- It’s a little more than a week into his Dolphins career, and Miami is starting to feel all right about its new quarterback
On June 16, to his surprise, Jay Cutler arrived at the L27 rooftop bar at The Westin Nashville for his own retirement party. Unbeknownst to Cutler, his wife, Kristin Cavallari, had invited several dozen family and friends to a celebration of his football career and a sendoff to his next pursuit, a broadcasting gig with FOX Sports. Overlooking Nashville’s highest infinity pool and a sweeping view of the city below them, guests including Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase listened to Cutler as he thanked all those who had a part in his life in the NFL.
“I don’t know if I was convinced he was done,” says Gase, who coached Cutler as a coordinator in Chicago in 2015—arguably Cutler’s best season—before taking the head-coaching job in Miami in ’16.
“I didn’t feel like he was really looking for anything or searching for a team. It was what it was at the time.”
Fast-forward to August 3. Miami starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill suffers a season-ending ACL injury to the same knee that sidelined him last December. Gase reached out to the 34-year-old Cutler. By Gase’s recollection, the call was brief.
Hey, you got any interest in coming?
All right, I’ll get back to you.
Cutler’s agent, Bus Cook, and Dolphins Executive Vice President Mike Tannenbaum worked out a one-year, $10 million deal to bring Cutler out of retirement. In the meantime, Gase asked his football team to trust him. Miami improved from 6-10 in 2015 to 10-6 and a playoff appearance in 2016, and was inserting a retired father of three coming off a torn labrum who hadn’t been a part of that turnaround, into the most important role on the team.
Says wide receiver Kenny Stills: “Gase just let us know, Whatever I do, just trust me. And he knew we would trust any decision he made. It wasn’t some situation with some random person coming in that none of us knew. Gase has had success with him.”
Says Gase: “We’ve got a lot of good players and a lot of guys who work extremely hard, and I wanted to make sure we had a chance to compete this year. To me, we got a steal, a guy who’s a pretty good player.”
How good Cutler can be with the normal season prep time halved is a matter of considerable speculation. Since he entered the league in 2006, only four quarterbacks with 50 or more starts have thrown interceptions at a higher rate: Vince Young, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Freeman. At his best, with Gase in 2015, he cracked a 90 passer rating for the first time and threw just 11 interceptions, his lowest total when starting at least 11 games in a season.
The offense that year was a hodgepodge of vertical concepts borrowed from former mentor and boss Mike Martz, and quick throws native to the West Coast offense. According to those who have watched Cutler acclimate himself over the past 10 days, only the language has changed since he last played for Gase.
During the transition, offensive lineman Jermon Bushrod became a resource for both Cutler and the players interested in learning more about their replacement QB. Bushrod had spent three seasons in Chicago with Cutler from 2013-15 and was happy to sing the praises of the Dolphins to the QB, and vice versa.
“He was asking me how it was down here,” Bushrod says. “I told him we’re young but we’ve got guys who work, and do it everyday.
“Guys asked me about him and I gave my honest opinion.”
Was he lazy, uncaring, or aloof, as the Smokin’ Jay Cutler meme suggests?
“That’s funny stuff at the end of the day, but it's such an inaccurate perception of him that it gets annoying,” says Bushrod, referring to the meme. “That gets frustrating. I appreciate what he does and brings to a football team. Ever since I’ve been with him in Chicago he’s always been willing to work.”
Offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, one of the players who consulted with Bushrod, says Cutler has made a positive first impression. “I heard all the bad stuff bout Jay, that he doesn’t care, but from the looks of it, he does care,” Tunsil says. “You have to judge people by what you know and observe, not what you hear. Guys don’t buy all that stuff.”
“I know what everybody knows,” says cornerback Byron Maxwell, who had two interceptions and forced four fumbles in 2016, his first season in Miami. “Your first impression is what you see on TV—his teams didn’t win. That’s honestly how I judge quarterbacks. They’ve got the ball in their hand more than anybody, and his team didn’t win.
“But when he becomes your teammate you put that aside. It’s solely what he does, not what he’s done. We’re in a time of need, and quarterbacks don’t grow on trees.”
By the end of the first week, Cutler was taking first team reps with his new club, dropping dimes and ducks with equal frequency in the sweltering South Florida heat. During one 11-on-11 session last weekend, he tried to hit DeVante Parker on a fade-stop route in the end zone and instead found the waiting hands of Maxwell, who took the interception the distance, darting through the reserve linemen milling behind the offensive huddle.
It’s a funny thing to watch a defense intercept a starting quarterback in training camp with a few hundred fans watching. There’s the initial jolt—the thrill of the ball going the other way—then there’s the sudden pall that accompanies the realization that starting quarterbacks shouldn’t be throwing interceptions against an absentee pass rush. Then there’s the muted applause for Maxwell, who did, after all, just make a fine play.
“All I heard is cheers,” Maxwell says with a smile. “We were beating up on the offense. That happens in training camp, they have their days too. Today was our day.
“With Cutler being new, everybody else has to step up. It takes time. Ryan and those guys were working together for years. It’s going to take some time to figure out where guys want passes placed on different routes.”
Creating an understanding of expectations between quarterback and receiver has been one of Cutler’s first priorities in camp as he prepares to potentially start his first preseason game Thursday against the Ravens. On their first day of practice together, Cutler and tight end Julius Thomas failed to connect on an out route, and Cutler was eager to give Thomas instruction. He wanted Thomas out of his break quicker, and for Thomas to get better outside leverage on the defensive back.
“Before I even got back to the line he was telling me what he thought I should’ve done and what he is looking for. So now every time I get that coverage for that route I know where the ball will be,” Thomas says. “All you can ask for is a quarterback who knows what he wants and tells you what he wants.”
Cutler says the process of building a good rapport with a group of receivers is unpredictable, and could take anywhere between three days and three weeks. “It’s just kind of, when it clicks, it clicks,” he told reporters Sunday. “It’s like whenever you meet somebody new, right off the bat there’s a spark or sometimes it might take a little bit longer or it just doesn’t happen; but with these guys, it’s going to happen. These guys are good football players, they’re fun to be around. It’s an enjoyable process.”
Thomas, who joined the team this offseason, knows less of Cutler’s habits than several of his teammates, who spent last season in film rooms with Gase reviewing film on his previous quarterbacks, including Tim Tebow, Peyton Manning and Cutler. Gase used examples of successful plays from each quarterback while installing his playbook.
One major thing Miami receivers noticed about Cutler from those sessions: He’ll chuck it up.
“When you watch that film, you love the fact that he would put the ball up there and let the receivers make a play,” says Stills. “We’ve got guys in this offense who can make a play if given the chance. And with Jay it didn’t matter who his receivers were, he was going to give them chances to make plays. We want those opportunities.
“It’s fun for us knowing that, hey, we might not be open, but the ball’s gonna come and he’s gonna give us a chance to do something with it.”
About 20 minutes after the Maxwell pick-six, Cutler saw Parker streaking down the left sideline in a two-minute scenario and threw at his inside shoulder, directly at second-year cornerback Xavien Howard’s head. But Parker swam over Howard's shoulders, veered in and caught the pass in stride for a touchdown. The crowd blew up for Cutler like they hadn’t for Maxwell.
There’s still something salvageable here, maybe even something special.
“He came in here to be a part of it, what we’ve built,” Gase says of Cutler. “Our players do a great job of rallying. Seems like we always have something weird happen. They just don’t say anything, put their head down and grind, and it’s one of the things I love the most about this team.”
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