Most of the knocks on Jay Cutler can be rationalized one way or another, with varying degrees of plausibility: He had poor protection; he didn’t have an NFL-caliber wide receiver corps; he was in a new offense; he was with a new coordinator; a bad defense forced him to do too much.
The one knock that sticks the most is this: In 2013, with optimum conditions — an intact offensive line and the best set of receivers the Bears have had in the modern era — Josh McCown clearly outperformed Cutler. In 11 starts that season, Cutler threw 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and had an 89.2 passer rating. McCown’s numbers in eight games (five starts) were relatively off the charts: 13 touchdowns, one interception and a 109.0 rating.
It didn’t necessarily mean that Josh McCown was the quarterback of the future for the Bears, but his productivity and efficiency exposed Cutler’s biggest flaw like never before — as talented as Cutler is, he just doesn’t have the focus to consistently avoid the mistakes that turn an otherwise positive performance into a losing one.
Are we seeing the same effect with Brian Hoyer? In the post-McCown era, Jimmy Clausen’s inefficiency re-heightened Cutler’s value. Now Hoyer’s modestly efficient production in place of Cutler are re-shining a McCown-like light on Cutler’s performance.
In three games (two starts), Hoyer has completed 67-of-97 pass attempts (69.1 percent) for 697 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions for a 103.3 rating. His 120.1 rating in a 17-14 victory over the Lions last week (302 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions) was the second highest for a back-up quarterback in the Cutler era — exceeded only by McCown’s 140.1 (four touchdowns, no interceptions) against the Cowboys in 2013.
“He’s played very consistent,” offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains said. “He’s been very efficient moving the offense. He’s done a nice job getting us in and out of the huddle and distributing the ball to the right guy.”
It could be that Hoyer is the beneficiary of good timing. When Cutler was starting, guard Josh Sitton was still introducing himself to teammates. The offensive line had never played a snap as a unit. Cutler was sacked eight times in two starts.
Hoyer has been sacked three times in 110 drop-backs — a credit to his awareness but also to an improving offensive line and a game plan against the Lions that allowed him to roll out and avoid the rush.
“I think Dowell has done a good job of coming up with plays and knowing where our strengths are,” Hoyer said when asked to explain his productivity. “And the offense kind of coming together. The offensive line kind of gelling together. They’ve been playing better, giving me time to throw the ball.
“And a bunch of receivers, tight ends — everybody making plays, the running game going. So I think it’s just the whole offense improving each week.”
It’s kind of strange how everything seems to come together for competent back-ups like McCown and Hoyer, yet Cutler always seems to have to rise above the muck and be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
It’s happening again. Hoyer figures to start against the Colts, who are 22nd in defensive points allowed (25.3 per game) and the Jaguars, who are 28th (27.8) and maybe the Packers, who are 18th (22.3). With Cutler’s luck, he’ll return against the Vikings, whose defense is second in points allowed (12.5) and also has scored 15 points this season.
That’s only if Cutler is the starter when he’s healthy. Coach John Fox indicated he’ll go with the hot hand. But if the Bears’ offense gets on a roll, he’s got to give Cutler a chance — just to find out if it’s the offense, or the quarterback.