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Monday, July 13, 2009

Jay Cutler vs. Kyle Orton vs. Rex Grossman, by the numbers

KC Joyner, of Scientific Football fame and currently guest-blogging at the NY Times Fifth Down Blog, continues to ruffle feathers. He claims that former Broncos quarterback Cutler will be equally mediocre or worse than the two previous Bears QBs, Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman. Joyner:

Alex from Chicago asked how well I thought Jay Cutler would do with the Bears this year. I told him: “I’ve said it many times and I’ll say it again — Cutler will make Bears fans remember Rex Grossman. He’ll make just as many crazy passes but won’t suffer the Grossman fate because Chicago’s fan base is so in love with him that they will forgive the nutty throws he makes in ways that they never forgave Grossman.” ....

Now I understand that fan scrutiny comes with the territory, so I don’t mind that, but what I don’t understand is why those fans are treating Cutler differently than they did either Grossman or Kyle Orton.

Grossman was on fire during the first part of Chicago’s Super Bowl season, and yet as soon as he had the bad game against Miami, it seemed the entire city turned on him. It didn’t go that much differently for Orton. He had a tremendous start to the 2008 season, but when he struggled down the stretch, the populace seemed to say goodbye and good riddance without much of a second thought.

I also don’t understand why there seems to be such excitement about Cutler. Yes, he threw for over 4,500 yards last year, but that was in large part because he put the ball up a whopping 616 times. His 9.8 vertical YPA was lower than that of 19 other QBs last season, and his 4.6% bad decision rate (a bad decision being a mistake by the QB that leads to a turnover or a near turnover) was easily the worst of any QB. He was also the offensive leader for a team that blew a three-game division lead with three games to go. . . .

The only reason I can come up with as to why Bears fans are reacting like this is that the quarterback position has been such a headache for them over the years that they will do just about anything to make it go away. If that means ignoring Cutler’s shortcomings so that at least one off-season goes by without having to wonder if their quarterback’s play will measure up, they’ll do it just for the temporary peace of mind. I do admire that kind of team passion and loyalty, but I’d admire it a bit more if it were done by hoping that Cutler could improve his game rather than by backing his mixed bag of performance history.

Note that he conflates two comparisons, and it's unclear what he's saying precisely. One is that Cutler is the better quarterback, but it is Chicago and thus his success will be pretty much on par with what the other Chicago QBs did. The other is that Cutler is simply no better of a quarterback than Grossman or Orton, and it only appears that way because he threw the ball so much.

My favorite passing stat is yards per attempt, because it sweeps in both completion percentage and the yards gained on the completion; I think it reflects the trade-off between pushing the ball downfield and taking the easier completion for less yardage. I like to adjust it, however, to account for interceptions: I subtract 45 yards for every interception thrown, as that is the basic estimate of how much field position/value you lose. No stat is perfect, but I like this one a lot.

  • In 2008, Jay Cutler threw for 4,526 yards on 616 attempts. He also threw 18 interceptions. Together, that gives him an Adjusted Yards Per Attempt of 6.03.
  • In 2008, Kyle Orton threw for 2,972 yards on 465 attempts, along with 12 interceptions. Together, his Adj. YPA was 5.23.
  • In 2006, the year the Bears went to the Super Bowl, Rex Grossman threw for 3,193 yards on 480 pass attempts. He also threw 20 interceptions. Together, his Adj. YPA was 4.78.

Again, this is just one stat, but I think it's a pretty good indicator, and Cutler far and away scores the best. And, ironically, he does so despite so many more pass attempts: YPA tends to trend back down once a passer goes beyond being mostly a play-action type guy as a play off the ground game, like Ben Roethlisberger has been for much of his career.

Relatedly, let's take Advanced NFL Stats's "Air yards" stat, which calculates yards per attempt without reference to yards after the catch -- yards gained by receivers after they catch the ball. (This stat tends to both measure a QB's ability to complete downfield passes, as well as their propensity to check the ball down to a runningback. Young quarterbacks tend to score most poorly on the list because they struggle downfield and dump the ball off quite a bit.)

