Six years ago he was viewed as a franchise savior. Now, on his third head coach and fifth offensive coordinator, with fans’ frustration boiling over, it has come down to this: Jay Cutler has one last chance to make it work in Chicago
Editor’s note: This is part of our summer series, The MMQB 100, counting down the most influential people for the 2015 season.
CHICAGO — Former Chicago Bears offensive coordinator and current FIU head coach Ron Turner recalls the first time he sat down and talked football with Jay Cutler. It was the summer of 2009, and Turner was entering his fifth season in Chicago, two years removed from a Super Bowl appearance with Rex Grossman under center.
It was a marriage by trade. Cutler was 26, a gunslinger with a fastball that whistled. He was coming off his first (and to this point only) Pro Bowl season, and his first (and to this point only) 4,000-yard campaign, seemingly solidifying his franchise quarterback status in Denver. But the hiring of coach Josh McDaniels that offseason led to trade rumors; upset, Cutler put his Colorado house up for sale and requested to be dealt. On April 2 the Bears found their long-awaited long-term answer under center, dealing incumbent starter Kyle Orton, two first-round picks and a third-rounder to land Cutler (and a fifth-rounder).
Early that offseason Turner invited Cutler to his home in Libertyville, Ill., a suburb 40 miles north of Chicago. “We just talked about philosophy, goals, what we wanted to accomplish in Chicago,” Turner said. “Jay told me what he liked, and we went from there.”
Bears fans remember what happened next. Cutler tossed 26 interceptions. He pouted and sulked on the sideline and the enduring Jay Cutler’s body language narrative was born. Turner was out that offseason, the first of four Bears offensive coordinators to lose their jobs after coaching Cutler.
“Like anybody in that situation who’s competitive, sometimes you get a little frustration, and that frustration comes out,” Turner says. “I think Jay came in and had his way of doing things on the field, the techniques and fundamentals, and that’s what he was going to do.
“I think he’s capable of doing anything, any offense, it’s just a matter of getting guys around him and getting him to buy in. He’s hardheaded at times, like a lot of NFL players are.”
If Cutler’s attitudes about coaching have changed since he joined the Bears, the perception of the quarterback hasn’t. Publicly, Cutler is tolerated by fans in Chicago when at his best (the 2010 and ’11 seasons come to mind) and bemoaned when at his worst. The lament reached a fever pitch when, in January 2014, Cutler signed a seven-year deal, including $54 million guaranteed. General manager Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman have since been fired after the Bears finished 5-11, the franchise’s worst record in a decade.
While the deal didn’t set the market for quarterback contracts, the hefty guarantee did raise some eyebrows, especially among those who have coached the quarterback. Beyond having what is viewed as a disconnected and abrasive personality, Cutler (the Bears declined to make him available for this story) is described by former offensive assistants as a “see it, throw it” quarterback. Said one former coach: “Jay is not a guy who anticipates players being open. He’s been a see it, throw it guy as long as he’s been in the league. Up to this point, he hasn’t put in the work during the game preparation stage to be more than that.”
Former Broncos coach John Fox and his coordinator, Adam Gase, had to take testimonials like that into consideration when deciding Cutler’s future with the organization upon their hiring last winter. Reported internal conversations about shopping Cutler to the Titans for the No. 2 pick and the opportunity to draft Marcus Mariota would indicate there was, at the very least, uncertainty over Cutler’s future at Halas Hall.
Instead the Bears used the seventh overall pick to draft West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White. Cutler is still the starter, and the early reviews are good.
“I think we came in with a clean slate concerning Jay,” Fox said. “We really wanted to focus on the future and what we can do to get better right now, and not any of the negatives from the past. We’re excited with the effort he’s put in so far.”
These kinds of good vibrations are par for the course in June, but here’s what makes this summer—and this season—pivotal for Cutler. His seven-year contract boils down to a three-year deal with options through 2020. The Bears can cut Cutler by March 2016 and save the last $6 million. They’d lose $13 million in dead cap money, but you can bet Gase and Fox would rather get started developing a rookie passer than spend another year with a 30-something they don’t believe in.
