Evaluations: Cutler, Orton, McDaniels

How did it get so far? Saying that McDaniels blundered, or that Cutler took McDaniels' willingness to entertain offers too personally, or that Cook had a game plan for which the Cassel incident supplied a handy pretext are not totally satisfying, although I've subscribed to each. I can even add another, call it the evil genius theory, in which McDaniels doesn't think Cutler is a winner but realizes that if he just puts him on the block teams will be wary. What does McDaniels know that we don't? Even if they bid they'll do so more cautiously and ultimately less generously. If, however, he subtly pushes Jay's buttons until Jay "forces" his way out of Denver, others will see not questions about his abilities but immaturity, which they think they can deal with. Hence his trade value will be maximized.

The first and fourth scenarios raise, one tacitly and the other overtly, the issue of evaluation. Why was McDaniels willing to consider deals involving Cutler? That it's a coach's duty to listen to all offers is true but ultimately not convincing. If that's the case, why was McDaniels unable to sufficiently reassure Jay when so much seemingly depended on it? Yes, Jay was petulant, yes he should have realized it's a business. But if McDaniels really, really wanted Jay to stay he could have made it clear that even though you can never say never, still, there's no quarterback he would rather have than Jay and he can't imagine him not being his quarterback in the future. Somehow he was never quite able to express, even in accounts sympathetic to his point of view, that kind of whole-hearted commitment to "the player".

In a recent article in the Denver Post the authors write:

Josh McDaniels didn't say it, but by making a deal with Chicago, and not Washington, it was apparent the Broncos coach preferred Kyle Orton to the Redskins' Jason Campbell. Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said at his news conference Thursday that the Broncos "did a lot of work on Kyle, spent a lot of time breaking down the tape. I think that was a key component to making this happen."

If McDaniels put that much effort into evaluating Orton and Campbell, think how much more time he must have spent on Jay Cutler, the quarterback of the team he was auditioning for. Apparently he wasn't totally satisfied. That doesn't necessarily mean he didn't think he could win with Cutler, only that he was willing to consider other possibilities. In Why Jay Faded I suggested that:

Many people have commented that Jay still doesn't go through his progressions very well, that he locks in on one receiver. They also say he makes too many bad decisions. There are at least two senses in which this can be said, and the term "bad decision" doesn't have quite the same meaning in both instances. It's often used when a quarterback attempts a pass because he either doesn't see a defensive player or doesn't realize his potential for making a play. The term "bad decision" implies bad judgment, but in those instances the quarterback simply doesn't have time to recognize the danger before he releases the ball. The culprit isn't his judgment but the speed of the pass rush, his inexperience, an inherent limitation in how fast he can process information, or some combination of the three. With Cutler the first rarely applied due to excellent protection, and the third hopefully didn't, but the second most likely did.

But it didn't do so obviously, because Cutler has abilities that have tended to mask that deficit. His throws have tremendous velocity and accuracy, particularly when he's throwing on a straight line. That means he can often get the ball in even when the receiver's covered, because the ball's so perfectly thrown and gets there so fast the defender doesn't have time to react. But the other side of the coin is that Jay has to be perfect in order to avoid picks. And having to be perfect play after play, game after game, takes its toll over the course of a season. I suggest that's why Jay faded.

But Jay also made bad decisions in a second and more literal sense. Trusting his velocity and his accuracy, and preferring to risk a bad play in order to make a good one, Jay often tried to fit the ball in even when he knew the receiver was tightly covered, not simply because he didn't see the defender in time. That's a mindset McDaniels will surely want to change, if he can, and is most likely the factor that made him willing to consider Cassel as an alternative.

In an insightful response styg50 added:

What you are saying seems to be that Jay's decision making took a hit precisely because he stopped making decisions. The more the pressure mounted, the less he relied on thinking and the more he relied on his natural abilities. He wasn't choosing to thread a needle with arm strength and velocity over throwing it away or checking down to a RB, he wasn't choosing at all. By the end of the year our offense was inefficient sandlot football, and the exact opposite of week one against the raiders, where we were a relentless machine.

In a similar vein SlowWhiteGuy writes:

I think fans who don't know how to evaluate QBs don't realize how far Cutler's game needs to improve before he will actually be an elite QB. He has great tools but he is barely playing about [above?] a college QB level [in] his situational awareness, his reads (especially against zones) and his patience to work through his progressions. Based on what we've seen over the past 6 weeks I have doubts that he is humble enough to progress much farther as a QB.

Clearly there are legitimate doubts regarding Cutler's abilities as a pro quarterback. Not only does his raw talent mask deficiencies that are more central to success, having such talent also makes it less likely that he'll be motivated to develop those capabilities. But that's not the only kind of doubt that's relevant. In baseball I've often noticed that a given pitcher will have a better won-loss record than another on the same team with a better ERA. In such cases close inspection often reveals that the pitcher with the better record consistently gets better run support from his hitters. Indeed, there are "hard-luck" pitchers who seem to frequently lose games 1-0 or 2-1. Why do such pitchers get less help from their teammates? Are they really unlucky? Consistently? Less likeable? Less inspirational? Is there something about their body language? Do we really want to say they're better than the "lucky" teammate who consistently wins more games?

