Cutler or McCown?

Joe Bussell at NFL Philosophy has a very interesting piece up about the quandary the Chicago Bears have in terms of their quarterback situation looking beyond 2013. The Cliff Notes are as follows: Jay Cutler, who gets hurt a lot, has gotten hurt again. When he plays, he usually plays well enough to put the Bears in the playoffs. His first season with the Bears, 2009, was a clunker. This year, before he got hurt, he was a un-playoff worthy 4-4 in games that he played in. His record in the three years in between were 10-5, 7-3, and 10-5.

On the other hand, "record" may not be such a great metric to measure a quarterback, which I will elaborate on further below. Even in those three good years, he threw 37 interceptions in those 40 games. The consensus on Cutler seems to be that he is an above-average quarterback, but no star, and I think that's about right. He's in his eighth year in the NFL and we know what to expect from him.

After getting hurt this season, 34-year-old journeyman Josh McCown has stepped into the fold and to everyone's surprise, he has kicked ass: 13 touchdowns, 1 interception. Coming into the season, McCown had had 37 touchdowns and 44 interceptions for his career.

Cutler is in the final year of his contract unless the Bears throw the "franchise tag" on him, in which the team can prevent him from negotiating with other teams, and in return, the player is assured to be paid commensurately with the top five salaries at his position. There's also the non-exclusive franchise tag, which allows the player to negotiate with other teams but then if another team signs him, they have to hammer out a deal with the old team for compensatory draft picks.

The Bears are way under the salary cap so they have room to maneuver here and indeed, can afford to overpay for Cutler. And make no mistake, Cutler is not a top-five quarterback, probably not a top-10 quarterback, so paying him top-five numbers would be to overpay him.

But Bussell makes the case, more or less, that the Bears are better off with Cutler than with McCown and so would be justified putting one of the two franchise tags on him. And I agree, but only as far as the non-exclusive tag, because again, I don't see paying Jay Cutler among the top-five quarterbacks in the league to be a winning strategy. Bussell makes much of McCown's age (34), but Cutler is 30 himself and has not been able to string two non-injury-free seasons together since 2009-2010.

But as Bussell points out, a lot of teams need quarterbacks and Cutler is a way, way, way better option than the Chad Hennes and Christian Ponders teams are throwing out there. The Bears should absolutely try to recoup something on that if Cutler leaves.

Should they let Cutler leave? I lean towards yes. Give McCown the keys to the kingdom. It's risky in that McCown is, once again, 34, and has never played this well before. But I think it's a better risk than asking Cutler to stay injury-free for years and do better than only throw a handful more touchdowns than interceptions.

Bussell has some great stuff expounding on the ways in which McCown has been effective. He's throwing at a 72% clip on aimed throws (which eliminate spikes and throwaways), 4th in the league. He's done it by being a dink-and-dunk guy, a la Alex Smith and Brad Johnson. This is a much-maligned type of quarterback because they can't create the fireworks Tom Brady or Peyton Manning can, which you need for comebacks and just for excitement; fans generally don't like this type of quarterback. But Smith got the job done is San Francisco, is getting the job done in Kansas City, and Johnson won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.

And, as Bussell says, that's a particularly workable formula in Chicago, because Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are bruisers rather than speed demons. And here is where age becomes important: Marshall is 29 and Jeffery just 23. If you want to build an offense for the long haul, why not do it around these guys, and find a quarterback that suits their physical, YAC-heavy style?

That would seem to be more McCown than Cutler, and again McCown has been amazing this year, so why aren't the Bears winning? That's Bussell's biggest trump card against McCown. For all his superior stats, the Bears are 3-4 in games where McCown carried most of the load, and 4-3 when Cutler did — and Cutler did it against far tougher opponents.

The sabermetric community has pretty much completely disavowed "wins" as a meaningful statistic for pitchers. Besides batting average, I'm not sure there's a more maligned stat among baseball geeks. So much of whether a pitcher wins or not come down to circumstances beyond his control.

So why on earth is the same logic not applied to quarterbacks? If you've thrown 13 touchdowns against one pick, and only Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, and Philip Rivers have a higher completion percentage on targeted passes, what the hell else can one ask of you? He has the right receivers for his game and he has the right coach (Bussell calls Marc Trestman "the quarterback whisperer"). Why not try to keep going with that for the next 3-4 years, draft or trade for an heir apparent in 2015 or 16, and use all that fabulous cap space to shore up a defense that's allowing 6 yards per play (30th in the league)?

In short: let Cutler walk, get draft picks for him to augment your copious cap space, use both those things to fix the defense, let McCown do his thing for a couple more years, worry about a franchise quarterback after next year or later. Seems like the best solution to me.

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