On pure broadcasting terms, Jay Cutler could not be entering a more ideal situation for a first-year NFL broadcaster. Unlike fellow rookie analyst Tony Romo, who joined CBS last month, Cutler joins Fox Sports as part of its No. 2 NFL team, a big job with big games but not the network’s game of the week. The spotlight isn’t as hot.
Cutler will serve as a game analyst for the 2017 NFL season alongside play-by-announcer Kevin Burkhardt, analyst Charles Davis and sideline reporter Pam Oliver. Do not underestimate who his on-air colleagues will be. Burkhardt is an ego-free lead broadcaster who allows his analyst to work with a lot of oxygen. Davis has worked in both the college and pros with many different partners, all of whom speak highly of him. He has a reputation of being one of the nicest people in the sports media ecosystem. Oliver is a longtime pro who will help Cutler succeed if he has questions about managing his bosses. The production team of producer Pete Macheska and director Artie Kempner enjoy solid reputations within the business.
This process happened very quickly. Less than two weeks ago Burkhardt auditioned Cutler at Fox Sports' studios in Los Angeles, Calif. The two sat in a quiet room with producer Chuck McDonald and re-called the Christmas Eve game between the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals. Burkhardt, in a phone interview on Friday, said one of the things he was struck by was how serious Cutler took the audition process. Cutler called Burkhardt throughout the week prior to the audition, peppering him with questions on the mechanics of television and other things.
"Obviously, they have been searching to replace John [Lynch] and when Jay's name came up I was like, 'Wow, that's not a name I would not have guessed,'" Burkhardt said. "But to his credit he reached out to me and we talked a ton leading up to the audition. He asked how he should prepare and what things to look at. I was really impressed by that. He was totally diving in."
The audition process is nothing like the game experience for broadcasters. The atmosphere is sterile compared to being at a stadium and Cutler had to use the replays ordered up by Lynch as opposed to something that would have flowed from his observations. Said Burkhardt: "When we got done, I thought, 'Wow, he can do this.' I have only known him a short time but I feel like we clicked. Something I look for is the conversational tone of the analyst, whether things feel natural, if they have a sense of when to talk and it felt easy with Jay. For a guy who has never done this and probably never really thought about prior to the last two weeks, I was impressed."
"These auditions off a game that has already been played reflect such a small percentage of what a real game broadcast will be," said Fox Sports executive producer John Entz. "It’s a lot of guess work, and its maybe less than 20 percent of what the real thing. So when we were evaluating Jay you are trying to project a lot of things about his content, his delivery, the choreography of the process, and whether you are seeing improvement for each quarter. And he checked off all four of those things in the process."
When CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus talked about hiring Romo, he was asked about bringing in someone off the field with no experience.
“Well, I think it's a very manageable risk, to be honest with you,” McManus said. “I think Tony will be having all sorts of work this summer, whether it's doing practice games, whether it's doing preseason games, whether it's sitting down and looking at film and tape of other analysts and the kind of job that they do. It's going to be a full time job for Tony really starting this summer. So I think when he goes to the booth, he'll be ready. But will he better Week 6 than he is Week 1? Yes, he will be. Will he better in Year 2 than he will be in Year 1, yes he will. But if we didn't have the faith in Tony, if we didn't have the faith that he could be an outstanding analyst, we wouldn't be taking this risk.”
The risk is far more manageable here for Fox. NFL Network reporter Mike Garafolo reported that Fox has placed Cutler in a three-person booth as protection in the event a quarterback opening develops in the middle of the season. This could obviously happen given Cutler is just 34 and NFL teams always need veteran quarterbacks during the season.
“I don't know if retirement is the right word; I don't feel that anyone ever really retires from the NFL,” Cutler said in a statement. “You are either forced to leave, or you lose the desire to do what's required to keep going. I'm in between those situations at this point in my life…I recently read a quote that struck a chord with me at the time. It was attributed to [singer] Henry Rollins (but with the internet these days, you can never be too sure who really said it): “I did that, I gave everything I had to give to that. Now, if I returned to that it would be repetition—it might be fun repetition, but it wouldn't be meaningful repetition.”
No NFL broadcaster impacts the ratings of a telecast but they have an immeasurable effect on how you perceive the game you just watched. That’s why networks want quality analysts who teach and inform, as well as entertain. Into this world comes Cutler who never embraced the media glare as a player. His demeanor also rankled former players-turned-analysts including his new colleague, Terry Bradshaw, who famously said in 2012: “I like everybody. I'd like to like you, but right now I don't like you. Grow up, young man."
Chicago Tribune sports columnist David Haugh has covered Cutler since the day he arrived in Chicago in 2009. I asked him how he thinks Cutler’s transition will go.
“I think people are surprised because Jay Cutler never seemed to embrace the media aspect of being an NFL quarterback, and yet for people who have been around him the past few years, especially in Chicago, they can tell you that his weekly press conferences turned into a very thoughtful, insightful, entertaining experiences,” Haugh said.
“He could still be very uncooperative at times, but when he wanted to, there was a switch he could flip that makes you understand why Fox or networks might be inclined to put him in the booth. He can be funny with a dry sense of humor. He certainly is smart and has insight into the game. His perspective as an NFL starter is valuable and I think the biggest adjustment he will have to make is that, often in the media, as you know, you do have to suffer fools at times and he's never done well in that department.
“Last thing, he was never a quarterback—despite his reputation—who threw teammates under the bus. He was one of those guys who publicly was always very nondescript in assigning blame. And believe me, there was enough to assign with the Bears in recent years and he took the brunt of punishment and criticism. But I think now as an analyst he will have to be willing to criticize players for mistakes, particularly quarterbacks who belong to the exclusive club he just left.”
It is worth nothing that ESPN did not meet with Cutler about any broadcast role at the network. While Burkhardt had not had many interactions with Cutler, Fox production executives had seen him often behind the scenes given they have the NFC contract.
Burkhardt said Cutler's first game will be a preseason game between the Kansas City Chiefs and—wait for it—the Chicago Bears on Aug. 27 at 1:00 p.m. ET. When Burkhardt informed him of that, he said Cutler was very excited.
The possibility of Cutler returning to the NFL is one that will likely follow him throughout the season. Only he knows if football is out of his system. But Fox has given him a setup where he can succeed as a first year analyst.
"I haven’t asked him about the playing thing," Burkhardt said. "I don’t know what will happen if, say, we are at Week 10 of the season, [Cowboys quarterback] Dak Prescott suddenly gets hurt and Jay gets a call from the Cowboys. I really don't know. But as far as the investment goes, I think he is all in. I spent a lot of time on the phone with him yesterday and he was just excited to be with this group. He was talking about the stuff you would not think he would for someone who wants to play this year. He was talking about having dinner with us on the weekend. Obviously, if some great offer comes up, maybe things change. But I think this is something he is so excited and ready to do. It's a stress-free thing for him and such a different avenue. I'm really looking forward to getting going with him."
Entz said he believes Cutler is going to be with Fox for the entire season. "If he called us in the middle of the season and said we have this amazing opportunity to play, we don't want to hold him back from doing something they want to do," Entz said. "But I think Jay is committed to doing this and committed to wanting to be great. I expect him to be with us for the entire year."