April 3, 2009

Wounded Pony

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The Denver Broncos traded Jay Cutler and a third round draft choice to the Chicago Bears in exchange for two first round picks and quarterback Kyle Orton. The most striking aspect of this deal is that it never had to happen. Cutler’s actions were reprehensible to the umpteenth degree, but he still had three years left on a 6-year $48 million contract. Cutler forfeited $100,000 when he skipped an off-season workout, but he wouldn’t have walked out on millions no matter how much he despised coach Josh McDaniels. When Broncos owner Pat Bowlen announced that his team would put Cutler on the trade block, Cutler expressed disappointment. Granted, it was not the first time he changed his stance during this never-ending drama, but his mere uncertainty leads me to believe that he would have capitulated had Denver held onto him.
Cutler has perhaps the strongest arm in the National Football League and his gunslinger’s mentality reminds many observers of a young Brett Favre. The Broncos quarterback threw for 4,526 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2008, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl. His critics point to his 17-20 cumulative record and his propensity to throw costly interceptions (he had 18 last season). Cutler’s supposed deficiencies, however, were mostly a product of the Broncos’ inept defense during the quarterback’s tenure in the Mile High City. According to DVOA (defensive value over average), only the last year’s 0-16 Detroit Lions were more defensively challenged than the 2008 Broncos over the past 13 seasons. As opponents scored at will, Denver routinely abandoned its ground game early on and tried to score points exclusively through the air. Not that the Denver running attack was of much use anyways. Coach Mike Shanahan used seven tailbacks last season including Tatum Bell, who was out of the NFL and selling cell phones at a mall as recently as October. For a team that produced so much total offense, the Broncos should have scored more than 370 points. Only red-zone inefficiency can cause such a discrepancy and a team needs its tailbacks to rush for more than 15 touchdowns over the course of a season to be productive inside the 20 yard line. So, with no running attack to speak of and a historically bad defense, we must forgive Cutler for making some mistakes through the air. If not for Cutler, the Broncos wouldn’t have sniffed 8-8.
Cutler is leaving behind a talented supporting cast in Denver. Twenty-six year old Brandon Marshall and 22-year old Eddie Royal comprise the most dynamic duo of young receivers in the NFL. Tony Scheffler is essentially a wide receiver masquerading in as a tight end and Denver’s other tight end, Daniel Graham, is no slouch either. By contrast, the Bears’ best receiver, Devin Hester, is a converted cornerback. Ryan Clady had one of the best rookie seasons ever by a left tackle and right tackle Ryan Harris could play on the left side of the line for many teams. With aging Orlando Pace protecting his blindside in Chicago, Cutler will soon grow accustomed to the turf at Soldier Field. Running back Matt Forte, who rushed for 1,238 yards and caught 63 passes, was the lone bright spot in the Bears’ offense last season. This year, we will find out whether Cutler is Daunte Culpepper redux—a strong-armed quarterback whose gaudy numbers are a product of talented teammates—or a perennial Pro-Bowler.
If they had to trade Cutler, it’s hard to believe the Broncos could have collected any more compensation. GM Brian Xanders was smart to avoid Detroit’s first overall selection. As nicely as Matt Stafford or Aaron Curry may have looked in blue and orange, first overall picks set new standards for NFL contracts every year. Last year, the Miami Dolphins gave Jake Long the largest contract ever for an offensive lineman before he had ever played a professional snap and Matt Ryan’s contract is larger than that of Tom Brady. As it is, the Broncos obtained the 18th overall selection in this year’s draft to go along with their own pick at #12. Middle and late first round picks are much safer investments than those at the beginning of the first round. Throw in the Bears’ top selection in 2010 and Denver has some serious ammunition with which to fix their ailing defense and find a replacement for Cutler. Whether or not Xanders takes a quarterback this draft (and I’ll go out on a limb and say he does), Kyle Orton will be the position’s caretaker.
The acquisition of Cutler moves the Bears above the mediocrity that is the NFC North and makes them the favorites to win the division in 2009. They will, however, have to address their dearth of skill position players through the draft, which will be difficult without a first round pick. It is a risk, but one that GM Jerry Angelo had to make given that Chicago has relied on journeymen quarterbacks since Jim McMahon’s departure in 1988. If Cutler disappoints and the Broncos hit on their draft picks, the deal will serve alongside the Herschel Walker trade as an example of how not to invest draft picks. The risk on Denver’s side is just as great. McDaniels’ job security hinges on his ability to develop Cutler’s replacement and Xanders doesn’t want to be “the guy who traded Jay Cutler.” The fate of two organizations and the legacies of McDaniels, Xanders, Angelo and maybe even Bowlen are on the line. It all hinges on the performance of one Jay Cutler…and judging by his behavior over that past few months, that’s exactly what he wants.