Recent analyses of Cutler's 2008 season have been paradoxical, seeming to indicate both that he performed well under pressure and that he choked. On the one hand I recall someone mentioning that his third-down conversion percentage was 45 percent vs the league average of 37, and that he did relatively well in the fourth quarter. On the other hand Denver was one of the top scoring teams after three games but was something like 24th the rest of the way; and Jay's QB ratings for the last three games were 74.3, 72.4 and 74.9, respectively, when one big game might have been enough to get us into the playoffs. Can we resolve this paradox and arrive at a deeper understanding?
I believe a key to this apparent contradiction is the notion that sustained perfection takes a toll. We see it in winning streaks. Game after game the team has to play just intensely enough, just well enough, to add one more win to the string. The strain is cumulative. The 2007 Patriots outscored their opponents 331-127 during the first half of the regular season, 258-147 during the second half. Their average point differential for the two halves was 41.4-15.9 vs 32.3-18.6. The closest they came to losing during the first half was 34-17 against Cleveland, but during the second half they barely beat the Colts 24-20, the Eagles 31-28, the Ravens (a week later) 27-24, and the Giants 38-35. Clearly, they were beginning to struggle. And in the playoffs they beat the Jaguars 31-20 and the banged-up Chargers 21-12 before finally succumbing to the Giants in the Super Bowl.
The 1972 Dolphins don't at first glance follow this pattern, with an average point differential of 24.0-12.4 during the first half of the season and 31.0-12.0 during the second half. They held up so well, I think, because their offensive strength was a dominating running game. Yet even they struggled in the playoffs, winning 20-14 over the Browns, 21-17 over the Steelers and 14-7 over the Redskins in the Super Bowl. The 1985 Bears, in contrast, roared through the playoffs, 21-0, 24-0, 46-10, having picked up one loss (24-38 to the Dolphins) late in the regular season. That loss relieved the pressure and they gradually picked up steam - 17-10, 19-6, 37-17 - before their dominating playoff run.
I think this same notion applies to individual performances, in Jay Cutler's case in two senses. First, because the Broncos started so many drives deep in their own territory he often had to gain more yards and convert more third downs in order to score. More plays, especially in a predominantly passing offense, means more opportunities to lose the ball on downs or make a mistake. Second, and more important, his style and developmental level created a dynamic that wore him down over the course of the season.
Many people have commented that Jay still doesn't go through his progressions very well, that he locks in on one receiver. They also say he makes too many bad decisions. There are at least two senses in which this can be said, and the term "bad decision" doesn't have quite the same meaning in both instances. It's often used when a quarterback attempts a pass because he either doesn't see a defensive player or doesn't realize his potential for making a play. The term "bad decision" implies bad judgment, but in these instances the quarterback simply didn't have time to recognize the danger before he released the ball. The culprit isn't his judgment but the speed of the pass rush, his inexperience, an inherent limitation in how fast he can process information, or some combination of the three. With Cutler the first rarely applied due to excellent protection, and the third hopefully didn't, but the second most likely did.
But it didn't do so obviously, because Cutler has abilities that have tended to mask that deficit. His throws have tremendous velocity and accuracy, particularly when he's throwing on a straight line. That means he can often get the ball in even when the receiver's covered, because the ball's so perfectly thrown and gets there so fast the defender doesn't have time to react. But the other side of the coin is that Jay has to be perfect in order to avoid picks. And having to be perfect play after play, game after game, takes its toll over the course of a season. I suggest that's why Jay faded.
But Jay also made bad decisions in a second and more literal sense. Trusting his velocity and his accuracy, and preferring to risk a bad play in order to make a good one, Jay often tried to fit the ball in even when he knew the receiver was tightly covered, not simply because he didn't see the defender in time. That's a mindset McDaniels will surely want to change, if he can, and is most likely the factor that made him willing to consider Cassel as an alternative.
Jay's yardage total last year was partly misleading. On the one hand it owed much to his ability to pick up third downs and get four more, and was thus a fair measure of his ability. But on the other hand it was an artifact of the sheer number of times the Broncos threw the ball, and of how far they had to go to reach the red zone, and thus misleadingly suggested a breakout when none had occurred. A breakout normally occurs, I believe, when a quarterback's information processing speed makes a more or less discontinuous jump to the level that he maintains for the rest of his career. If Jay hasn't already maxed out (which would be bad news), that's something that will probably occur this year. Once it does he'll be able to go through his progression more rapidly and find the open man, and will be better at sensing danger and "deciding" against throwing to a particular receiver. When that happens he'll have a greater margin for error and won't have to always be perfect in order to complete passes and avoid interceptions. Then, perhaps, his ability to perform under pressure will not be eroded as the season wears on by the necessity of being perfect time after time after time.
But this improvement in his performance will be maximized if he can be persuaded by McDaniels to live to fight another day, to throw passes, especially near his own or the other team's goal line, that only his own receiver, if anybody, can get to, to settle for the sure three, if necessary, rather than insisting on seven or nothing. If his neurological functioning, his ability to process information as the play unfolds, reaches a new level, and if his decision-making matures in this second and more consciously accessible sense, Denver will become the kind of team that makes the most of its scoring opportunities. And Cutler will have become the kind of quarterback, the kind of winner, we all want him to be.