By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) The NFL has become a turnover league.
At the midpoint of the season, every division leader has an even or positive turnover margin. Conversely, every last-place team — with the exception of the Browns, who have a winning record — has a negative turnover margin. Quite simply, giving away opportunities to score points is a losing formula.
The NFL is also a quarterback driven-league.
While the most recent collective bargaining agreement created labor peace through the 2020 season and capped rookie spending, it didn’t even out the disproportionate amount of dollars that are spent on quarterbacks. In reality, it’s unavoidable.
Teams entrust quarterbacks to be coaches on the field who can execute game plans and keep the team in the best position to move the ball and score points. Obviously, organizations are paying for quarterbacking talent, but they’re largely paying for decision-making.
Shifting the focus from macro to micro, the Bears are 0-5 in games in which they’ve lost the turnover battle, and quarterback Jay Cutler’s decision making has left a lot to be desired.
Is Cutler the only reason for the Bears’ 3-5 start? Absolutely not. Neither the Bears defense nor special teams are playoff-worthy groups, but their offense has the potential to be, which puts the onus on Cutler to deliver.
The Bears’ lack of quality talent and depth in the back seven of their defense has been exposed, and opponents throw the ball at will. The same issues they had on defense heading into the season — middle linebacker and safety — remain unsettled, which calls into question how honest general manager Phil Emery was in his evaluation of the roster. Their special teams units have provided no boost in field position. However, as bad as those other phases of the team have been, Cutler has done them no favors. He’s made crucial turnovers in three of their losses — to Buffalo, Green Bay and Carolina — two of which were one-possession games.
Cutler finds himself rubbing elbows with the NFL elite when it comes to his pay grade. His $22.5 million cash figure is the highest among all NFL quarterbacks, and his $18.5 million cap figure is third. Yet, when it comes to Cutler’s performance in a turnover league, he finds himself among rookie starters.
Using a sample of quarterbacks who have attempted at least 150 passes this season (29 satisfy this criteria), I set out to quantify the number of passing attempts a quarterback makes, on average, before he turns the ball over via interception or fumble lost in the pocket.
The numbers were very telling.
Denver’s Peyton Manning was the best of the group. On average, Manning makes 84 passing attempts before committing a turnover. Per game, Manning averages 36 pass attempts, which means he can play roughly nine straight quarters of error-free football.
Rounding out the top 10 were Arizona’s Carson Palmer with 77, Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer with 73, Seattle’s Russell Wilson with 69, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers with 62, New England’s Tom Brady with 56, San Diego’s Philip Rivers with 54, Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger with 50, the New York Giants’ Eli Manning 45 with and Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton with 43.
Where did Cutler rank on this list, you ask? Cutler’s average of 24 passing attempts before committing a turnover ranked him 27th, just ahead of the New York Jets’ Geno Smith whose average was 19 and Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles whose average was 16. Certainly, that’s not the company the Bears expected their $54 million-dollar (guaranteed) investment to keep.
Cutler averages 36 pass attempts per game, which means the team can’t count on him to play more than three quarters without turning the ball over.
“He’s a 3-5 quarterback right now,” Emery said Monday. “There’s a lot of things he’s gotta get better at, there’s at a lot of things we’ve got to get better at. In terms of protecting the football — in the fumbles, he had the one against San Francisco, had the one this past week (against the Patriots) and had the one the previous week against Miami. Some of them are just situations, a guy coming from a blind side, but obviously you have to keep the ball up and away. We got to get better at that. Obviously he knows that. He holds himself accountable for it, and he’ll continue to strive to get better in that area.”
These are fundamental aspects of quarterback play that most would assume are a given for a player with 114 career starts.
“In the past, he was better than everybody around him, and when you’re better than everybody around you, you’re pressed to make plays,” Emery said. “Coming out of Vanderbilt, some of his things from a technical standpoint were concerning, in terms of coming off the back foot, protecting the football. And a lot of that revolves around trying to make plays. And Jay, like a lot of players in that position, has a little bit of a gunslinger personality in terms of, ‘I wanna be the guy making the plays.’ He trusts his arm. Those are habits. Habits are hard to improve.”
Habits are indeed hard to improve, and Cutler’s seem to be acute. However, Emery thought with the proper coaching and surrounding talent that Cutler’s physical gifts could be unlocked. This may have been another miscalculation by Emery, who has had more than a few in his three years on the job. But seeing that there are no in-season cures for the Bears’ talent ills on defense and their youth on special teams, they need Cutler to break his bad habits. Otherwise, they’re stuck for two-and-a-half seasons paying someone at a premium rate for rookie-level production.
Dan Durkin covers the Bears for CBSChicago.com and is a frequent contributor to 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @djdurkin.