A crossroads season for NFC North QBs

July, 9, 2013
7/09/13
1:30
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Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, and Christian Ponder USA TODAY SportsLong-term job security will likely be on the minds of QBs Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford and Christian Ponder as they enter the 2013 season.
We've spent the past five years on this blog documenting and analyzing elite quarterback play. As the NFC North morphed from the "Black and Blue" division to "Air and Space," we chronicled an MVP year (Aaron Rodgers, 2011) and arguably the best season of a Hall of Fame career (Brett Favre, 2009). We've seen a 5,000-yard passer (Matthew Stafford, 2011) and a winner in 21 of 28 starts (Jay Cutler, 2010-12).

And now, on a random July day in 2013, we must acknowledge a crossroads. Regardless of our hopes and no matter our assumptions, we can count only one of our quarterbacks as an undeniable long-term starter with his team.

Rodgers' seven-year contract with the Green Bay Packers, signed in April, removes any doubt about his status. We can't say the same, however, for Cutler, Stafford or the Vikings' Christian Ponder. Cutler is entering the final year of his contract, Stafford and the Lions haven't reached a long-term agreement on a deal that should expire after 2014, and Ponder is preparing for what might be a final chance to establish himself as a franchise starter.

UPDATE: Stafford agreed to terms on a three-year contract extension shortly after this post published. The pros and cons of his status, detailed below, remain valid.

The chances for 75 percent turnover in one year are remote, of course. Across the league this season, we'll likely see 25 percent change: eight new starters among 32 teams. But for different reasons, we have reached a uniquely tenuous time that begs close observation over the next nine months. Let's start the conversation today with a more detailed status check in each outpost.

Jay Cutler
Contract status: Total compensation of $8.97 million in 2013, its final year.
Crossroads in brief: Looming contract expiration coincides with the arrival of new coach Marc Trestman, who has stopped short of calling him a franchise quarterback. General manager Phil Emery said this offseason: "The No. 1 thing is that our team wins and that Jay improves, and all of our players improve."
From the stat page: Cutler is 34-22 as the Bears' starter and has cut back dramatically on interceptions. After throwing 26 interceptions in 2009, he has thrown 37 over the following three seasons. But he has taken a tremendous beating, absorbing more sacks per drop-back (7.6) since he joined the Bears than any NFL quarterback over that time period.
Analysis: If any team knows how difficult it is to find a franchise quarterback, it's the Bears. This is a team whose all-time leading passer, Sid Luckman, has been retired for 63 years. It's no stretch to call Cutler the Bears' best quarterback in a generation, and his arm strength empowers coaches to incorporate every possible pass in the playbook. Despite his regular-season success, however, Cutler has taken the Bears to the playoffs only once in four years. Emery, it should be noted, fired former coach Lovie Smith despite a sparkling regular-season record largely because of the Bears' playoff drought. In the end, replacing a coach requires fewer assets than finding and developing a franchise quarterback. The Bears must remember how long they searched before acquiring Cutler, and also how dearly they paid. Cutler's leadership skills are questionable at best, but the Bears would be setting a high standard if they decide they can do better at the position.

Matthew Stafford
Contract status: Set to earn $12 million in 2013 and $11 million in 2014 before deal voids.
Crossroads in brief: Salary-cap number of $20.82 million hasn't yet provided the expected incentive to reach a long-term extension. If the Lions absorb that figure in 2013, then they can presumably do the same for a projected $19.32 million cap hit in 2014. Both sides have said they expect to remain together, but in reality the Lions have preserved an exit strategy if they choose to use it.
From the stat page: The Lions have been one of the pass-happiest teams in NFL history during Stafford's two years as a full-time starter. Over that stretch, he has attempted 1,390 passes and thrown for 10,005 yards. His career completion percentage of 59.8 is on the low side for a player who has averaged a relatively modest 6.9 yards per attempt, a combination of statistics that has sparked an ongoing debate about his mechanics.
Analysis: Stafford took a step back last season, most notably producing 17 fewer passing/running touchdowns, but context is once again important. At 25, he already ranks second on the Lions' all-time list in passing yards and is the only Lions quarterback to so much as have two seasons with at least 20 touchdown passes. He also has demonstrated the moxie to lead eight fourth-quarter comebacks in 44 starts. From a historic standpoint, it makes more sense to ride with Stafford than begin what could be a decades-long process to find someone better. But any analysis of Stafford's passing numbers, fourth-quarter excitement and potential for future growth must also be viewed through his impact on the team. The Lions are 17-28 overall in his starts, but only 1-22 against teams that finished the season with winning records, per the Elias Sports Bureau. (They are 5-21 against teams that had winning records at the time of the game.) Those numbers mean Stafford hasn't yet achieved a primary tenet for franchise quarterbacks: making the team better. He hasn't guided the Lions to enough victories over good teams. Stafford isn't solely to blame for that record, of course, and there is a reason why quarterbacks aren't assigned winning percentages the way pitchers are in baseball. But it is part of his overall assessment.

Christian Ponder
Contract status: Will earn $1.299 million in 2013 and has a guaranteed $1.76 million salary for 2014 before expiration.
Crossroads in brief: Ponder was one of the NFL's worst quarterbacks during an eight-game stretch in 2012 that unfortunately has come to define his entire season. General manager Rick Spielman and coach Leslie Frazier want to justify their decision to draft him No. 12 overall in 2011. But Ponder's rookie contract provides an easy exit strategy if he hits another extended downturn.
From the stat page: Much of the criticism of Ponder's 2012 slump arose from the relative simplicity of the Vikings' passing offense. Only 31 of his 483 attempts traveled more than 20 yards in the air, and he completed only six of them -- none for touchdowns. His average pass traveled 6.43 yards in the air, the lowest among all qualified quarterbacks. The theory: Running a conservative offense, one built around a 2,000-yard rusher in Adrian Peterson, should have resulted in far better efficiency numbers than an 81.2 passer rating and a 53.8 Total Quarterback Rating (QBR).
Analysis: Ponder was so bad in the middle of last season that people forget he was one of the league's most efficient quarterbacks in the first four games and final four games of the season. (We discussed that dichotomy in detail last month.) The decision to sign a premium backup in Matt Cassel has sparked national speculation about a brewing competition, but in truth all Cassel will do is provide the Vikings a better option than Joe Webb should Ponder falter again. Cassel will be irrelevant if Ponder can simply smooth over his 16-game performance, something that will ensure a starting job in 2014 and perhaps beyond. The Vikings have provided him with an ample opportunity when you consider Peterson's presence along with Pro Bowl-caliber players at left tackle (Matt Kalil), center (John Sullivan) and tight end (Kyle Rudolph), as well as the acquisition of receivers Greg Jennings and Cordarrelle Patterson. This season should be make-or-break for Ponder.

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