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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Mike Sando's MVP Watch

By Mike Sando

Jay Cutler
Does Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler have a case for being in the MVP conversation? The numbers don't necessarily back it up.
The Chicago Bears have a 13-2 record in Jay Cutler's past 15 starts.

They have a 1-6 record in the games he has missed during that time.

That has to make Cutler a prime candidate for MVP Watch, right? His presence must mean everything for the Bears. We all know quarterbacks are usually the most important players on their teams. And we've all heard about what a gunslinger Cutler can be with that strong arm and defiant nature.

"MVP! MVP! MVP!"

Now comes the hard part: proving Cutler is indeed such a key player for the Bears.

Let's take a closer look at the Bears' 1-6 record without him.

That record includes a defeat at San Francisco this season. Cutler wasn't going to stop Aldon Smith from getting 5.5 sacks. He wasn't going to stop Colin Kaepernick from lighting up the Bears' defense. He wasn't going to win a game the Bears lost 32-7 without him.

Cutler missed the final six games last season, five of them losses. Running back Matt Forte missed the final three-plus games. Having Cutler available probably would have enabled the Bears to finish better, but Chicago wasn't going to win at its usual clip without Forte. Lots of starting quarterbacks improve their teams' chances for winning relative to what a backup would provide. That doesn't make them MVP candidates.

The one game Chicago won without Cutler during the 1-6 stretch in question came during Week 17 last season, against Minnesota. The Bears picked off three passes from Joe Webb and Christian Ponder, returning one for a touchdown.

In 2010, the Bears won the lone game Cutler missed, defeating a horrendous Carolina team on its way to winning the Cam Newton sweepstakes. Bears backup Todd Collins threw four picks in that game. Forte carried 22 times for 166 yards. The Bears won 23-6.

Doesn't exactly enhance those MVP credentials for Cutler, does it?

Neither do the stats.

Cutler ranks 20th in Total QBR at 50.4 this season; 50 is average. Tom Brady is in the low 80s. Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks usually score in the mid-60s or higher. Cutler ranks a distant third among NFC North quarterbacks by this measure. He isn't all that far ahead of Minnesota's Christian Ponder (47.7).

Cutler ranks 26th in NFL passer rating at 81.1, which is below the 86.9 figure covering every pass thrown in the league this season. He has 13 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

But Cutler comes through in the clutch, right? Yes and no.

Cutler has a 92.9 QBR score (out of 100) on 16 fourth-quarter plays when the score was within eight points. That ranks second to MVP Watch leader Peyton Manning and right ahead of St. Louis' Sam Bradford. That's fine, but all 16 of those plays were against the Rams and Panthers. Cutler completed 10 of 14 passes with no touchdowns. He also rushed twice for 20 yards in those situations.

To further explore the clutch theory, I filtered ESPN's charting database for higher-leverage situations, defined as those when play results have above-average impact on win probability.

It's a more complicated way to measure what the vernacular calls clutch situations, but the math is sound. Ten years of charting information says teams are either more or less likely to win based on the results for each play. Some situations are more pivotal than others.

Cutler's QBR score falls to 44.4 with two touchdowns, five picks and 14 sacks in higher-leverage situations, meaning situations when the stakes were above average. That compares to a 63.3 QBR score with four touchdowns, one pick and nine sacks in lower-leverage situations.

Overall, Cutler has three touchdowns, six picks and a 47.0 QBR score in one-score games, defined as those when the margin is within eight points.

Perhaps someone else can build the MVP case for Cutler. I'd like to hear it.