Watching the slow-motion car crash that is the Jay Cutler-Denver divorce in the making, I can't help but get the feeling I've seen this particular movie before. And from the looks of it, it's once again a five-star Bus Cook Production.
For the third time in four NFL offseasons, Cook, the veteran agent who doesn't mind going public when the need arises, has one of his big-name quarterback clients locked into some sort of ugly and protracted stand-off with his particular team. There was Steve McNair's messy exit from Tennessee that stretched throughout the spring of 2006, Brett Favre's never-ending melodrama with Green Bay in 2008 -- the story that ate the summer -- and now we get to witness Cutler and the Broncos exchange ideas on what exactly constitutes a breach of faith these days.
The details of each case are all a little different, but after spending time the past two days talking to sources within the NFL, I found it apparent that the similarities of the three recent quarterback sagas have been duly noted around the league.
And the consensus is that with Cutler we're probably in for another story that generates hostage-crisis level coverage (which, alas, has already started) before culminating in both parties going their separate ways amidst some level of recrimination. That's roughly how McNair became a Raven for the last two years of his career, and how Favre pulled on that green and white Jets jersey for one last celebrated go-round on the quarterback carousel.
Now it's Cutler's turn, and Cook is doing his level best to shoot his young star's way out of town. His client wants a trade, and Cook has a tried and true playbook for leveraging that particular scenario. Interestingly, Cutler, Favre and McNair are the only three NFL quarterbacks Cook represents, and the latter two are retired.
"Bus has a pattern here with this sort of thing,'' one veteran NFL general manager told me Monday afternoon. "And he's been successful with it before. What you have here is an agent trying to dictate the position of an entire franchise. He sees an opportunity, because he knows [the Broncos] are vulnerable to pressure. They've got a new, 32-year-old head coach [Josh McDaniels], a new young general manager [Brian Xanders], and an owner in Pat Bowlen who has only recently re-engaged in the decision-making of his team.
"Bus is turning up the heat because he knows there has been a tremendous amount of change going on there in Denver. He's trying to break the organization, break the ownership, now that it's just Bowlen and these two young guys. There are new people in Denver and they exposed themselves with the dabbling they did [in trade talks], and now they've got an agent trying to make it as miserable as he can for them. He's creating some pressure through the media, and trying to see how strong these three are going to be. Will they sit there and be able to take the heat? Something like this can bring an organization to its knees.''
Reached Tuesday, Cook dismissed the notion that there were any meaningful similarities between the way McNair left Tennessee, Favre left Green Bay and Cutler appears headed for a divorce in Denver.
"Yeah, there's a common denominator in that I do represent all three of these guys,'' Cook told SI.com Tuesday. "And they're all very good quarterbacks. But they were three different situations. And that's about the extent of it.
"None of these guys really ever wanted to play elsewhere. Steve [McNair] never asked to be traded from Tennessee. He still lives in Nashville. And Brett [Favre] didn't ask to be traded either. He just wanted to play football again with the Packers, and I still don't understand why they didn't want him to. As for Jay [Cutler], he didn't ask to be traded until he was told by Josh McDaniels in that meeting last Saturday that they couldn't tell him he wouldn't be traded at some point in the future.''
Cook said that after the Broncos acknowledged that Cutler's name had come up in trade talks last month, Cutler was ready to move on once he had met with McDaniels face to face last weekend before the start of Denver's off-season conditioning program. But Cutler's doubts about his future in Denver were intensified after that meeting, Cook said, because McDaniels could not rule out future trade talks involving Cutler.
"Jay was understandably upset with the initial trade talk, but he knew he had to move forward and he went there last Saturday with every intention of working it out and moving on,'' Cook said. "It was explained to him what had happened, but then McDaniels in essence told him he couldn't guarantee he wouldn't entertain trade talk again at some point. He told Jay, 'I can't tell you we wouldn't trade you in the future, if that was in the best interests of the team.'
"I just don't think that's the right thing to say to a guy who's still a little hurt from hearing the trade talk to begin with. With that, Jay said I don't know if I want to be here, and he did ask to be traded at that time. He said I don't think it's going to work here. I'm not sure I can go with this. At that point, my job is to represent my client and do what's best for them.''
Though Cutler was a no-show when the Broncos offseason program began this week, Cook ruled out any chance of a training camp holdout in an attempt to force Denver into a trade.
"Obviously they hold all the cards right now,'' Cook said. "Jay's under contract. And he will show up. He'll be there at the mandatory [mini]-camps, and maybe sooner. That would be up to Jay. But he'll definitely be there for the mandatory camps, and training camp. So they're the ones who control the situation. Not us.''
But one veteran agent with several high-profile NFL clients said that everything that has unfolded in Denver regarding Cutler in the past three weeks fits nicely under the heading of a "classic case of an agent trying to get his guy traded.''
Another longtime agent I talked to said few are better than Cook at "busting a guy out of there'' when a player wants to be traded, and that he has a history of using maximum leverage against a team.
"If the client wants out, then he's doing the will of his client,'' the agent said. "And Bus' M.O. is to play it out very publicly. If this was another agent, things could be done behind the scenes and you wouldn't be hearing about it. But just like coordinators have their own schemes that they like, so do agents. By now, teams should have seen film of Bus, and scouted him well. They know what's coming when he has a client who wants out.''