Hence, despite being in the second year of a seven-year deal, Cutler has every reason to treat this like a contract year, which means buying what Gase is selling. My hunch: Gase will look at Cutler’s most successful seasons, when coaches limited the passing options and put clamps on the QB, and emulate those game plans in an effort to reduce turnovers.
“What’s great about Adam is that he’s able to tailor the offense to the strengths of the roster,” says new Bears wide receiver Eddie Royal, a free-agent signee. “He took from different schemes, the west coast offense included, then added his little flavor to it. I think we’re trying to figure out what works right now.”
Six seasons after the trade that defined an era for the Bears, the QB-coach relationship has become less a marriage and more of a tryout.
60. Ryan Grigson, General Manager, Indianapolis Colts
Drafting Andrew Luck was the easy part. The more challenging task—and the one by which Ryan Grigson, the Colts’ 43-year-old general manager, will ultimately be judged—is finding the right pieces everywhere else. This is Grigson’s fourth offseason trying to do just that in Indianapolis. There has been good (drafting T.Y. Hilton, trading for Vontae Davis), bad (signing Hakeem Nicks), ugly (trading away Jerry Hughes) and unspeakable (dealing a first-rounder for Trent Richardson). But there’s no reason to play the role of Captain Hindsight, not with the Colts on the verge of very big things. Grigson’s margin for error gets smaller after this season; Luck’s cap hit, just a little more than $7 million in the fourth year of his rookie deal, will more than double next season and skyrocket when he gets his new contract. So Grigson filled glaring weaknesses with short-term solutions: Frank Gore, Andre Johnson, Trent Cole. Then the GM delivered a head-scratcher on draft day: In their triumphant return to the first round (the 2014 pick went to Cleveland in the Richardson debacle), the Colts seemed to go the luxury route with speedy Miami receiver Phillip Dorsett, a similar player to Hilton who figures to be the fourth wideout on a team that also uses two tight ends frequently. Then again, with the Patriots weakened by big losses in their secondary, and with Indy just months removed from a playoff win in Denver, Grigson might be thinking his team already has what it needs to get to Super Bowl 50. He might not be wrong.
—Gary Gramling (@GGramling_SI)
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59. Troy Vincent, Executive Vice President of Football Operations, NFL
His job title is Executive Vice President of Football Operations. But the post he holds is best described as Roger Goodell’s right-hand man, which for the past year has been a precarious place to be. Most recently, Vincent “imposed” the Deflategate discipline on Tom Brady and the Patriots, which was “authorized” by Goodell (the commissioner reconsidered that discipline on Tuesday in Brady’s appeal). Vincent, an NFL cornerback for 15 years and one-time president of the players’ union, was viewed as a player communicator when he first took a job with the league office in 2010, but that relationship has been strained as he’s overseen discipline. His promotion to his current role, one that positions him as a potential successor to Goodell, coincided with one of the league’s most tumultuous years on record. It also hit home for him personally, as Vincent is a survivor of domestic violence. There has never been this kind of scrutiny and pressure on every decision the league office makes, and Goodell’s top lieutenant feels it as much as anyone.
