Tuesday March 24th, 2009

DANA POINT, Calif. -- Tuesday dawned bright and sunny here, but soon enough a wave of early morning irony hung heavy in the air at the close of the NFL annual meeting's AFC head coaches media breakfast.

That's when the coaches who now lead the original eight AFL franchises were invited to the front of the room as part of the league's season-long tribute to the 50th anniversary of the AFL. Those teams will be wearing throwback helmets and jerseys for a pair of games this season, and their coaches were asked to come forward and pose with the jerseys. That gave us the delicious moment of Denver's Josh McDaniels sheepishly grinning as he held up an old-school Broncos No. 6 jersey, the one that, for the time being, still belongs to, ahem, Jay Cutler.

You can't make this stuff up. Of all the potential sights anyone thought they might see here, the picture of Denver's rookie head coach posing with a Cutler jersey was definitely not one of them.

Meeting with the media in a wide-scale setting for the first time since the Cutler saga exploded three weeks ago, McDaniels was hammered with Cutler questions for at least the first 35 minutes of the hour-long breakfast. And the Cutler-fest might have gone on longer, but that's when I reluctantly pulled up stakes and headed for other slightly less newsworthy coaches at other tables.

Patiently and with no visible sign of discomfort, McDaniels sat and repeated different versions of the same message in regards to where things stand with him and his unhappy starting quarterback, who has requested a trade in reaction to finding out the Broncos were even considering trading him. McDaniels' message being: Cutler is still under contract, he's still their guy, and their rift can be overcome with the combination of some lines of direct communication and a little time to let the whole ugly mess blow over.

After listening to McDaniels, I'm more convinced than ever that Cutler isn't going anywhere but back to Denver this season, but the topic of where things went wrong between them made for a fascinating session of back and forth with reporters, as we probed, poked and peppered the 32-year-old Broncos coach with questions about every potential angle of this story.

Here are just some of the highlights:

• McDaniels said new communication between Cutler and the Broncos had occurred "in the last few days,'' although he declined to give any details. "We have [talked],'' McDaniels said. "I'll just say that. We have and I'll continue to try and do that, to have effective communication with him.''

• Although as many as 10 teams have reportedly expressed interest in trading for Cutler, they're apparently not reaching McDaniels with those feelers.

"Nobody's contacted me,'' he said. "Nobody's called me. Nobody's text-messaged me. Nobody's e-mailed me. And nothing's going to happen on our football team unless obviously those decisions go through me.''

But in the next breath, McDaniels added a rather significant caveat to all of that, chiming in with: "People have left messages, I'll say that.'' OK, we get the picture. Suitors are calling, but not getting those calls returned by McDaniels. That should tell us all something about Denver's trade intentions for now.

• While some recently thought the NFL annual meeting might be the site of Denver shopping Cutler around the league, McDaniels said he hasn't had the first conversation here about trading Cutler. Unless you count questions from the media.

"Nobody has approached me, or called me,'' he said. "Zero. I don't know if they're afraid of me, or if they think this thing is really silly, but nobody's talked to me. Nobody has tried to communicate with me, indirectly or directly. I know people have briefly expressed interest to [Broncos general manager] Brian Xanders, but again, I'll reiterate there's not any decision that's going to happen in our organization relative to our football team without going through me.''

• As far as whether McDaniels feels he and Cutler can put the pieces of their fractured relationship back together, the coach repeatedly struck a tone that said he's determined to build a bridge back to his skeptical quarterback, one non-contentious day at a time.

"I can't convince anyone of anything if they don't want to believe it,'' McDaniels said. "We want him to be here. We're committed to him. I think it's got to be two ways. That's the biggest thing. If he wants to commit to us, then there are some things that he's going to have to get over personally. And that's a challenge for him. I understand that, and I respect that. I think it's going to take two of us to get on the same page and get through it.

"[Trust is] very important. And that's why I think it's important for myself to continue to work towards that ultimate goal. The only thing I can do is work hard every day and show him how good I hope I can make him, and get him to believe in what I'm trying to do for him as a player. I'm not mad at the player. I understand where he's coming from.''

• More than once, McDaniels referenced "mutual respect'' as the goal between he and Cutler. But one reporter then pointed out that repeatedly referring to Cutler as "the player,'' rather than by name, may not be helping build that mutual respect. For the record, it wasn't my question, but it was the only time throughout the interview that I thought I saw a hint of anger in McDaniels' eyes.

"He's our quarterback, and I'm not calling him just 'the player,' '' McDaniels replied. "I'll call him Jay Cutler if you want me to. I don't think that's the issue. If that's the issue, then obviously we've got a long ways to go.''

• When pressed about whether he could guarantee Cutler will be Denver's starting quarterback in the regular season opener, McDaniels tried once again to straddle the thin line between expressing confidence in Cutler and not ruling out any potential move that might still have to be made.

"He's our quarterback, and, and we'll always do what's in the best interest of our football team,'' McDaniels said, with extra emphasis on the second 'and.' "But we are committed to him and I'm looking forward to him being back. And as long as that's the case, and we're committed to each other, then he absolutely will be our quarterback in the opener.''

• McDaniels made clear his main frustration in the nearly month-long saga is not having direct one-on-one contact with Cutler, who has insisted that his agent, Bus Cook, be a part of every conversation or meeting -- either in person or over the phone. But McDaniels also expressed no plans to go see Cutler face to face in Nashville, where he is sitting out the early days of the Broncos offseason conditioning program.

"We need to talk in the same room,'' McDaniels said. "The one thing I want to continually do is meet with the player by myself, one on one. That's the best way, obviously, to fix any kind of issue. If there's one thing I would change it'd be the amount of time I've had to do that thus far.''

I asked McDaniels if he has made any in-roads on that front, cutting Cook out of the process in favor of Cutler's preferred method of having his agent involved.

"I hope to,'' he said. "I hope so. We haven't had an opportunity to meet again in person since the last time we met. But I'm hoping that will take place sooner than later.

"It's not an issue for an agent. That's all I'll say. We're not talking about contracts. That's why I want to speak with the player.''

• McDaniels flatly refutes the Broncos initiated any trade talks involving Cutler, although Cutler has been quoted saying he knows the opposite to be true. McDaniels said other teams called proposing a three-way trade (he confirmed Tampa Bay was one of them, and Detroit is believed to be the other) because of "his relationship with the other player,'' meaning then-New England quarterback Matt Cassel. McDaniels said it never crossed his mind to make a play for Cassel before those teams called, because he didn't think Patriots coach Bill Belichick would ever deal with him.

"I don't think Bill Belichick wanted to trade Cassel to me,'' McDaniels said. "Why would he want to do that? It would help our team, and he does know that I coached the player, obviously. He saw what happened this past year [meaning Cassel's success]. That's one of the reasons why we never came up with the scenario. It didn't make any sense. We had a good player. We had Jay Cutler.''

Despite all that has been said and done the past 24 days, the Broncos do still have Jay Cutler, and that fact shouldn't be lost sight of. I'm not positive McDaniels and his quarterback can ever put this particular Humpty Dumpty back together again, but you can't entirely rule out a peaceful co-existence, and maybe even a happy ending.

After all, having just witnessed the sight of a grinning McDaniels holding up a Cutler jersey in front of a roomful of media members, I think anything seems possible.

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