Cutler comes in at 7th in the league at 4.3 yards per attempt (again, just "Air yards"), while Orton is 29th with 3.3. In 2006, Grossman's was 3.9, and, in 2007 on much less work, it was 3.5. For comparison, Brady and Manning have spent most of the last few years hovering between 4.9-5.2 (though Peyton dipped to 4.3 this past season).

Having looked at these stats, I think the question is why does KC Joyner think Cutler will be no better than Grossman or Orton?


Tyler said...

"4.6% bad decision rate (a bad decision being a mistake by the QB that leads to a turnover or a near turnover."

Does anyone else have an issue with this stat? How does he measure a "near turnover?" Especially in the NFL where you could possibly have a near turnover throwing the ball on every play. Does he judge tipped passes? Or just making the wrong read on a route (which is entirely subjective for a fan.)

Tom - Chicago said...

He'll be as bad as the previous 2 Chicago quarterbacks because he's out drinking every night. Unless he's McMahon, I expect his liver to turn against him by November...

Dave said...

Joyner is "the Football Scientist." He apparently makes up the Bad Decision stat entirely on his own subjective analysis:

Which begs the obvious question of how do we know he's not making bad decisions when factoring in what is a bad decision?

JS said...

If KC Joyner represents science I'm switching over to witchcraft.

Mike said...

"His 9.8 vertical YPA was lower than that of 19 other QBs last season, and his 4.6% bad decision rate (a bad decision being a mistake by the QB that leads to a turnover or a near turnover) was easily the worst of any QB. He was also the offensive leader for a team that blew a three-game division lead with three games to go. . . ."

Insight into why he had problems with Josh McDaniel/McDaniel had problems with him?

Stan said...

Cutler is a much better QB than Orton or Grossman. The difference is readily apparent to anyone who watches them play for a few minutes.

I'd be careful before putting too much emphasis on the advanced stats, e.g. Manning's drop in air yards. In my opinion, Manning had the best year of his career last season. Of course he dinked and dunked more. That's what happens when your line is so banged up it resembles a sieve in pass pro and produces even less in the running game than it's typical bottom of the league effort. It's what happens when your deep threat becomes so old and slow that mediocre DBs salivate for the chance to play man against him.

Greatness in a QB is revealed in the way they handle horrible pass pro and a non-existent running game. Any half decent NFL QB is going to look like a star when the pass pro is stellar and he has his choice of open receivers.

Chris said...


No I don't drop Manning because of his drop in air yards. I think that was a function of his weaker OL and the fact that his longest serving downfield threat (Harrison) was basically washed up. The run game wasn't all that great either.

And that is the one argument you could make against Cutler, is that beyond the fact that he threw it more than Orton and Grossman, he also (probably) had a better supporting cast of receivers, playcaller (Shanahan), etc. We'll see how that plays out.

I also think this season could be a breakout one for Orton. He has some receivers, McDaniel seems to committed to him and throwing the ball, and the spread-type-pro-style offense is actually something Orton is more familiar with from Purdue, though he also has spent time in the NFL learning the ropes and being conservative (and thus learning his own limits). I'm not saying he'll be a top-flight QB, but I think he could prove to be a very capable starter.

That said his season might look a bit like Aaron Rodgers's last year: prove that you're a legit NFL starter (Orton kinda did that last year already though), but the team will backslide and you won't be perfect. Anyway, he's gonna get his shot and it should be interesting. I just took issue with Joyner's approach here.

Stan said...


I'd also like to address Joyner's issue with "bad decisions" and how it relates to your point about surrounding talent. FO's DVOA ranking for last year had Denver at 5th on offense, 31st on defense and 31st for special teams. Chicago- 22nd offense, 7th defense and 5th special teams.

