It’s hard to dispute statistics that indicate Josh McCown has been more productive than Jay Cutler this season. If you break it down by possession and include Cutler’s pick-6 against the Redskins — when he didn’t get a chance to recover from a first-half flop — and the home game against the Lions when Cutler obviously was not 100 percent healthy, the Bears’ offense statistically has been more productive with McCown than Cutler. McCown’s passer rating this season is 103.6. Cutler’s is 88.4. That’s a bit of a clue.
But the argument exposes the fallacy of raw data. Over the course of an NFL season, there are several variables that impact the data. The argument that McCown has been more productive than Cutler ignores three key points:
1. Cutler’s first six starts came when the Bears’ offense was in a formative stage under Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer. It was expected that the offense would grow as the season progressed and that Cutler would grow with it. Sure enough, Cutler’s two best starts statistically were in Games 5 and 6 against the Saints (128.1 passer rating) and the Giants (106.5).
McCown picked up the Bears’ offense when it was in a higher gear. His first start was in Game 8 against the Packers. His other starts came in Games 10-12. That’s a big difference in the first year of an offense.
2. Cutler faced opposing defenses in the first six weeks of the season that were fresher and closer to full strength. McCown has had the advantage of attrition — while the Bears have not had one other offensive starter miss a game this season, McCown has faced the Packers without Clay Matthews and Brad Jones; the Ravens without Haloti Ngata, Elvis Dumervil and Josh Bynes; the Rams without Cortland Finegan; and Vikings without Harrison Smith, Erin Henderson and Josh Robinson.
3. McCown has done most of his work against weaker defenses — including the Redskins (22nd in total defense), Packers (21st), Rams (19th) and Vikings (31st). He’s faced only one defense that ranks in the top 10 in total defense (the Ravens, ninth).
Cutler faced three defenses that currently rank in the top 10 — the Bengals (eighth), Saints (sixth) and Giants (10th). He also faced the Steelers, who are not the defense they’ve been, but still rank 12th in the NFL in total yards allowed.
You can argue that McCown has been more productive than Cutler this season, but that’s not really the point. What’s done is done. It’s which quarterback would be more productive in the final three games of the season? For Phil Emery’s sake, it better be Jay Cutler. McCown’s performance solidifies the Bears’ No. 2 position and opens up possibilities for Emery in the offseason — a draft pick or a possible castoff like Matt Schaub might work in this offense if Cutler is intent on breaking the bank. That was evident long ago.
As for next season, I would argue that for all practical purposes, Cutler might be more vested in the Bears than they are in him. If McCown — who had a career 71.2 passer rating coming into this season — can be this productive in Trestman’s offense, the Bears will find another quarterback who can be just as effective. But the only sure thing with Cutler’s next stop is the money. Unless he and Mike Shanahan can hook up somewhere, Cutler will be learning yet another offense and working with yet another offensive coordinator he likely doesn’t know. With a sure thing in Chicago and the difficulty he’s had in connecting with his coordinators, Jay has to seriously ask himself if, at 31, he wants to take that risk.