—Jenny Vrentas (@JennyVrentas)
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58. DeMarco Murray, Running Back, Philadelphia Eagles
The five-year, $42-million contract DeMarco Murray signed with the Eagles included at least one unfortunate stipulation: an inextricable link to LeSean McCoy’s nasty Philadelphia divorce. Shady’s parting shots at coach Chip Kelly left his successor in an unenviable position. The 27-year-old Murray must justify Kelly’s decision to trade the Eagles’ all-time leading rusher while validating his own expensive payday. Murray’s all-world performance last year was impressive, but he could be considered a flash in the plan. In Dallas he was supported by an outstanding offensive line. And after logging 497 touches between the regular season and playoffs, wear and tear is a major concern for the 27-year-old back at a time when few teams are willing to invest in veteran runners. Murray won’t be quite the workhorse he was for the Cowboys—he’ll share reps with another free-agent signee, Ryan Mathews—but his productivity will help indicate if Kelly’s roster overhaul was genius, and Murray will have at least two chances this season to exact some revenge on the team that let him go.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)
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57. Mark Davis, Owner, Oakland Raiders
It was never Mark Davis’ intention to own the Oakland Raiders. That was his dad’s job, and Al Davis was supposed to own the Raiders forever. But when Al Davis died in 2011, the team fell to his son, who had never been groomed to own the team, never put into the ownership pipeline (like Stephen Jones in Dallas or Art Rooney II in Pittsburgh). His first three full seasons haven’t included a return to the glory days—the Raiders are 11-25 since 2012; only Jacksonville (9-27) has been worse—and now he has another headache aside from turning around one of the league’s most storied franchises: Ha has to find a long-term home for the Raiders. Give the 59-year-old Davis credit. He is investigating everything. He is saying all the right things about giving Oakland a chance to keep the team, but there is no way the city will be able to make a competitive stadium bid, and the team can’t stay in dingy old O.co Coliseum. He has investigated San Antonio, and made a tentative deal (with about five very large asterisks denoting “league approval needed”) to share a Los Angeles stadium with the rival Chargers. And, though he doesn’t want to think about it yet, he may end up in talks with St. Louis if the Rams and Chargers end up being the combo platter to share Los Angeles. The L.A. story is going to be the story of the next 12 months. It may not be resolved by the time the Super Bowl rolls around, but there’s little doubt the stage will be set for whatever is going to happen by next winter. Al Davis made a living pitting his franchise against the NFL, perpetually competing for a better deal in some ignominious spots around Los Angeles that never panned out. Though Mark Davis doesn’t have his father’s pedigree, at some point over the next few months he’s going to have to ask himself: WWAD? (What Would Al Do?) He has two big jobs this year: Get the Raiders out of a 12-year slump on the field, and make sure they have a decent option when the music stops in franchise musical chairs, sometime in the next year.
—Peter King (@SI_PeterKing)
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56. Jay Cutler, Quarterback, Chicago Bears
Six years ago he was viewed as a franchise savior. Now, on his fifth offensive coordinator and with fans’ frustration boiling over, it has come down to this: Jay Cutler has one last chance to make it work in Chicago. FULL STORY
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55. Marshawn Lynch, Running Back, Seattle Seahawks
The last time we saw Lynch in pads, he was visibly upset after coordinator Darrell Bevell called for that ill-fated quick slant at the goal line in Super Bowl XLIX. Anytime a game is on the line in 2015, don’t expect Bevell and the Seahawks to make the same mistake again. The Most Interesting Man in Football is key not just to the Seahawks’ title hopes this season, but to their longterm offensive identity as well. What is Seattle without Beast Mode? And specifically, what kind of quarterback is Russell Wilson—due for a new contract next offseason—without one of the top three running backs in football? Seattle likely won’t have to find out anytime soon, as Lynch re-upped for three years and $31 million. The payday comes just in time for Lynch; he hits the magic number for a running back next April: 30 years old.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
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54. Jeffrey Kessler, Attorney, Winston & Strawn
You might be familiar with the Breaking Bad spinoff: Better Call Saul. For decades, players have had a real-life version: Better Call Kessler. Jeffrey Kessler is a brilliant labor attorney who has chosen to apply his discipline on behalf of athletes. Kessler has become the go-to advocate for the NFL Players Association, both in collective bargaining negotiations and challenging individual player sanctions. In addition to his work for NFL players, he has previously advocated on behalf of NBPA, MLBPA, and NHLPA and now is poised to challenge the status quo of the NCAA in an antitrust lawsuit set to begin next year. (I discussed that case with Kessler.) Kessler was originally brought on as NFLPA outside counsel decades ago by former head Gene Upshaw. Once there, he formulated the strategy of decertifying the NFLPA—having it cease to operate as a union—to file individual antitrust lawsuits such as the landmark case McNeil v. NFL, which led to the establishment of free agency. He used the decertification strategy again in 2011, preceding the (first) Brady v. NFL case that led to the current CBA. Kessler is as responsible as anyone on the players’ side for bringing free agency to the NFL. Beyond his collective representation, he is regularly retained as outside counsel to the NFLPA for players appealing their NFL discipline. In this year alone he has successfully argued cases for Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson. He recently argued the appeal of Greg Hardy’s 10-game suspension and has just handled the second Brady v. NFL, challenging the NFL’s four-game Deflategate suspension of Tom Brady. Although current union head DeMaurice Smith is an experienced litigator himself and brought in several colleagues from his law firm upon taking the helm of the NFLPA, he understands the invaluable institutional knowledge and advocacy that Kessler brings. In fact, the union is using Kessler more often since Smith’s arrival. According to The American Lawyer, Kessler and his colleagues at Winston & Strawn brought in a staggering $6.2 million in NLFPA fees in the past two years. With the “Conduct Commissioner,” as I call Roger Goodell, in place for the foreseeable future, there will continue to be—in the eyes of the union—overreaching discipline for player conduct. And when that happens, the players and the NFLPA know what to do: Better Call Kessler.
