One of the hot debates in the NFL right now involves the Chicago Bears decision concerning Quarterbacks Jay Cutler and Josh McCown. The two QB’s are almost polar opposites. Cutler is a former first round draft selection with an arm that is among the strongest in the NFL. McCown is the definition of a journeyman, having played on five teams in twelve seasons and only starting a total of 28 games. Cutler will be a free agent in the offseason and a candidate for a franchise tag. McCown will be a free agent as well, and entering the season would have been lucky to receive a $65,000 bonus.
But McCown has captivated the Bears fanbase as well as the eyes of the media. He is the classic underdog that is outperforming the higher paid and better known player. Cutler should soon be returning from injury and Bears head coach Marc Trestman has stated that Cutler will regain the starting job, which is a decision already being criticized. The debate even rages to the offseason with some reasoning that the Bears are better off keeping McCown and letting Cutler walk in free agency.
One can not discount the success that McCown has had since getting his opportunity to QB the Bears. In terms of Yards Per Attempt McCown has surpassed Cutler on every type of throw this season.
In terms of incremental yards, a statistic I keep that measures how many yards a QB generates compared to the average NFL performance based on distance of throw, McCown has generated a positive 249.9 yards compared to a negative 24.6 yards for Cutler.
Interceptions only push the scales in favor of McCown further. McCown has thrown just 1 interception while being expected to throw 5.5. Cutler has thrown 8 picks on a set of throws that should have produced 7.3 interceptions.
That said sometimes these stats don’t tell the full story. Though the two players play on the same team, the strength of schedule has been incredibly different for the two players. Taking out Cutler’s game against the Redskins and McCown’s game against the Lions (since both were short cameos) the pass defenses that the two have faced have put up these numbers in games against other QB’s:
Overall Cutler has had a much more difficult schedule this season, with the only better areas being the 40 yard pass category and pass rush faced. Lets break down the actual percentage increase or decrease that Cutler and McCown post in each category based on their strength of schedule:
This paints a pretty different picture. McCown is producing slightly more yards per attempt but partially that is from working against such a bad defensive set. His completion percentage actually represents less of an increase than Cutler’s has this season. McCown clearly is producing less interceptions, but given his career history it would be amazing for that level to keep up. Cutler produces more touchdowns and is far and away the more productive big play passer, though both are below average. Cutler has also done a better job avoiding sacks this season, though both are good in that regard.
When looking at the numbers in this manner you can see how an argument can be made for Cutler beyond just having more name value. The difference is not great and Cutler has the higher upside to run a more explosive offense.
When it comes to 2014, however, the numbers are close enough to say that there is far more value in the 35 year old McCown at a few million for the year than tagging Jay Cutler for $16 million, But this conclusion is only valid if the Bears do not believe Cutler is a long term solution at the position. To expect McCown to blossom into a quality starter after all these years of being a journeyman is lunacy. Rich Gannon and Steve Beuerlein are the only two to probably have success this late in the career after never establishing themselves as a starter. Gannon would go to have multiple good seasons as QB of the Oakland Raiders while Beuerlein fizzled out.
Bears GM Phil Emery indicated a reluctance to using the franchise tag on Cutler because of the cost of the tag and impact it would have on the salary cap. Emery was willing to spend over $14 million on a relatively unproductive pass rusher in Julius Peppers this season so I think that debunks the fact that $16 million on a QB is unsustainable, especially in light of the Bears cap situation being very open next year compared to this season. In addition the $16 million cap figure in 2014 would rank around 10th in the NFL, nowhere near the top of the position.
The problem with tagging Cutler can be that it sets a baseline value in negotiations that the Bears do not value Cutler at. If you tag Cutler at $16 million and he signs the tender you will need to work that figure into the new contract. Even if he fails to sign it the argument is going to be that the Bears need to negotiate up from that price not down. Cutler is realistically closer to a $11.5 to $13 million per year performer, a number the Bears might not be able to get to if they tag him.
If the Bears new GM sees no reason to sign Cutler long term than there is no need to waste $16 million in cap room and be stuck with someone you do not want. That is exactly what happened with the Chiefs and LT Branden Albert this offseason. Though Albert worked out well for Kansas City and was one of the most effective Left Tackles in the game they only tagged him to trade him. When they were unable to work out a trade that were stuck with a player they did not want and they ended up with a much tighter salary cap situation than they wanted in the first place. That could be a situation Emery wants to avoid.
If the Bears allow Cutler to walk they will not receive compensation for him. They have so many holes to fill and so much cap room there is almost no way that they would not offset his loss in free agency to gain a 3rd round compensatory selection. The Bears gave away multiple first round picks for Cutler a few years back and tagging him gives them a chance to recoup some of that cost from a desperate QB team.
But I don’t think this is a situation where the Bears can simply view McCown as the better player or as a long term answer. This is a situation where the decision is going to be made based on what the Bears internally think of Jay Cutler and if they want to move forward with him. The Bears could be in full rebuild mode next season and when you do that you are better off working in either a young draft pick or a cheap veteran than paying $16 million on a one year rental if they plan on blowing the team up. But it’s not a decision based on McCown’s current performance changing the course of action for Chicago. Chicago was going to face the same decision making process if Matt Flynn was the backup QB. McCown just may make it easier to sell to the public.
Jason is the founder of OTC and has been studying NFL contracts and the salary cap for over 15 years. Jason has co-authored two books about the NFL, Crunching Numbers and the Drafting Stage, which are widely circulated in the industry and hosts the OTC Podcast. Jason’s work has been featured in various publications including the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, NFL Network and more. OTC is widely considered the leading authority on contract matters in the NFL.