics," Greg said. "He’s never been what you’d call a fundamentally sound quarterback -- he’s never been a guy you’d show an instruction tape of as he drops and throws. I think there are a few fundamental differences between Cutler then and now. In Denver, he was dealing with a better offensive coaching staff, a better scheme, a better offensive line, and better receivers. Which, all of that put together, could camouflage and mask his fundamental deficiencies."
"I think you’re seeing the cumulative effect of a lot of things. One is an offensive line that is probably the worst in pro football. As you play more and more games, and there's more and more pressure, a quarterback who is not naturally mechanically sound, will become worse because no one likes to have people in their face all the time. Very often, when quarterbacks take shots early in games, you see them start to lose their mechanics over the course of a game, get rid of the ball too early, start to play too fast."
Those deep throws going all over the place? "He's waiting for the pressure. He's perceiving the pressure now when it's not there because it’s happened so often, he’s just expecting it to happen. He’s always been a tight window thrower. That’s one of the things that makes him different and that’s an attribute I think you have to have in the NFL, but he needs receivers who are bigger, who are more physical, who attack the football, who can make contested catches -- he doesn’t have one receiver like that in Chicago. And I’m not talking about tight ends, I’m talking about wide receivers. He’s got receivers who are runners. They don’t attack the ball; they don't make contested catches."
“At the end of the day, every single thing that’s going on with Chicago’s offense, and I haven’t even mentioned a running game that is probably also the worst in the NFL, everything is conspiring against Cutler. So now you’ve got a decision to make as an offense. Do you try to play the game to throw four yard passes, three-step drops, five-step drops, just so he doesn’t throw interceptions?"
Is Cutler mechanically fixable? And can the system work around him? "Everybody’s mechanically fixable, it all depends on how hard you want to coach a guy," he said. "That’s the same problem with Tony Romo. He’s mechanically fixable, too, but I don’t know how he's coached because he doesn’t play as if he's being coached. There’s a reason Donovan McNabb is a week-to-week quarterback, and you have no idea what his accuracy is going to be week-to-week. It’s because his mechanics aren’t very good. Of course that's fixable. Mechanics are always fixable. The next question is 'Will it make a difference?.'"
The more I talked to Greg, the more I believed the Bears would have been better off keeping Kyle Orton and the draft picks. Greg assured me that at his root, Cutler has talent that can't be duplicated. "He is probably the best pure thrower in the National Football League. I'm just talking about throwing a football. Even off-balance, there are throws he makes that are just absolutely remarkable."
"Quarterbacks are always the ones who take ... the people who don't like him to begin with, and believe me, there’s a large group of those people -- we know that -- are just going to say that he stinks. He doesn’t stink. He’s an unbelievable talent that needs to be harnessed. Arguably, the two most gifted quarterbacks, in terms of pure, physical gifts, are Roethlisberger and Cutler. No one throws a ball like Cutler. He’s unbelievable."
"Cutler has always been a very accurate guy. You know that he’s not himself by the fact that his accuracy has gone away a little bit. You know there’s something wrong. His interceptions didn't come from inaccuracy; his interceptions came from ill-advised throws."
But what happens to that talent if there's no room for it? Against the Vikings, Cutler came out of the box in a way that told me two things: First, the Bears' coaching staff was setting things up to eliminate risk. Second, anything but dink-and-dunk when you're looking at a Jared Allen-Orlando Pace matchup is just nonsensical. On Cutler's second throw of the game, on second-and-3 from his own 42 with 10:58 left in the first quarter, Allen got around Pace with no resistance whatsoever, and Cutler bailed out to Earl Bennett at the line of scrimmage for a loss of two yards. When Cutler hit tight end Greg Olsen for a three-yard out on third-and-five, Olsen could gain only one more yard after the catch because cornerback Cedric Griffin and linebacker Chad Greenway were playing close in, waiting for the short pass, and knowing that the Bears had admitted defeat in a strategic sense. Three quick passes, and a three-and-out.
It was difficult to know what to make of Cutler's mechanics early on -- the guy's obviously talented enough to complete quick outs -- but I was astonished to see Pace get no help with Allen on any of those plays. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner managed to combine the protection leakage of wide sets with the inflexible non-production of a quick-screen-only offense. It was mind-blowing.
On the next drive, Cutler's job was to hand off three times to Matt Forte, which got the Bears another three-and-out for their trouble. In my quest to analyze Cutler's footwork on even medium-length passes, I had to skip forward to the second quarter, when the Bears put together their first productive drive starting at the 14:46 mark. A 44-yard kickoff return by Danieal Manning set the Bears up at their own 46. After four quick passes and an incompletion in which I thought Cutler was going to go all "Bob Griese in Super Bowl VI" and get sacked for a 29-yard loss, he finally hooked up with speed demon Johnny Knox on what seems to be the one repeatable deep throw in the Chicago playbook: Knox on a straight go to a little end zone fade, burning past the cornerback in tight coverage, as Cutler drops back and heaves the ball downfield off a back-foot plant. That’s how Chicago got a 24-yard touchdown with 12:17 left in the first half. When you're facing a line like Minnesota's, and you have no protection, your only hope is that your deep receiver is faster to the completion of his route than Jared Allen is in knocking your head off. That's a dangerous game to play with an asset you gave up so much to get.
The next deep pass of any note came with 2:51 left in the first half, and here's where it all came to a head: an interception sparked by terrible footwork. Cutler had Knox on the left side this time, with Griffin covering him tight again, and Knox veered to the edge of the end zone as he had on the touchdown. When Cutler released the ball, his left shoulder hadn't opened up yet. Instead of either throwing off his back foot (which he's still better at then anyone I've ever seen) or planting and using forward momentum to drive his throw, Cutler was just alternating from his right to his left foot in a little shuffle. It was almost as if he was trying to take a little off the throw to place it in Knox's vicinity, but the ball was pretty severely underthrown, and Griffin just hung back for the pick.
This was the play that made me decide to write about Cutler this week -- for all the unusual aspects to his throwing motion when he was bringing it in Denver, I have never seen him so indecisive (or, as Greg might say, he's never played so fast). That's the word that comes to mind when I watch Jay Cutler now, and while I have no clue what's going on in his head, the tentative throws I'm seeing indicate a shell-shocked player in a situation that doesn't work for him at all.