Why wasn't Jay Cutler the first quarterback chosen in the 2006 NFL Draft?
That's the question league executives are asking after watching Cutler flourish in Denver. The third-year pro is coming off a sensational performance against the Raiders (16-of-24 for 300 yards and two touchdowns), and has clearly distanced himself from his classmates (Matt Leinart and Vince Young) as the best quarterback from the 2006 NFL Draft.
"Without question he is the best guy in that group," said an AFC personnel director. "He hasn't won a ton of games or led his team into the playoffs, but he is on track towards becoming an elite quarterback."
Cutler, who was the 11th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, has been impressive in his two-plus years as the Broncos starting quarterback. He has compiled a 90.0 passer rating while completing 62.7% of his passes with 31 touchdowns and 19 interceptions in 22 starts. Those numbers put him in the same class with perennial Pro Bowlers Carson Palmer and Donovan McNabb during the early stages of their respective careers.
With Cutler experiencing so much success, it begs the question: Why has he been able to get off to such a great start to his career?
While Cutler has outstanding physical tools and leadership qualities, he has benefitted from playing under a head coach (Mike Shanahan) who is willing to adapt his offensive system around the strengths of his quarterback. As simple as that sounds, few offensive coordinators are flexible enough to tweak their systems to fit their personnel, and young quarterbacks often struggle under such rigid guidelines.
"The system has been molded to his strengths," said an AFC personnel director. "They feature a lot of bootlegs, waggles and naked passes in the game plan. He is not being asked to read the entire of the field. Therefore, they are not making it tough on him mentally at this point. Cutler has great talent, but the coaching staff in Denver is doing a great job of putting him in a position to be successful."
By featuring a lot of movement passes in the game plan, Shanahan has made the passing game easier for Cutler to read because most of the routes are stacked (receivers are in the same line of sight, but at different levels down the field), and he is only asked to read one side of the field. If he stays within the progression, someone will always be available for a high percentage throw. Despite entering the league with the reputation of being a gunslinger, he rarely makes risky throws in traffic, and his willingness to settle for the underneath throw is atypical of young quarterbacks.
"He has all of the physical tools for sure, but you can't underestimate his intelligence," said a former AFC secondary coach. "Most young quarterbacks struggle processing all of the information on the fly, so the game is like a blur to them on the field. However, if they are ever able to understand the concepts, and how the pieces of the puzzle are supposed to fit, they eventually relax and let their natural talent take over. He is at that point right now."
But Cutler also possesses the "it" factor that coaches are always looking for in franchise quarterbacks. While it is not a quantifiable trait, it can be best described as a confidence or swagger that makes teammates want to rally behind. Cutler has always exuded that confidence, and the game has never appeared to be too big for him. Maybe it was developed during his collegiate years when he led an undermanned Vanderbilt team against SEC heavyweights, or maybe he simply has the moxie needed to be a successful pro. Regardless, he has never appeared shaken by the pressure of playing in the shadow of John Elway, and his confidence has remained at a high level despite suffering from the normal growing pains that come with playing the position.
"I think that everyone thought that he had the tools to become a top guy," said an NFC personnel director. "But I think that we all are surprised at how quickly he has become quickly he has developed into that type of player."
That's what scouts are contemplating after Jon Gruden named Brian Griese the Bucs' starting quarterback against the Falcons in Week 2.
While former starter Jeff Garcia's ankle injury caused him to miss some practice time during the week, it was his uneven performance in the opener (24-of-41 for 221 with one touchdown and one interception) that opened the door for Griese. Garcia never found a consistent rhythm in the pocket, and his inability to connect with open receivers cost the team down the stretch. For a passer who has consistently ranked among the league's best in completion percentage, the loss of accuracy is devastating, and the quarterback acknowledged his poor play in the season opener.
"I didn't play good enough, and it's up to me to go out and play better." Garcia told the Tampa Tribune.
However, Garcia's problems started long before his disappointing play in the opener. The four-time Pro Bowler was unimpressive in his lone start during the preseason, and a nagging calf injury kept him from taking significant reps during training camp. Without a lot of work in the preseason, Garcia looked rusty and out-of-sync with his receivers on opening day. But did his disappointing performance against the Saints merit such a quick hook?
"It's surprising that they would make a move so early in the season," said an AFC personnel director. "He is coming off a Pro Bowl season, but they obviously had him on a short leash. It makes you wonder if they really valued him as their starter."
Those sentiments come with good reason, as the Bucs heavily pursued a trade for Brett Favre over the summer and carried as many as five quarterbacks on their training camp roster. Thus, it's not really surprising to see Gruden make a sudden change at the position, especially with Brian Griese on the roster.
As the Bucs' starting quarterback in 2004-05, Griese played some of the best football of his career (he completed a career-high 69.3 percent of his passes in 2004), and helped guide the team to a 5-1 record in 2005 prior to suffering a season-ending injury in Week 7. Though the team parted ways with him following the season, Griese remained highly regarded within the organization, and the team made a strong push to sign the veteran when he became available this spring.
Griese compiled a 94.9 passer rating during the preseason, and ran the offense with impressive efficiency. While Griese lacks Garcia's improvisational skills, he is a quick decision maker who excels at spreading the ball around to multiple threats. Griese also has enough arm strength to connect on deep throws, and does a decent job of taking care of the football when under center.
Making a decision to dump a four-time Pro Bowler comes with criticism, but if Griese can give the Bucs' offense a better rhythm than it displayed in the opener, the gamble will be well worth the risk.
Lost in the Steelers' blowout victory over the Texans was the breakout performance of LaMarr Woodley.
The second-year standout finished with three tackles, a sack, and an interception in the opener; and flashed outstanding versatility as an edge player in the Steelers' 3-4.
"He was a beast," said an AFC scout who witnessed the performance. "He was all over the place, and they appeared to have no answer for him."
Woodley, the team's second round pick in 2007, was making his first start at outside linebacker, and he picked up where he left off last season. As a rotational player, Woodley played about 15 snaps per game last season, but finished the year with four sacks. His potential was so enticing the team elected to let last season's starter (Clark Haggans) leave during free agency.
"You could see his potential in the limited reps that he received last season," said an AFC scout. "Although he played far fewer snaps than Haggans, he still matched his production while adapting to a new position. So you knew that he had the potential to be a special player if he had the chance."
Although Woodley starred as a defensive end at Michigan, scouts were concerned about his size as a pro defensive end, and downgraded him in spite of his stellar collegiate career. Thus, the Steelers were able to nab a first round talent in the middle of the second round and bring an added dimension to their pass rush.
As one of the biggest linebackers in Steelers' history, Woodley poses a problem for teams attempting to block him with a running back in pass protection. He overpowers them with his strength, and is always at an advantage when he comes off the open side. He also flashes enough athleticism to occasionally drop into coverage, so he is difficult to account for when facing the Steelers' complex zone blitz scheme.
"He is going to be a problem for offenses," said an AFC scout. "He is simply too big for running backs to handle in pass pro, and his ability to turn speed into power makes him a difficult for offensive linemen. When he gets it all figured out, he is going to be something special."