Chicago Bears: Hoyer a good backup, but Cutler clearly the better starter

Should Brian Hoyer’s recent performance earn him the starting job for the Bears going forward? Not so fast.

Hoyer played a very efficient game yesterday, throwing completing 28/36 passes (~78%) for 302 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions en route to finishing the game with a rating of 120.1. And, more importantly, he helped the Bears get their first win of the season over the Detroit Lions, boosting Chicago’s record to 1-3 overall.

Uh oh. Here it comes.

Yep. The time has come again: the time when a backup quarterback plays well in relief of an injured Jay Cutler, prompting some Bears fans (and apparently television pundits) to clamor for Cutler to be sacrificed at the altar of ___ backup quarterback’s outstanding intangibles, scrappy play, and check-down mastery.

John Fox isn’t helping matters much by remaining coy on the matter, as if he continues to think that keeping everyone in the dark regarding whether Cutler will start over Hoyer, once healthy, gives the Bears a competitive edge against opponents. Oh wait, he does think that…

Anyway, now that the “Josh McCown” paradox has arisen once again—by the way, how’s he been doing as a starter since leaving Chicago?—it seems time to, once again, rain on everyone’s parade and firmly state: Jay Cutler is the starting quarterback for this football team, and Hoyer should not start when he is healthy.

But Hoyer’s thrown for 300 yards two games in a row! Well, he’s also thrown the ball 42.5 times a game (49 times against Dallas, 36 against Detroit) as a starter whereas Cutler only attempted just over half that number in his two starts (23 attempts/gm). If Cutler threw it 42 times a game given how much more yardage he averages per attempt than Hoyer (8.11 vs. 7.43, respectively), Jay could lead the league in passing, let alone annihilate Hoyer’s numbers.

But Hoyer hasn’t thrown any interceptions! Okay, I will give you that. Hoyer has done a nice job taking care of the ball, as you would expect from a good backup quarterback. He has leaned on high-percentage throws and hasn’t forced much into tight windows. That, and his receivers have made him look good at times…but overall, yes, he deserves credit for playing it safe.

But Hoyer runs the offense better! Not really. Context matters a lot here.

For one, Hoyer’s two opponents, the Cowboys and Lions, are 19th and 21st, respectively, in passing yards allowed per game whereas the Houston Texans and Philadelphia Eagles, whom Cutler started against, are 1st and 6th, respectively.

Cutler was sacked eight times (five times in the first game against the Texans) in two games. Hoyer has been sacked only three times, benefiting from improved protection from the offensive line—and more schemes to help Bobby Massie and Charles Leno Jr.

Also, at least for now, it seems Jordan Howard could give the running game a much-needed boost after posting 23 carries for 111 yards yesterday, providing balance to an offense that lacked any over the first three games of the season. For perspective, running backs gained 116 yards in Cutler’s first two games combined.

And yet, given all of the advantages that Hoyer was presented with compared to Cutler in their respective starts, how many points have Hoyer-led Bears teams mustered in the first half of his starts? 10: 3 points against the Cowboys and 7 against the Lions. The Dallas game was basically out of hand at that point, while yesterday’s game left a feeling of futility as the Bears clearly dominated the game but somehow only managed one touchdown at the half en route to 17 points total.

Before second half adjustments (or lack thereof) and an injured hand failed him, Cutler managed 21 first half points against far superior defensive teams. The Bears did lose those games and Cutler’s numbers were far from spectacular, but the notion that the offense runs better with Hoyer at the helm? Aside from a win against a bad Detroit team, nothing we have seen suggests that. Given the same conditions with Cutler at quarterback, it’s hard not to think that the Bears would have laughed the Lions back across Lake Michigan.

And as I wrote yesterday, I have a strong feeling that Alshon Jeffery will be happy to have Cutler back because it will give him more opportunities to do this:

And this…

Brian Hoyer cannot, and will not, make those throws. And eventually, teams will take advantage of that inability to stretch the field vertically.

Instead of making grand proclamations about Hoyer’s passing yards and intangibles making him the better option under center, let’s give Ryan Pace credit for finding the Bears a good backup quarterback. Not every time has one, and the fact that Hoyer has filled in capably in Cutler’s absence is an affirmation of our general manager’s decision making.

But that’s it. Hoyer is nothing more than a borderline starter/good backup quarterback, just like McCown was. Or have we forgotten that Hoyer has now failed to earn and keep a starting job with four different teams in five years? Have we forgotten how badly Hoyer performed when given the opportunity to start a playoff game against a quality opponent?

Not that he’ll be playing in the playoffs his season, but the point about him playing against good teams still stands.

Whatever one might say about him and his attitude, his propensity for turnovers, and his lack of playoff wins, Jay Cutler is not a borderline starting quarterback in this league. He is clearly a solid, average starter and has been so for years. And when he returns from injury, John Fox should start him without the slightest bit of hesitation because he’s the better quarterback and gives this team its best chance to win.

So yes, let’s be happy about the Bears winning their first game of the season. But don’t fall in love with Brian Hoyer’s performance and use it as a means to take another shot at Cutler (here’s looking at you, Jimmy Johnson).

Because only mustering 17 points against the Lions sure looks like the performance of a backup quarterback to me.

Khari Thompson

I'm currently a graduate student studying biology at the University of Notre Dame that follows sports (especially the Bears and Bulls) less like a hobby and more like a second job. Also a fan of all things dinosaurs. And Tolkien. Twitter: @kdthompson5

4 thoughts on “Chicago Bears: Hoyer a good backup, but Cutler clearly the better starter

  • October 3, 2016 at 1:51 PM

    Excellent article. I enjoyed the win yesterday, but so much more than Brian Hoyer benefited the Bears. The offensive line played it’s best game of the season; Jordan Howard was running “with a purpose,” as they say; the defense was absolutely phenomenal all game. Hoyer was smart, but he was also put in a great position to succeed against a poor Lions defense. In fact, he’s played against two below-average defensive units (as was described in the piece) and only mustered 34 points combined. If Jay Cutler were healthy and able to play in both of these games, I can almost guarantee the Bears would be close to doubling that number.

    Yes, Cutler is more turnover-prone, but so is Hoyer when he’s asked to do more against great teams. The same thing happened with Josh McCown — he played against crappy teams and did well.

    Anyway, this was a great piece. Thank you for taking the time to research all of this.

  • October 3, 2016 at 2:11 PM

    Thanks very much for the read, Brian! While I don’t believe Cutler is going to be with us much longer, he’s certainly the best option on this team as it stands without question. Here’s hoping he can make it back before we have to play better teams…

  • October 4, 2016 at 10:39 AM

    It’s refreshing to read an article from a sports journalist with sense instead of sensationalism. This was a well thought out analysis as opposed to the majority of hacks that write the “Hoyer’s in; Cutler’s finished” articles. Thanks for giving me something gooddecent to read instead of getting part of the way through and clicking the little “X” that closes the tab.

  • October 4, 2016 at 3:25 PM

    I really appreciate the read and the thoughts, Dan. Just trying to call it like I see it! A lot of people might think I’m disparaging Hoyer’s performance. I’m not. I’m just saying that context matters here, and you have to consider multiple angles. I’d do the same with Cutler.

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