The football-speak may sound funny when talking about an agent, but it's true in Cook's case. I talked to a Packers official who said the organization gleaned valuable insight during last summer's Favre showdown from what happened between McNair and Tennessee in 2006. He said the "whole Steve McNair playbook'' helped the Packers because they were determined not to give Cook any reason to claim that the team had shown Favre any disrespect when he returned to Green Bay during training camp.
Due to the team's concerns about being liable for his $23 million salary cap number should McNair get injured during offseason workouts, the Titans quarterback had been locked out of the team complex that spring, an indignity that Cook used superbly in the public-relations battle against the franchise. The Packers threw open their doors for Favre and gave him free reign to use anything he wanted, including his luxury suite. Some Titans officials even offered advice to their counterparts in Green Bay on what to look out for when facing a battle with one of Cook's quarterback clients.
Cook counters by pointing out that Favre bought and paid for the use of his luxury suite at Lambeau Field, and that on the night Favre reported to Packers training camp after being reinstated from retirement, team officials blocked him from being on the sidelines at the intrasquad scrimmage. Favre was told, Cook said, that the only place he could watch the scrimmage was from his suite at Lambeau.
Another echo from the past that has reminded some of Favre's stance last summer has been Cutler's refusal to meet with his new head coach, McDaniels, without Cook in the room, or on the phone, at the same time. Packers general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy have privately maintained that they felt Cook poisoned the relationship between Favre and the Packers decision-makers. Broncos sources say the same dynamic is in place regarding how Cutler feels about the new power structure of McDaniels and Xanders in Denver.
Some NFL sources I talked to believe Cook's ultimate goal in getting Cutler out of Denver is really more about landing him a new contract with a new team. Cutler has three years remaining on his relatively low-paying $48-million, six-year rookie deal, signed in 2006 after Denver traded the 15th and 68th picks to St. Louis to nab him at No. 11. He likely wouldn't be in line for a contract extension from the Broncos until 2011.
"My feeling is this is all about a contract,'' said the veteran NFL general manager. "He's got three years left, and that's a lifetime in this league. I think it's being orchestrated for money, and to get rid of the last three years of that deal. Either he gets traded and wants a new five-year deal from his new team as part of a trade, or it's about trying to get the Broncos to show how committed they are to him, by giving him a long-term deal.
"I'm curious to see which way it goes. But it's getting uglier by the day. The agent and the player are saying other things, like Cutler can't trust McDaniels and he's not comfortable with the new regime, but I think it comes back to the contract. I know this much: It's all going downhill like a snowball at this point.''
Cook flatly denies that any thought of getting Cutler a new contract is involved in the falling out that his client and the Broncos have suffered. "Are we trying to get Jay Cutler a new contract with this situation? That's absolutely not true,'' Cook said. "I never even thought about it. He's got three years left on his deal. The whole thing in Denver is about whether they really wanted Jay as their quarterback. That's the gist of it.''
One NFL source pointed out that with both Favre and McNair retired, Cook doesn't have two of the best advertisements for his services playing in the league any more. Other than New England receiver Randy Moss, Cutler is Cook's highest-profile client (although he also represents Falcons running back Michael Turner and Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas). Successfully agitating Cutler out of Denver will perhaps help recruit new clients and keep Cook's name both in the news and on the A-list of agents.
But while McNair and Favre were both traded near the end of their long and successful careers, Cutler's case is very different in that key respect. He's entering only his fourth NFL season, and third full year as a starter. While he's known as an obvious talent with a gifted right arm, he's not the proven commodity that McNair and Favre were when Cook worked to relocate them to a new NFL venue.
That leads some NFL sources to question whether Cook's methods are as wise to employ on behalf of Cutler at this point in his career as they were on veterans such as McNair and Favre?
"In this league, you really only get to cry wolf once in your career, and Cutler's using that option pretty early on,'' a longtime NFL agent said. "To get a short-term result, meaning a trade, certain methods may be more effective than others, and going public and to the media like they're doing is always one of them. However, for the long-term development of your quarterback mentally, it's debatable whether that method is helpful. It could backfire on them.''
In case of McNair and Favre, of course, both had a great deal of initial success with their new teams, but it didn't last long. McNair retired after an injury-plagued 2007 season, his second in Baltimore, and Favre re-retired this offseason, after his one roller-coaster year in New York. If Cutler and Cook get their wish from Denver, their gambit better not wind up being described over time as having backfired. Some divorces are a mistake in retrospect, but it's too early to judge whether there will be any potential winners if the breakup of Cutler and the Broncos comes to pass.
If Cutler does get to the trade market this offseason, the methods Cook used to land him there may be quickly forgotten or overlooked. As one NFL source reminded me:
"If you're Cutler, you know you're young, you're good, and you've got a good arm,'' he said. "You're banking on 31 other teams. Thirty of them might think you're a knucklehead, but it only takes one team to take the contrarian view and think they're smarter than anyone else and want to prove it by trading for you. Young quarterbacks are always going to get another chance, and the benefit of the doubt.''
In Denver at the moment, there's no short supply of doubt on any number of fronts. We don't know yet if or how the Broncos' Cutler saga will end, but there are chapters in this story that have grown quite familiar.