The debate begins: Cutler vs. Rodgers

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert

The topic arose innocently enough. During Monday's chat over at SportsNation, Rob of Chicago asked for a ranking of NFC North quarterbacks. As the Brett Favre story twisted through my head, I spewed an answer that hopefully will spur months of discussion on this blog.

Rob (Chicago IL)
Kevin, I've heard what Chicago fans think, and I've heard what my Packer loving roommate thinks, but please rank the NFC North QBs.

Kevin Seifert

Ultimately, this comes down to the question of Cutler vs. Rodgers, which we likely will be arguing for quite some time. At this very moment, I'd take Rodgers over Cutler because I have a better feel for how he plays in his current offense. I also think to the extent maturity is a factor, Rodgers has the advantage.

There, I said it.

Whether Favre signs with the Vikings or remains in retirement, the mid-term future of this division largely will turn on the Rodgers-Cutler axis. Detroit's Matthew Stafford might soon have something to say about that, but the recent history of quarterback development suggests he is a year or two away from entering the conversation.

So I propose we utilize the unique focus of this blog to host an ongoing debate about two of the better young quarterbacks in the NFL. We'll approach them from all angles this summer, update their performances during the season and then revisit the threads next winter. You ready? I'm getting excited already!

(By the way, I am accepting nominations for a catchy feature name here. Preferably something cooler than "Comparing Rodgers and Cutler," or the thesis-like "Similarities and Differences in the Performances of Cutler and Rodgers.")

Before we start, a point of clarification. Some of you might consider it a contradiction that I chose Rodgers over Cutler on Monday, considering I ranked Chicago as the division's spring favorite based primarily on the addition of Cutler.

I remain confident that Cutler will make the Bears' offense better and that he could be the difference between a 9-7 record and 11-5. I also feel certain Rodgers would offer the same upgrade if you swapped him out for Cutler. So, to me, the issues aren't necessarily related.

Now that I've snaked my way out of Hypocrite's Box, I'd like to start this debate from the largest perspective possible: Wins.

Simply put, neither Rodgers nor Cutler has enough of them in his short career. In two-plus seasons as a starter, Cutler is 17-21. Rodgers, meanwhile, went 6-10 in his 2008 debut.

Sure, Cutler amassed the NFL's third-highest total of passing yards last season (4,526). Rodgers ranked fourth with 4,038 yards. Speaking to reporters last month, Rodgers agreed that the juxtaposition of his record and overall statistics "is a good reminder that you're judged by your wins and losses."

How much credit and blame does a quarterback deserve for his team's final record? Ultimately, Rodgers said, it doesn't matter.

"You can throw for 4,000 yards, but [the record is] all people are going to remember," he said. "Obviously you are a big part of those six wins but also those 10 losses."

For the purposes of this feature, however, we need to separate the two. Beyond a team's final record, how can you judge whether a quarterback is a "winner"? One way is to analyze his performance in the fourth quarter, when many NFL games a
re decided. By this measure, at least, Cutler came out ahead in a 2008 comparison.

Cutler ranked seventh among regular NFL starters last season with a 94.2 passer rating in the fourth quarter, according to STATS Inc. Rodgers ranked No. 13 at 87.8. For context, take a look at the sampling of fourth-quarter ratings below:

Rodgers' statistics dropped across the board when you compare them to his overall numbers in 2008, and he also took nine fourth-quarter sacks. Cutler, meanwhile, improved his touchdown-interception ratio substantially in the fourth quarter. Statistically, at least, you could make the argument that Cutler enhanced his performance during the most important part of the game last season.

We should couch this comparison by noting that while Cutler has spent less time in the NFL than Rodgers, he has more game experience. Executing at a high level in the fourth quarter can be one of the final developmental pieces for an NFL quarterback. But easing up on Rodgers because of his experience wouldn't make for a very fun debate this year, would it?

And it's hard not to draw at least some connection between Rodgers' fourth-quarter performance and the Packers' seven losses last season in games they were either tied or leading in the fourth quarter. It's not as if Rodgers lost those games for them, and no one is suggesting his end-game execution was unacceptable. But Rodgers is the first to acknowledge he would like to level off his game in 2009.

"I look to be more consistent this year," Rodgers said. "I think I played very well at times last year, and then I underachieved up to my standards at times. So I want to be consistent week in and week out. ... Just to close that gap between a very good game and a consistent game, and just try to be more consistent."

How much blame do Cutler and Rodgers deserve for their losing records as a starter? By this measure, at least, Rodgers should get more than Cutler.

Now, it's your turn. This is where you click on the comments section below and tell everyone what you think. How would you weigh a quarterback's role in a team's wins and losses? And how would you judge Rodgers and Cutler in this regard? Let's reconvene later this week.