In today's New York Times Stefan Fatsis, who spent the summer of 2006 with the Broncos as an ersatz placekicker while researching a book, has one of the most insightful articles I've yet seen on this whole affair. After making some shrewd observations about Bowlen and Shanahan he asks, "Why would McDaniels have considered trading Cutler in the first place?" He considers various possibilities, some of which have been relentlessly rehashed in the press, then comes down to this:

I met Cutler when he was the first-round draft choice in 2006 who was expected to ride the bench for a couple of years behind Jake Plummer and then lead Denver for a decade or more. The new Elway! Finally! But Cutler is virtually absent from my book. That's because he was uncompelling journalistically and off-putting personally. I sought out players who thought deeply and were interested in explaining the physical and emotional realities of playing in the NFL. That wasn't Cutler. His demeanor often was that of a bored, eye-rolling teenage girl, with a dash of smugness for good measure. Since then, I've received unflattering reports about his behavior and indifferent-to-negative ones about his relationship with his teammates.

Should those sorts of perceptions outweigh a laser arm on a 25-year-old body and 4,500 passing yards and 13-1 record in games in which his team gave up no more than 21 points and any of the other stats rolled out by his supporters? Certainly not. But football teams, like other businesses, consist of human beings whose ability to interact is integral to their success. And no human being is more important to the success of a football team than the quarterback. Josh McDaniels may be young and inexperienced, but he's not dumb. He didn't want to sabotage his new team, or his own future. So something else must have been going on.

Here's a radical thought: Maybe McJayGate, as the Denver press dubbed it, wasn't about who dissed whom or who ignored whose text messages or whether a new coach has to earn the respect of his players. Maybe it was about something more prosaic but also more substantial: the future of the team. Maybe Pat Bowlen, Josh McDaniels and other team officials examined Cutler's statistics, his physical traits, his emotional temperament, his suitability to the coach's offensive system, his leadership ability, his off-field behavior and his overall attitude — including the evolution of his relationship with his new boss. And then they decided that the Denver Broncos had a greater chance of winning with someone else in the huddle. Even someone named Kyle Orton.

Fatsis' observations are eerily reminiscent of the impression I got from my co-worker, who was Cutler's high school teammate, which I mentioned in this comment:

As rabid a Broncos fan as he is, and as proud of Jay as he's been, it always struck me odd that when I'd say wow, it must have been great playing with him, he was always reticent about it and sort of implied, without really coming out and saying so, that he wasn't that great a guy to play for. I thought maybe he was kind of jealous. Maybe now we're seeing what he already knew.

Maybe those fans who've harped on Cutler's 17-20 won-loss record are on to something. Yes, the defense has been awful, but would it have been as awful, or as bad in critical situations, for another quarterback? In 2006 the Broncos were 7-4 despite averaging only 17.8 points per game when Cutler replaced Plummer, and went 2-3 the rest of the way, and lost the last game to miss the playoffs, despite averaging 24.8. Yes, the defense suddenly became much less effective, as it has been ever since Jay became quarterback. The coincidences keep piling up. Is Jay like those "unlucky" baseball pitchers who don't get much help? Conversely, Plummer, who had a very good won-loss record with the Broncos, was known to be extremely popular with his teammates. I don't mean to minimize his deficiencies, which in Shanahan's opinion, which I agree with, limited how far the Broncos could go. But Plummer's teammates supported him, in the most meaningful way possible, by playing their hearts out on the football field even when Jake was playing badly. It has been during Jay Cutler's tenure, and only during his tenure, that the Broncos have regularly and embarrassingly underperformed. Is leadership what we've been missing?

Denver fans have been so mesmerized by John Elway's howitzer arm that this factor has defined the quest for his successor. But John's relatively low completion percentage and early tendency to throw into coverage weren't temporary deficiencies due to inexperience. He won not because of his cannon arm, not because he could quickly find the open receiver a la Joe Montana, but because of his mobility — keep running around until you find someone — and his leadership and iron will. He's the greatest Bronco ever and a Hall of Famer because time and time again he somehow found a way to win. His biggest play in the biggest game of his life was not a pretty pass but the helicopter first down. The unalloyed joy he felt when he lifted that trophy high was made possible by teammates who gave everything they had in response to his leadership.

About Orton we know very little, except that he's 21-12 overall and 15-2 at home. McDaniels, who like all members of the Parcells-Belichick coaching tree is acutely aware of the bottom line, has to have been affected by this one. For better or worse it's McDaniels' judgments that will determine the Broncos' fate during his tenure, and Bowlen, as is his want, has chosen who he thinks is the best man and left him to succeed or fail on the strength not only of his coaching but also his evaluations of men and situations. As fans we can do no less.

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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