Only 27 years old, Clausen authored perhaps the single worst season for a quarterback of the last decade. His 11.0 QBR that season is the lowest number in the nine years the statistic has been tracked, just edging out JaMarcus Russell's rookie year. (John Fox's career surviving Clausen's year is one of the niftier coaching tricks of the decade.)
Bears coach Marc Trestman has decided that he'd rather go down with Clausen than watch Cutler see any more "ghosts." It's hard to imagine Trestman or Cutler back in Chicago next year. This is the most stunning fall from grace in a season that has seen Robert Griffin III lose his way, Geno Smith lose the football, and Brian Hoyer lose his grip on his hometown hero storyline.
Not all is lost for Cutler, however. He still earned notice in some of my arbitrary awards below.
Best garbage time numbers: Jay Cutler
The crazy part of this season for Cutler: He was going to break Chicago's franchise records for yards and touchdowns in a single season. (Perhaps Trestman is a huge Erik Kramer fan.) Cutler leads the league in turnovers, but his rate stats weren't much worse than his usual seasons. Cutler's performance against the Cowboys was typical. He always managed to rack up some tasty fantasy stats after the game was decided.
Quiet Rebound: Eli Manning
Eli has nicely bounced back to something better than average. After leading the league in picks last season, Manning has mostly been steady and improving for an offense that always looks a little better on Game Rewind than in the box score. If you removed Eli's five pick fiasco against the 49ers, he has 26 scores and eight interceptions.
Quarterbacks always get too much credit for winning and too much blame for losing. Eli has outplayed "winning quarterbacks" like Matthew Stafford, Andy Dalton and Kyle Orton. After nearly falling out of our top 20 last season, Manning is safely inside the top 15 now. He might need to learn a new offense again next year, but Michael Jordan will still be by his side.
Hardest to evaluate: Colin Kaepernick
Kaepernick's performance in Seattle last week was one his better efforts down the stretch. And yet the 49ers still only scored seven points and Kaepernick missed on too many of the shot plays the 49ers dialed up. This is the challenge of watching Kaepernick. In more games than not, he makes 3-to-4 plays that take your breath away. But his offensive line has let him down too often, and there is no rhythm to the team's passing game. The raw skills are there and so are the random passes that go nowhere near the intended target.
Best Magician: Peyton Manning
This late-period Broncos Manning is a wizard who is beating defenses with his mind, some scotch tape and passes that make every game look like it's being played in a wind tunnel. (Having Demaryius Thomas doesn't hurt.) Denver's run-first approach down the stretch was borne out of necessity, but it's smart football and a recognition of C.J. Anderson's surprising talent.
Manning's vertical throws look funky, but last week's game against San Diego was telling. The Broncos nearly had as many chunk plays over 25 yards in the air (five) as Manning did incompletions. I don't buy the thinking that Denver can't win a Super Bowl this way. We've seen Manning's teams fail in the playoffs because you need more than just a passing game. This Broncos team -- from the run game to the defense -- might be the best one Manning's ever played on.
Best MVP season that wasn't: Philip Rivers
Rivers looked like the best quarterback in the league in September, but he faded to merely "really good" after that. When the AFC powers came to San Diego in consecutive weeks in December, the Chargers mustered two offensive touchdowns. That's it. Rivers and Mike McCoy's offense rely on precision and painfully long drives without a ton of big plays. When things don't go as planned on third down, they have a lot of five-minute drives to nowhere.
Biggest free pass: Matthew Stafford
He played without Calvin Johnson for much of the year, but Stafford reminds me of a younger Cutler. Coach Jim Caldwell has taken away some of his aggressiveness which has resulted in a safer Stafford who is still too scattershot. When he plays a real defense like in New England or Minnesota, he's struggled to put drives together. Megatron played in both of those games, and four of Stafford's five worst games for yards-per-attempt. A great Lions defense has masked a lack of progress on offense.
Best maintenance of the Dalton Scale: Andy Dalton
For those poor souls who don't listen to the Around the NFL podcast, the "Dalton Scale" is Chris Wesseling's inarguable theory that explains quarterback play in the NFL. If your starting quarterback is worse than Andy Dalton, you need a new quarterback. Anyone above the line is a long-term option. Jay Cutler is now on the wrong side of the Dalton scale. Ryan Tannehill has risen above.
Dalton's 2014 season shows how he perfectly straddles the middle tier of NFL quarterbacks. He's had a few disastrous moments: the shutout in Indy, the "TNF" meltdown against the Browns and the three-pick first half against the Bucs. But he's mixed in a few excellent showings and stayed out of the way more often than not. Dalton is surrounded by great talent this year; he can struggle in a 30-0 win. It all adds up to 7.2 yards-per-attempt, 15 touchdowns, 14 interceptions, and continued status as the prime meridian of quarterback play.