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How Cutler-Orton trade went down

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At about 2:30 p.m. Denver time Thursday, the Broncos gave the Chicago Bears the final terms of what they'd accept in trade for disgruntled quarterback Jay Cutler: first- and second-round picks this year, a first-round pick in 2010 and quarterback Kyle Orton.

Whoa! Too steep, thought Chicago GM Jerry Angelo, and he asked for a little time to mull it over and talk about it with his people. The Broncos told Angelo: "You've got a half-hour.''

A few things went though Angelo's mind, including the last time he was part of a staff that traded two No. 1s for a player. "We did Keyshawn Johnson for two ones in Tampa Bay, and we really got burned by it,'' he told me Friday night. "But this is a quarterback. Maybe a really good quarterback.''

We really want this guy, Angelo told those on his staff, but the compensation is too much. So he called the Broncos back and offered two ones, Orton and this year's fourth-round pick. Denver GM Brian Xanders and coach Josh McDaniels mulled it over and came back with this compromise: two first-round picks, Orton, and this year's third-round pick for Cutler and Denver's fifth-round pick this year.

Done, Angelo said. Fair deal.

"It was high-stakes poker,'' Angelo said when it was over. "And I couldn't see anyone else's hand.''

In the end, Angelo rebuilt his battered, way-too-conservative GM image and Chicago got a potentially great long-term quarterback. (No other 4,000-yard passer has ever been traded at 25, or even the season after accumulating such a lofty number.) Denver got a better deal than the Broncos had a right to expect after their dissed owner ordered Cutler dealt, losing whatever leverage the team might have had. And Cutler proved he should write the foreword to Drew Rosenhaus' next book -- the one about how a superstar can shoot himself out of town. Cutler got exactly what he wanted, though talking oneself off the best young offense in football is not my idea of a good career decision by a franchise quarterback.

Aside from the late haggling between the Bears and Broncos over the price, I do know some facts that haven't been out there -- I don't think -- yet. The five things I know for sure, from talking to those in the middle of the Cutler trade discussions in the three days since the deal went down:

1. The key to the trade was Kyle Orton. Laugh if you want, but it's the absolute truth. McDaniels looked hard at tape of the available quarterbacks from teams that made serious offers, players like Orton, Washington's Jason Campbell and Tampa Bay's Luke McCown. Every one of those teams was in the ballpark with an offer of at least two first-round draft picks and a quarterback.

But as the deal went down, McDaniels, who watched every offensive snap of more than 10 Bears games with Orton playing, got more and more impressed with Orton's arm, his decision-making and his ability to extend plays when the pocket broke down. You can think and I can think it's crazy he didn't like Campbell -- who got Washington off to a 6-2 start last year -- more than he liked Orton, but it's the unvarnished truth. McDaniels thinks he can win with Orton.

2. The Bears were sure the deal was collapsing Thursday afternoon, because the Broncos weren't answering phone calls, e-mails or texts. GM Jerry Angelo thought he'd gotten the rug pulled out from underneath him. Angelo hadn't heard from the Broncos for about three hours, and got so nervous by mid-afternoon Chicago time that he sent McDaniels a text message that said, in effect, "We gotta get this done. What's it gonna take for the Bears to win this?''

But the Broncos weren't ignoring Angelo, and they weren't working another team for a better deal. McDaniels told Xanders and the rest of the football people in the building that they weren't stopping business following owner Pat Bowlen's declaration that there was an open market for Cutler. Workouts would continue with McDaniels around; coaches meetings would go on as normal.

And the Broncos had eight players in the building between Tuesday and Friday -- including first-round prospects Brian Orakpo (defensive end, Texas), Knowshon Moreno (running back, Georgia) and Tyson Jackson (defensive end, LSU). McDaniels met with two of the prospects during the middle of the talks for Cutler on Thursday, and he ignored the bleating on his cell phone while those meetings were going on.

Now Angelo can know for sure -- the Broncos were going to make the deal with him unless his final offer was a fraction of those from Washington and Tampa Bay.