Pretty clearly, Cutler had to carry the team in a way that Orton did not. When your defense and ST are next to last in the league, the QB is going to have more turnovers and "near turnovers", even if he is making optimal decisions. (I want to stress that last point -- "even if he is making optimal decisions".)

loneweasel said...

To bag on Cutler with an unverifiable and subjective (may I say arbitrary?) stat like "near mistakes" is narrow minded and betrays personal animosity on Joyner's part. Adam Dunn strikes out 200 times a season yet he's a very valuable baseball player. Why? Because he gets on base 40% of the time and gives you 40 homers guaranteed a season.

Every quarterback throws ints. If you only consider those without analysing what else he brings you, it's incomplete (and incompetent) analysis, like judging a hitter solely by strikeouts.

What's the number one task of a baseball hitter to help his team score? Getting on base. What's the number one task of a quarterback to help his team score? To maintain possession. Sure an interception is bad. But a 3-yard dumpoff on 3rd and 7 is not much better. A football team would rather trade a number of 3 and outs for an interception 40-yards downfield once in a while, especially if the defense is as bad as last years Broncos.

Football sabermetrics is still in its infancy. It is not surprising to see that charlatans like KC Joyner still have a market, albeit said market is the website Pinch Salzberg is busy running into the ground.

Anonymous said...

if only we could compare this on an equal plane with surrounding talent. a few undeniable facts: cutler had more time to throw, a more advanced playbook and a LOT more talent at skill positions getting open downfield. time will tell if cutler made the broncos or if the broncos made cutler. in truth, i suspect cutler is not quite as good as his inflated stats made him to be and orton is a little better. but based upon sentiment from players who played with both plummer and cutler, there is no doubt that cutler has a LOT of maturing and leadership development to do. anyone watching him sulk and whine on the bench would attest to that!

WHA II said...

KC Joyner's take on Cutler is myopic because KC focuses too much on Cutler and football is a team game.
Individual statistics are deceiving in the NFL. If you want to rely on stats, then analyze baseball because stats are more reliable in baseball.

Cutler will be better for a couple of reasons.

1. Bears strength of schedule. The Bears one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. Now a 9-7 Patriots is a better team than a 12-4 Bears, but we are focusing on Cutler's performance.

2. The Bears defense is markedly better than Denver's defense from last season.

3. The Bears have a running game. The Broncos were on there sixth string running back by mid-season.

4. Cutler, simply, is the better athlete between Orton or Grossman. Cutler is also smarter. In the NFL, success is not about talent, it is about intelligence and most importantly, execution. Cutler executes better and is smarter than the last two QB's for Chicago.

Adam B said...

Thank you for actually putting some thought and analysis into this debate. I'm so tired of writers like KC just saying what they want without offering any real knowledge and knowing it'll stir things up (->pageviews). As a Bears fan it can be infuriating.

Great article, you continue to bring a balanced and informed opinion to football discourse.

Sean McCormick said...

Football may be a team game, but 1) that doesn't necessarily invalidate the act of applying individual statistics to analyze performance, it just creates a qualifier and 2) as positions go, quarterback is one of the easiest and most straightforward to grade using advanced statistics.

Look at DVOA, which measures how often a player completes a successful play (40% of necessary yardage on 1st down, 65% on 2nd down, conversion on 3rd or 4th down) and then adjusts for the strength of the defense faced. It manages to be decidedly straightforward in grading out the quality of the seasons in question. Here's how the three players rank:

Cutler: 22% DVOA (7th in the league)
Orton: -0.9% DVOA (26th in the league)
Grossman 06: -9.3% DVOA (29th in the league)

I happen to think that a lot of Joyner's statistics leave something to be desired (which is not to say that he doesn't bring anything to the table), but in general, one should avoid lumping all statistics together and insisting that they don't tell a story. They absolutely do- you just need to pick the appropriate statistics.

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