Scott Kacsmar | Football Outsiders
In terms of name recognition, the decision shouldn’t be a hard one. Jay Cutler is the starter, Josh McCown has been the career backup. Even during the course of McCown’s current stretch as the Chicago Bears’ starter, coach Marc Trestman has maintained that Cutler is the preferred starter when he returned to health. In that light, Trestman’s decision to go back to Cutler makes total sense.
But that position discounts the recent performance of McCown under center. Career backup or not, McCown has performed at an extremely high level since relieving the injured Cutler. And that’s what makes Trestman’s decision surprising. In sitting McCown, the Bears aren’t benching a run-of-the-mill backup, they’re benching the hottest QB in the National Football League. And in the context of what best aids Chicago’s postseason chances, the Bears are making a mistake.
Let’s start with the upside argument. Cutler’s supporters often have pointed to his impressive potential, his big arm and his ability to be special if he ever could pull it all together. But at age 30, Cutler still hasn’t materialized as a top-end NFL QB. In fact, Cutler has never been as good as McCown has been in this recent stretch.
It’s not just that McCown is the NFC Offensive Player of the Week after shredding Dallas with five total touchdowns. He’s been very good in all seven appearances this season. McCown has a 109.8 passer rating, which would officially rank as one of the highest in NFL history with four more attempts (224 needed to qualify). The best Cutler has done in eight seasons was an 88.5 rating on 137 attempts as a rookie in 2006. (He’s at 88.4 this season.) McCown has had at least a 100.0 rating in his past three games, which is something Cutler has achieved once in his career (2009).
Total QBR factors in all facets of quarterback play, and McCown leads the league with an 85.7 this season (Cutler: 63.2). Yes, he’s even ahead of Peyton Manning (83.5) entering Week 15. McCown’s QBR would be the fourth-highest season by any quarterback since 2006. At Football Outsiders, McCown ranks sixth in DVOA passing efficiency this season, compared to 15th for Cutler, who ranked 21st or worse in his previous four seasons with Chicago.
Beyond efficiency, McCown’s provided volume as well. He’s passed for at least 348 yards and multiple touchdowns in his past three starts. Cutler has six games like that in his whole career and none was in back-to-back games. And McCown has more than just pretty individual stats. He’s producing points to help the Bears rank second in the league in points per game (28.3). McCown has started 60 offensive drives this season and the Bears are averaging 2.65 points per drive with him. That would rank second in the league behind only Denver (2.91). On Cutler’s 84 drives, the Bears have averaged 2.00 points per drive, which would rank 12th.
McCown’s not putting up hollow stats; he’s producing meaningful numbers. The Bears have won three of his five starts and he led a fourth-quarter comeback and game-winning drive against Baltimore. Off the bench, he was able to lead a go-ahead touchdown drive in Washington before the defense surrendered the late lead and against Detroit, he calmly directed a 74-yard touchdown drive in the final two minutes, but the two-point conversion run failed in a 21-19 loss.
To be fair, Cutler has played two of the stingier defenses (Cincinnati and New Orleans) this season, while McCown’s toughest foe was Baltimore (No. 8 in DVOA) on a poor field following a significant weather delay. That said, Cutler’s more daunting opponent has been himself.
One of the flaws in Cutler’s game has always been the risky throws that get intercepted. Both quarterbacks have 13 touchdown passes, but Cutler has thrown eight interceptions compared to one for McCown, who leads the league with a 0.45 interception percentage. Cutler’s never had a stretch in his career where he’s done better than eight touchdowns with one interception. At times, he just can’t help himself from scratching the turnover itch. Conversely, the only two turnovers by McCown this season came in St. Louis with the Bears down 14 and 21 points in the final minutes — essentially desperation-time plays.
The Bears can get big numbers and clutch moments from Cutler, but after eight seasons he’s never shown the ability to deliver consistently, perform efficiently and progress into a better quarterback. So much of today’s Cutler is that same 23-year-old kid with the incredible arm who could make the highlight-worthy throw — but kill his team with a bone-headed decision on the next play.
McCown may not be the long-term solution at quarterback for the Bears, and his career numbers suggest he may simply be riding a streak. But his recent play makes him the hottest quarterback in the NFL, and with the season coming down to crunch time, wouldn’t you prefer to go with the hot hand rather than a historically erratic QB coming back from injury?