3. The Jets were never in it seriously --true story. New York is either convinced that Brett Ratliff or Kellen Clemens is its guy, or the Jets think the New York spotlight would have been too white-hot for a rabbit-ears guy like Cutler to handle, or they didn't want to pay two first-round picks for Cutler after giving a third for one season of Brett Favre. I just know that the Jets never made a remotely serious offer for Cutler, much to my surprise.

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4. All you Redskins fans who are so sure youwerethisclose to getting Cutler? Total BS. Yes, Washington was competitive, and the 'Skins would have done whatever it took to get Cutler. But once McDaniels decided Orton was his man -- even though Washington's first-round pick would have been the 13th overall, five slots ahead of Chicago's -- the contest was over. The 'Skins were out of it, even though Cutler and greater Washington were sure it almost happened.

5. In the end, this trade happened so quickly because, first and foremost, the owner of the Broncos felt dissed. And you do not diss Pat Bowlen. Bowlen is 65. He has owned the team for 25 years. In Bowlen's world, there is a protocol to doing business, and part of that protocol is the players and coaches having respect for the owner, regardless of their personal feelings about anyone else in the organization. Imagine Tom Brady ignoring calls from Bob Kraft. It'd never happen. Imagine Dan Rooney getting snubbed by Ben Roethlisberger, or Peyton Manning ditching Jim Irsay. Never in a million years, regardless of how they felt about what was happening with the team, would it happen.

In all the years Bowlen has owned the team, he has never felt quite the disrespect from a player or coach that he felt from Cutler ignoring his attempts to speak to him to attempt to bridge the problems between player and team. And you should not underestimate how significant this was in Bowlen's Tuesday-night pronouncement that Cutler was being put up on the trading block.

***

So many tributaries. Such an interesting deal.

First, it should have never, ever come to this. Cutler-McDaniels was a match made in heaven -- a smart, tough, accurate passer with a great arm, in the hands of a Belichick protégé with a good offensive mind. Unless Orton becomes what Brady became in 2001, or Matt Cassel became in 2008, McDaniels and Bronco Nation will always wonder what they could have done to save this relationship. And I believe it could have been saved.

McDaniels could have sweet-talked Cutler a little more than he did. As one of the GMs involved in talking to the Broncos told me Saturday: "This should never have happened. This is bad for football. A great player talked his way off a team. If this trade doesn't work out for Denver, and Cutler plays great, which he should, Denver's going to look idiotic.''

Having said that, Cutler owns a degree of culpability that I believe is greater than the team's. As I wrote Thursday night, he has himself to blame for this trade because he couldn't accept that the team fired the two coaches -- Mike Shanahan and Jeremy Bates -- most responsible for the very good offense the Broncos had in 2008 and then couldn't accept that McDaniels wouldn't assure him he'd never be traded.

Should McDaniels have lied about that? Maybe. But the Broncos once tried to trade John Elway to Washington, and Elway had to come back to the team knowing Dan Reeves wanted to deal him. They were never best friends, but Elway didn't go on strike like Cutler did. Cutler was poked and prodded, but spare me the violins about how the Broncos treated him terribly. I don't buy it. He got treated like an employee, which he is.

I don't write this morning to say Denver won the trade. Not at all. I'll never praise trading a 25-year-old quarterback coming off a 4,000-yard season and possessing the best arm in football. And I'll continue to say the Broncos acted precipitously. They should have let this thing simmer for the next two or three weeks, accepted no phone calls from any team, and then, the weekend before the draft -- if Cutler was still not to be mollified -- deal him. April 22, fine. April 2 ... what's the rush?

For now, I'll declare the two winners to be the Bears and Orton. The only way I'll call Denver a winner in this is if they use eight primo picks -- five picks in the top 2.5 rounds of this draft, and three more in the first two rounds next year -- to rebuild a patchwork defense. That's a tall order for any team because there's usually a 50-percent washout factor with the high picks in any draft. But McDaniels, to show Denver fans and his own locker room that he was the right man for the job, has to make chicken salad with these draft picks out of the chicken-feathers situation that resulted in Cutler getting dealt.

