How fitting that the Miami Dolphins are replacing their knee-buckled quarterback Ryan Tannehill with Jay Cutler, who hasn’t played a full season since 2009. These two have so many other things in common: too many sacks, picks and losses, too many teammates who don’t like them.
Cutler last week signed a relatively modest contract with the Dolphins: one year at $10 million base, making him the 23rd highest-paid quarterback in the NFL. There may be a million people in Chicago who would say Miami paid too much.
Cutler saw his value to Bears nation when a football he autographed failed to attract a single bid at a recent charity auction in Chicago. No one would pay $100 for a ball that would have cost $60 with no autograph.
Tannehill and Cutler are nowhere near the worst of first-round draft busts, but they’re always in the discussion because they’re just good enough to be almost famous. One more thing they have in common: Each has had the best year of his life when being coached by Adam Gase.
Even at their best, these two are not far above statistical average for NFL starting quarterbacks. Cutler posted his peak rating of 92.3 with Gase in Chicago in 2015. Tannehill was 93.5 last season with Gase in Miami.
Cutler wore out his welcome in the Second City in January 2011 when he withdrew from a playoff game with a knee injury. He stood completely alone in Soldier Field, no teammates consoling him. Players questioned how badly he was hurt. Fans burned his jersey in the parking lot.
For me, the defining Cutler moment was a game in Buffalo a couple of years later. While Chicago’s defense is on the field, the Jaybird is not consulting with coaches or receivers, the way Drew Brees, Tom Brady or Philip Rivers would be doing. He’s not even watching the game. He’s patting his thick, tall sculpture of hair and asking a teammate: “Does it look good?” Well, at least someone is talking to him.
The copper waves were splendidly coiffed for his first news conference in South Florida, where damned if he didn’t give us another Cutler moment.
He insisted it didn’t matter if he was in no condition to play football after three months of training to be a Fox analyst. “The good thing is I play quarterback,” he said, smiling. “So I don’t have to be in that great of cardiovascular shape.”
Joking or not, he once again appeared not overly dedicated to the profession from which he so readily retired at 34. Vast talent is there, but little passion. His cardiovascular condition may be more important than he realizes. How much heart does he have? How much does he care?
Brady Quinn, who backed up for the Denver Broncos when Gase was his quarterbacks coach, said on Pro Football Talk: “Compared to other positions, yeah, you don’t have to be in the best cardiovascular shape. But the times that you aren’t could come back to bite you. Like in a 2-minute drive.
“Or after you scramble to put your team in the red zone. If you’re breathing hard and can’t communicate the play, and you have to repeat it, the play clock’s running down, that could be the difference in the game.”
Looking at career stats, Cutler and Tannehill are almost identical twins. Completion percentage? Tannehill 62.7, Cutler 61.9. Passer rating? Tannehill 86.5, Cutler 85.7.
There are a few differences, of course. Cutler has a high sack rate, 6.7%, but Tannehill’s is a horrid 8.1. Tannehill’s interception rate is a sloppy 2.5%, but Cutler’s is approaching Ryan Fitzpatrick land at 3.32.
Cutler has a stronger arm – and better hair — than Tannehill, a converted receiver at Texas A&M. Cutler has a Vanderbilt brain (excellent Wonderlic score of 29), while Tannehill has seemed clueless at times.
A Hard Knocks episode showed Tannehill in his first training camp being unable to name the teams in Miami’s division.
Limited as they are, Tannehill and Cutler are ideal pupils for Gase, the greatest Quarterback Whisperer since Bill Walsh, inventor of the West Coast Offense, on which much of Gase’s quick-throw system is based.
Coaches hate to be dubbed Quarterback Whisperer. The title adds to the one thing every coach has too much of: pressure.
Remember when Marc Trestman in 2014 transformed Cutler into a poised pocket passer, then did likewise for otherwise undistinguished Josh McCown when Cutler was hurt, as he tends to be. But a whisperer needs a listener. Trestman slipped back to oblivion after coaching Joe Flacco last year. Whispers fell on deaf ears.
Another ex-Whisperer, Norv Turner, was lavishly praised by Troy Aikman for developing him into a Hall of Famer, and he had much to do with Rivers rising. But as coordinator in Minnesota in 2014-2016 Turner was unable to create many touchdowns for Teddy Bridgewater and Sam Bradford.
Turner quit in frustration but did see plenty of Cutler playing for a division rival. Turner told Pro Football Talk: “This is probably Jay’s best chance to go out and play winning football. I think he’s always felt he wasn’t with a good enough team, that there were things that kept him from getting done what he wanted to get done.”
Cutler does have game-breaking weapons in Miami: running back Jay Ajayi and wide receiver Jarvis Landry, assuming the latter can dodge prosecution for domestic violence.
In Chicago, Gase installed an offense heavy on short routes to prevent sacks and bring yards after catch. Gase drew up bootlegs to accent the mobility and physical strength of a 220-pound quarterback who willingly lowers his shoulder into linebackers. Cutler claims full recovery from December shoulder surgery.
Psychological testing prior to Cutler’s NFL entrance showed lack of social maturity. Bears receivers complained of his aloofness. He couldn’t “throw them open” because he wouldn’t take time to practice it or talk with them about it.
So Gase asked Cutler to be more sociable and upbeat, while building a friendship and alliance with him. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King quoted an unnamed Bears source: “No one’s had his back like Adam.”
Though Tannehill is 29, his future in Miami is in doubt. The sprained left knee is expected to require surgery. It’s not career-threatening, but Tannehill’s upside is limited. He’s lasted this long because he was a high draft pick, and owner Stephen Ross doesn’t want to admit to a giant waste of money.
Publicly prodded by Gase, Tannehill became a more vocal leader, but he’s still more Jay Cutler than Tom Brady. I’m not quite ready to give up on Cutler, as long as he’s listening to Gase. And there is another powerful motivation here: one last chance at redemption.