I thought it would be interesting to investigate what constitutes a “QB killer,” whether Marshall’s presumed role in Cutler’s struggles has been fairly or unfairly attributed to him and if there’s any signs that this fits in with a pattern over the course of his career.
After the jump, I'll be recapping Marshall’s career in the context of who his quarterback was and how their performance with him as one of their primary targets compared with the rest of their career, without him as a teammate.
What is a QB killer?
While there’s no official definition of a QB killer, in this context, I suppose we are talking about a receiver whose actions destroy a quarterback’s confidence, sometimes irreparably. Such actions could constitute bad body language, chewing the quarterback out, in public or behind the scenes, and demanding the ball more.
Ironically, the name that comes up most often if you do a Google search is Rex Ryan, whose quarterbacks have struggled over the course of his career, but not through a lack of support so much as coaching deficiencies. Also, the jury is still out on whether the damage done by Ryan was (a) permanent or (b) inevitable anyway. That’s a different kind of “QB killer” as are the number of pass rushers who refer to themselves in the same manner.
Perhaps the most notorious receiver with that reputation from recent years is Terrell Owens. Of course, whether or not that reputation was justly or unjustly bestowed upon him would have to be the subject of a separate study, but the likes of Jeff Garcia, Drew Bledsoe, Tony Romo and Donovan McNabb all seem to have had their run-ins with him and underachieved as a result at one time or another.
One other memorable example was that of Jeremy Shockey, who constantly seemed to be complaining to Eli Manning that he wasn't getting the ball, often when the film showed he wasn’t really open. The predictable results were a loss of confidence and, in some cases, turnovers caused by Manning trying to force the ball to him. When Shockey got hurt late in the season, the to-that-point mediocre Giants went on a tear and ended up winning the Super Bowl with the less-talented, but less disruptive, Kevin Boss replacing Shockey. Manning would play the best football of his career during that run. This was a good example of addition by subtraction, I suppose.
Who has Marshall played with?
Before we dig deeper into the numbers, let's recap who Marshall’s quarterback was over the course of his career.
Marshall spent his first three years in Denver with Cutler as his quarterback after the pair were drafted together in 2006 (Cutler in the first round, Marshall in the fourth). In their rookie year, Jake Plummer was actually the starter until late in the year but Marshall was injured and didn’t have a significant or enough of a high profile role to be the determining factor in Plummer’s success or failure. Marshall, who caught 20 passes that year, didn't make his first start until after Cutler took over as the starter late in the year.
Cutler was traded away at the end of Marshall's third season, so Marshall played a year with Kyle Orton as his quarterback. Marshall himself was then traded to Miami where Chad Pennington would have been his quarterback but was injured on the first series of the season and would not play again. This meant Chad Henne was the starter in 2010. Matt Moore was the starter for most of 2011, taking over from Henne after an early-season injury.
After that, it was back to having Cutler as his quarterback, as he was traded to the Bears and spent three seasons in Chicago. However, during that time, Cutler missed half of the 2013 season with an injured groin and Josh McCown replaced him.
So, the quarterbacks we need to look at are Cutler, Orton, Henne, Moore and McCown.
What happened to each of them?
Before we look at the numbers, let's consider why these changes came about. Were quarterbacks being replaced, were they moving on or was it simply that Marshall moved away from the team?
We need to consider Cutler twice, both in Denver and in Chicago. There’s an interesting contrast here, as Marshall was starting to establish himself when he first played with Cutler, but perhaps hadn’t quite peaked yet in terms of his questionable attitude. However, when they were reunited in Chicago, Marshall had reportedly matured, albeit that he was also perhaps past his peak as an elite-production receiver.
It’s somewhat surprising, therefore, that the Marshall-Cutler dynamic seemed to degrade more in Chicago than it did in Denver, although you could perhaps say that any dissension had accumulated over time, even with the gap in the middle.
Cutler’s departure from Denver had more to do with a dispute with Josh McDaniels than anything Marshall seemed to be involved with. However, in Chicago, there were reports that he and Cutler had a contentious relationship and eyebrows were raised last week when Marshall omitted Cutler from a list of his favorite team mates.
When Marshall left Denver, Orton remained and did begin the following season (and the one after that) as the starter. Most recently, Orton made an impact when he took over as starter for the Bills last season, but has since retired.
Henne remained as the starter after his first full season with Marshall, but then got injured and was replaced by Moore. He left Miami after that season, to pursue a better opportunity for playing time with David Garrard and Ryan Tannehill each being brought in after Marshall's departure.
When Marshall left the Dolphins, Moore remained with the team and had a chance to begin the following season as the starter, only to lose the job to Ryan Tannehill after the team initially seemed primed to give it to Garrard only for Garrard to get hurt. Moore has been one of the highest paid back-ups in the league since that time, but hasn't been called upon to play much with Tannehill establishing himself ahead of him.
McCown relinquished the starting role back to Cutler once Cutler had recovered from his groin injury at the end of the 2013 season, although this was controversial, as many fans felt McCown should have kept the job. He signed to Tampa Bay after the season where was the starter, but lost time to an early-season thumb injury and ending up having a disappointing season before moving onto Cleveland.
Conclusions so far
Cutler is probably the best quarterback Marshall has played with, even though he is considered to have struggled over the last two seasons. Their relationship seems to have somewhat fallen apart, but it's difficult to know how much of his on-field struggles are attributable to Marshall. Coaches apparently blamed Cutler for making poor reads and audibles. Also, at times last season, Marshall was hurt, limiting his production which you can't really blame him for. If anything, Marshall being a negative influence might have led us to expect Cutler to fare better without him, but that wasn't the case as Marshall missed the last three games and Cutler still struggled. Maybe his confidence was already shot by then though.