The Bears finally have the quarterback they've longed for. If anyone thinks the Bears paid too much, let me show you the 14 men who have been first-round picks for the Bears in the last 15 drafts: John Thierry, Rashaan Salaam, Walt Harris,Curtis Enis, Cade McNown, Brian Urlacher, David Terrell, Marc Colombo, Michael Haynes, Rex Grossman, Tommie Harris, Cedric Benson,Greg Olsen, Chris Williams. Let's eliminate judging the last two, from 2007 and 2008, because they don't have enough on their résumés yet. Let's look at the other 12.

Stars: 1 (Urlacher).

Very good NFL starters: 1 (Tommie Harris).

NFL starters: 2 (Walt Harris, Marc Colombo).

Had some moments, but ultimately failed: 3 (Grossman, Thierry, Haynes).

Busts: 5 (Salaam, Enis, McNown, Terrell, Benson).

Four of the 12 became consistent NFL starters, or better. An awful, awful track record. That is why Angelo, a career scout who has too often loved draft picks more than A-Rod loves himself, wasn't very emotional talking to me about what he gave up.

"I've kind of changed about draft choices, particularly first-rounders,'' Angelo told me. "I don't have the same conviction on ones that I used to. It's the money, the totally unrealistic expectations, players coming out younger and not as experienced, players with too much time on their hands and too much money and not being grounded enough. I've become a little pragmatic about the first-round picks. They've been looked at like the Holy Grail for so long. Here, we had a chance to get a quarterback who's already shown he can play really well in the league. He's a guy with resilience; you've got to be resilient playing at Vanderbilt and succeeding John Elway. So we felt like it was a good investment for us. Time will tell.''

That's the sign of a smart general manager. I didn't think Angelo had this kind of move in him, dealing a marginal starting quarterback and three high picks, leaving his team without a first-round pick for two-straight years. But it's a gamble any smart GM would make.

Now for Orton. His first words to McDaniels illustrate the kind of sponge and -- the Broncos hope -- player he'll be in Denver, I think. "I just want to have an opportunity to compete for the job and help the team win,'' Orton told McDaniels.

Orton flew to Denver early Friday to meet everyone in the building, and later in the day was waiting at the airport in Denver to fly home when I reached him. He returned to Denver on Sunday night, and he'll be a full-timer in the offseason program, competing with Chris Simms -- and maybe, though I doubt it, a first-round quarterback if McDaniels finds one he loves in the draft. I asked Orton why he said what he said to McDaniels.

"It's all I've ever wanted,'' he said. "It's all I ever asked for in college [at Purdue] or here. As long as I have a fair chance, I can deal with whatever the coach decides.''

I found it interesting that Orton was so happy Friday night. Here he was, going from a team with a pretty good defense and a needy offense, where he was the no-doubt starter, to a team where he's the favorite to win the starting job, but nothing will be handed to him.

"It's the offense,'' he said. "I've watched it. I love it. The spread -- or at least, the multifaceted part of it -- really appeals to me. You change from game to game, and you do whatever gives your team the best chance to win that Sunday. That's the way an offense should be. But it counts on the quarterback to be smart at the line of scrimmage, and to make good decisions, and to be accurate. I think those are traits I have.''

Maybe, but he hasn't shown the accuracy in Chicago that he'll have to show in Denver. In 33 career games, he's completed just 55.3 percent of his throws. If that continues, McDaniels will have a new quarterback playing by December. But Orton will have two things he never had in Chicago -- time to throw (young tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris are the best young pair of outside blockers in football), and talent to throw to; Brandon Marshall and Eddie Royal, arguably, are the best young bookend receivers in the game. "When I found out about the trade,'' Orton said, "I was extremely happy. Everyone knows about Denver's talent on offense.''

As a coach, McDaniels has had great success helping his quarterbacks (Brady, Cassel) move the chains in New England. If he can pass that along to Orton, the offense shouldn't be what loses games for Denver. Now, the new coach who's taken the great gamble better hope he can draft defensive players. It's only his job that hangs in the balance.