Jay Cutler's Denver Tenure Provides Broncos a Cautionary Tale in Pursuit of a QB

The Jay Cutler era in Denver, what led up to it and what happened after, should inform Broncos GM George Paton greatly on how he approaches 'fixing' the QB position.
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Back in 2005, the Denver Broncos went 13-3 and were considered a favorite to reach the Super Bowl. But in the AFC Championship game, then-starting quarterback Jake Plummer played poorly against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Broncos lost.

Change came to the Broncos organization in the form of 2006 first-round pick Jay Cutler. He took over as the starter as a rookie 11 games in and while he showed promise, the Broncos finished 2-3 with him at the helm and missed the playoffs.

The Broncos missed the playoffs the next two seasons, leading to the firing of head coach Mike Shanahan. Josh McDaniels was named his replacement and, after he and Cutler clashed, the 2006 first-round pick was traded to the Chicago Bears.

The Bears reached the NFC title game in the 2010 season but fell short of a win. Chicago never reached the playoffs again under Cutler, with general managers, head coaches and offensive coordinators coming and going regularly. Cutler, while not a bad player, never reached his full potential.

Cutler's Cautionary Tale

Jay Cutler

Cutler is the perfect case study in how you can take a talented QB and screw everything up if you don't do a good job of developing the QB and building the team around him.

So what happened to Cutler in his time with the Broncos and the Bears that kept him from reaching a higher level and, thus, gave both teams little in return for the resources utilized to acquire him? Let's examine the evidence.

Back in 2015, former Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist wrote an article for Bleacher Report about how the Broncos identified Cutler as a QB to target in the 2006 draft. Of particular note, as Sundquist wrote, is that the late Mike Heimerdinger was Cutler's biggest advocate.

Heimerdinger was named offensive coordinator after Gary Kubiak left the Broncos to become head coach of the Houston Texans following the 2005 season. Plummer wasn't a QB Heimerdinger believed he could work with, but he liked Cutler and, ultimately, sold Sundquist and Shanahan on moving up to draft him.

Thus, Cutler had three people who liked him and wanted to develop him. But two seasons later, Heimerdinger left to join the Tennessee Titans, removing one of Cutler's biggest supporters from the organization.

A short time later, Shanahan fired Sundquist. And after the 2008 season, Shanahan himself was fired by the late Pat Bowlen. All of a sudden, Cutler had lost all three of his biggest supporters in the Broncos organization.

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Support Base Evaporates

When a young quarterback sees the guys who believed in him and developed him, suddenly gone, it's no surprise when he becomes outspoken about his unhappiness. Things only got worse after McDaniels decided not to retain quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, another person Cutler liked and felt comfortable with.

And when things went sour between McDaniels and Cutler, that was it for the talented QB's time in Denver.

A lesson to be learned here is when a regime sees a quarterback as 'their guy,' and that regime is removed in entirety, it can be hard to sell the quarterback to the next brass hired, or for that incoming regime to buy into the quarterback in the room unless he clearly transcends the game.

Now, to touch upon Cutler and McDaniels for a moment, McDaniels could have taken a more conciliatory approach with Cutler, but that's no guarantee the relationship would have lasted. That's particularly true when Shanahan was hired to coach in Washington in 2011.

Let's assume Cutler and McDaniels developed a relationship in which the two worked together well, even if they weren't enthused with one another. In that situation, there's a very real chance that Cutler asks to be traded once Shanahan is hired in Washington.

None of that means that Cutler had an attitude problem — it simply means that young QBs want to believe the regime has their back. If they start to question 'Am I wanted here?', it's hard for them to want to stick around, especially if a person they love gets hired elsewhere. And that, in turn, impacts the QB's development.

Shanahan's Complicity

However, while Cutler had his issues as a player, and while McDaniels bears some responsibility for the poor relationship, it doesn't explain Cutler's failed development by itself. Shanahan and Sundquist both failed to properly build the team around Cutler and made too many misses that cost them a lot.