For the other four quarterbacks, it will be interesting to compare the numbers they achieved with Marshall in the line-up with their numbers generally over the course of their careers. From this initial look, however, we can surmise that if there was any damage done, it wasn't permanent, because each player has had some level of success since being separated from Marshall.
With or without you
Let's look into how each quarterback performed while throwing the ball to Marshall and then put that in the context of their career numbers.
Cutler's numbers have actually been pretty consistent over the course of his career. He's never had a QB rating of 90, but he's only had a rating of below 80 once. That happened in his first year in Chicago, as Cutler threw a career-worst 26 interceptions (eight more than he ever threw with Marshall as a team mate). Maybe you could say this was residual damage from his first three seasons with Marshall, but that doesn't really hold water because Cutler's numbers peaked in that third season and he went to the pro bowl with a career-best 4,526 yards to his name.
He's never actually been close to that number again, with the nearest actually being last season when he had just over 3,800 despite missing one game (a game that Marshall also missed). In fact, despite the negative outlook for the season as a whole, Cutler had career bests in touchdown passes (28) and completion percentage (66%) in 2014 and his two best passer ratings of his career in 2013 and 2014.
While Cutler may have underachieved, you can't say that his numbers were ever negatively affected by Marshall's presence. In fact, the opposite seems to be the case and if there are any negatives to having Marshall as a team mate, the positives he brought to the table apparently outweigh these.
2009 might have been where Marshall's bad attitude was at its apex. You may recall him lazily going through the motions in camp and trying to get himself traded.
Nevertheless, Orton passed for 3,802 yards and 21 touchdowns, both career-highs. His quarterback rating of 86.8 was only one point lower than his best ever, which was last year in Buffalo.
In an interesting development, Orton came out of the block on fire in 2010, after Marshall's departure. In the first five games, Orton led Denver to a 3-2 start as he passed for 347 yards per game and eight touchdown passes to just three interceptions. Over the remainder of the season, however, his numbers dropped off, so this is probably too small of a sample size to suggest Orton was better off without Marshall.
Henne is another player who put up career numbers throwing the ball to Marshall. This was one of three times he had started 13 games in his career and he had career-bests in yardage (3,301) and touchdown passes (15). However, he did also have a career-worst 19 interceptions.
Nevertheless, he retained his starting job the following season and his numbers weren't bad before he got hurt.
Moore obviously set career highs in his one year with Marshall too, passing for 2,497 yards, 16 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 12 starts. However, that was inevitable because he's only started 13 other games in his entire career combined, all of them over his first three seasons as a Carolina Panther.
Moore's passer rating in Carolina had been 73.9, so his performance in that 2011 season (87.8) was again a step up from this. However, he's the one example of someone who, since playing with Marshall, hasn't been a starter. I don't think you could say Marshall contributed to "killing" his career though, since Moore had his best season that year. As noted, Moore is still being paid handsomely to back up Tannehill. Despite only making five appearances and completing just 15 passes, he's earned almost $11m over the last three seasons.
McCown, a career journeyman, has started 49 games in his career, so the eight appearances (five starts) he made with Marshall's Bears in 2013 is a small proportion of his total career. Nevertheless, this is notable for how much better he played than he ever had in the past. McCown, who had never had a quarterback rating higher than 75 in a season before, put up a rating of 109.0 by throwing 13 touchdown passes and just one interception. This culminated in a three week spell where he averaged over 350 yards per game and threw eight touchdown passes, only to then be benched for Cutler the following week. McCown exceeded 350 yards twice with the Cardinals in 2005, but otherwise had never done up to that three week spell.
Since leaving the Bears, which he did to get an opportunity to start, he had a disappointing year with the Bucs and is now in the mix with the Browns. I don't think you could attribute his disappointing 2014 to anything from 2013, because his confidence was presumably at an all-time high (despite the fact they benched him to accommodate Cutler right at the end of the season).
The evidence here seems to suggest that, rather than being a so-called "QB killer," Marshall has typically had a positive influence on the numbers of those quarterbacks he had played with. Now, maybe there are some negative things he has done over the course of his career that have caused his quarterbacks to underachieve, but the pattern has been that the quarterback's numbers are enhanced by his presence, so the benefits he brings seemingly outweigh any negatives. In fact, he has arguably helped most, if not all, of the quarterbacks he has played with earn a lot more money.
As a bigger receiver, with an ability to create separation and go up to get the ball in a crowd, Marshall has everything you could want in a receiver to become the proverbial "quarterback's best friend," even if he isn't his "best friend" in the traditional sense of the word.
Funnily enough, though, this offseason seems to have revealed that Marshall and the incumbent starting quarterback, Geno Smith, are building a pretty close friendship which perhaps bodes well in terms of Smith's confidence.
Should Smith falter, then Marshall's success with McCown bodes well in terms of him being able to help an experienced veteran such as Ryan Fitzpatrick to elevate his game as well. We saw that to some degree with Andre Johnson last year as Fitzpatrick posted comfortably the best quarterback rating of his career.
While I'm not in the locker room, so I can't make too many judgments about the relationship between Marshall and his quarterbacks and the effect of this on performance, most of the signs appear to be positive in terms of the hope that he can help to elevate the numbers of whoever will be starting at quarterback for the Jets this season. Let's hope this pattern continues.