—Andrew Brandt (@ADBrandt)
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53. Dan Quinn, Head Coach, Atlanta Falcons
Unlike most teams that lost double-digit games in 2014, Atlanta can place the blame almost entirely on one side of the ball. The Falcons’ defense gave up the most yards in pro football last year—more than 4,400 passing and nearly 1,900 rushing. (Even the Browns put up 475 yards on Atlanta.) Enter Quinn, who spent his first draft pick on pass-rushing linebacker Vic Beasley to pair with budding shutdown corner Desmond Trufant as building blocks for the future. Is Quinn a legitimate solution or an overhyped product of Pete Carroll’s highly successful defensive foundation in Seattle? Here’s the key difference between Seattle and Atlanta, and the most immediate challenge for Quinn in 2015: In Seattle the front four was talented enough to create pressure in the pass rush. In Atlanta it will be necessary to manufacture a pass rush. Quinn’s creative side may just decide the NFC South in 2015.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
• Talking Football with Dan Quinn: In a wide-ranging Q&A, Jenny Vrentas talks to Atlanta’s new head coach about going from a Super Bowl loss to his dream job, his coaching style, and what he’ll bring east from Seattle
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52. NaVorro Bowman, Linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
After a trio of retirements—Patrick Willis, Chris Borland and Justin Smith—San Francisco brings back just four defensive players who played more than 500 snaps for the 49ers in 2014. But that count doesn’t include the unit’s best player: NaVorro Bowman. Considered one of football’s top linebackers after the 2013 season (better, even, than All-Pro teammate Willis), Bowman missed the entire ’14 season with a torn ACL suffered during a January 2104 playoff loss to Seattle. More than a year later, his jersey is the second-best seller among defensive players, right behind Houston’s J.J. Watt. Why? A lot of Niners fans are buying stock in Bowman after a tumultuous offseason. He will be a key player in Jim Tomsula’s 3-4 defense, and the reports are that Bowman is on track to regain his All-Pro form. It might seem like the sky is falling on the 49ers. But if they are relevant in the 2015 NFC West race, a big reason will be Bowman as the anchor of this defense.
—Robert Klemko (@RobertKlemko)
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51. Cam Newton, Quarterback, Carolina Panthers
Carolina paid big to keep Cam Newton, their dynamic (and sometimes inconsistent) quarterback, in Panther blue. The price ($103.8 million over five years) was steep, but it was as much a testament to the state of the franchise quarterback in today’s NFL as it was to Newton's achievements. With a barren free-agent QB market—last year’s biggest prize was Josh McCown; enough said—the Panthers essentially chose between a promising 26-year-old or hinging their fortunes on the unknown and attempting to find another quarterback. Newton has already demonstrated he can develop as a passer and win, even with a shoddy offensive line and mediocre receiving corps. But the stakes are higher when you’re a $100 million man. Finishing atop the weak NFC South is no longer enough; the franchise is relying on him to carry them further than the divisional round of the playoffs. Newton seems to have no problem in the spotlight, recently telling WCCB in Charlotte: “I don’t think nobody has ever been who I’m trying to be. Nobody has the size, nobody has the speed, nobody has the arm strength, nobody had the intangibles that I’ve had.” Maybe so, but Newton has to back up his words this season and elevate those around him to prove he’s worth the price tag.
—Emily Kaplan (@EmilyMKaplan)