There were the trades up the board for edge rushers Jarvis Moss and Tim Crowder in 2017, the signing of running back Travis Henry, the trade for wideout Javon Walker, and the multiple forays into free agency that saw middling players added, all while the cap was being mismanaged. And many of these moves, plus the constant changing of defensive coordinators, led to a defense that ranked among the worst in the NFL at the time.

In other words, Shanahan and Sundquist had done as much damage to Cutler as anyone else, even if it was inadvertent. It's true that dominant defenses don't last and building a top offense does more for a team, but you want the defense to complement the offense. That didn't happen in 2007 and 2008.

The fact is, Shanahan was gone mostly because of his inability to properly build a team around Cutler, particularly because Cutler was a QB that, while he had a lot of strengths, had important flaws and, thus, wasn't going to be the type to put the team on his shoulders and carry it into the playoffs.

More Folly in the Windy City

That brings us to the Bears. I'll be brief here, but there was plenty that went wrong after the Bears acquired Cutler for first-round picks in 2009 and 2010, a third-rounder in 2010, and quarterback Kyle Orton (with the Broncos sending back a 2009 fifth).

Among the wrongdoing was the assumption that the Bears defense was so good, all Chicago needed was the right quarterback to bring the offense to the next level.

The problem was, the Bears didn't have a receiver whose strengths complemented Cutler. The Broncos had Brandon Marshall, a tall receiver who was good at hauling in tough catches, and Eddie Royal, who excelled as a slot receiver. 

The Bears were relying on Devin Hester, a top return man who never caught on as a receiver, plus speedster Johnny Knox (talented but not the guy to make contested catches) and Earl Bennett, who wasn't as good as Royal and owed much of his NFL existence to his Vanderbilt connection to Cutler.

The Bears did have tight end in Greg Olsen, who formed a rapport with Cutler. However, Olsen was traded to the Panthers in 2011, taking away arguably Cutler's best and most reliable playmaker. The Bears also had running back Matt Forte, but the screen game in which Forte excelled didn't play to Cutler's strengths as a passer.

On top of that, Cutler went through one offensive coordinator after another, none of whom seemed to be able to maximize his strengths. Even bringing back Jeremy Bates to be the QBs coach in 2012 didn't help Cutler.

There's also the fact that injuries had taken their toll on Cutler. He was unfairly called out for lack of toughness when the injuries were very real, but those injuries also limited what he could do over time. Even being reunited with Marshall, then Royal later on, didn't help Cutler regain his form.

The Takeaway

The moral of the story with Cutler is this: If you give up a lot of resources to get a quarterback, you better be sure the regime is buying into the guy and that you are properly building around him.

With the Broncos, Cutler had a regime that liked him, but that regime didn't build well around him and thus, didn't last. With the Bears, there appeared to be an assumption that Cutler would fix everything wrong with the offense, plus the constant changes at offensive coordinator didn't help matters.

We can see the idea about the need for regimes to buy into a QB, then properly build around him, with other QBs the Broncos have acquired. When Denver drafted Paxton Lynch, then-GM John Elway seemed to like him but there didn't appear to be anyone else in the organization who had fully bought in from the start. 

Lynch may not have helped his cause, but without a clear buy-in from everyone, including head coach and offensive brainchild Gary Kubiak, Lynch was going to have a hard time succeeding. The end result was wasted resources.

Then we come to Case Keenum, who was certainly overpaid, but what didn't help was offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave not callings plays to the QB's strengths. After Musgrave and head coach Vance Joseph were fired, Vic Fangio wanted a guy he liked as QB, leading to the trade for Joe Flacco and Keenum being dealt to Washington, all the while the Broncos still had to pay some of Keenum's 2019 salary. Once again, wasted resources.

It's not clear whether Fangio, GM George Paton, or offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur have all bought into Drew Lock, or whether they're all bought in when it comes to taking a QB prospect in the 2021 draft. But, if Broncos fans want the regime to do whatever it takes to get a QB, they'd better be sure that QB is one the organization is enthused about.

In my next installment, I'll talk about the approach to roster building a few NFL teams have, particularly when it's come to getting a quarterback.

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