Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Quarterback Quiz: Denver Broncos

At last, we've gotten to the Quiz I really wanted to do, as Cutler is my favorite player on my favorite team and I actually know something about him that is not the result of quick research around the Internets in order to put together a coherent piece. But the quizzes have been good for me as well, because they give me a better sense of each team and how the draft chips might fall in April. One thing I do know about the Broncos -- they need defensive help like whoa. Firing defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who wanted to use a system that he didn't have the right pieces for, may be a start, but new coordinator Bob Slowik has been on teams that have been record-setting in all the wrong ways for the amounts of points yielded. He was formerly the secondary coach, however, and prized corner Champ Bailey has spoken highly of him, saying he's more willing to listen to players and to run systems that are catered to the team's defensive strength -- namingly, their All-Pro tandem of Bailey and Dre Bly at the corners, and safety John Lynch (if he returns, which isn't a certainty, and he's lost a little of his edge with age). But one thing they also need is an offensive lineman who will adequately protect Cutler, regarded as the new face of the franchise, and that's why a number of mock drafts have them taking Boise State's offensive tackle Ryan Clady (the Boise State team, interestingly, is also named the Broncos) or Cutler's fellow Vanderbilt alum Chris Williams, also an OT, with the 12th overall selection. If they decide to beef up the safety position to account for Lynch's possible departure, Miami's Kenny Phillips is an option, as is Washington State's Husain Abdullah, younger brother of current Broncos safety Hamza. Neither of those would be the first pick for Denver, but may be available in the later rounds.

Denver Broncos (7-9): Jay Cutler

Playing quarterback in Denver ever since the Post-Elway years has always been a trial by fire. Brian Griese had one Pro Bowl year in 2000, but was plagued by too many interceptions and general inconsistency, and Jake Plummer was dubbed "Jake the Snake" by snarky Denver sportscasters for, well, you can probably guess why. I can't believe I am going to write this, but Plummer wasn't entirely as terrible as everyone tended to think he was, as he rated 91.2/84.5/90.2 in his first three seasons with Denver and did in fact once beat the Patriots in a playoff game. He did throw 60 touchdowns in those seasons, but also 34 interceptions, not exactly the desired ratio for a quarterback, and even I, who did not yet really follow football at the time, knew of Denver's general loathing for Plummer and his constantly recurring ineptitude.

For everyone still basking in the Elway glow, Plummer just didn't fit the bill, and his hesitance in passing and decision-making, plus his knack for being picked at inopportune times, led Mike Shanahan to start emphasizing the run more, something which carries over to this day; he doesn't seem to realize that he can again try some of the longer passing plays with Cutler that he did with Elway. Denver employs a West Coast offense that requires a quarterback able to open lanes for the run, and if said quarterback cannot complete passes to stretch a defense horizontally, the running back is going to head smack into all those big guys on the other side of the line of scrimmage. (Hell, this happened a lot this year, as Shanahan kept calling running play after running play after running play...) But now that they have a quarterback who has the arm and smarts to be able to make passing plays work of their own accord, not simply to clear holes for running backs Travis "Da Babymaker" Henry and Selvin Young, hopefully we'll see some difference. The problem with plugging Plummer into this (or any) system, of course, was that it didn't matter if you were trying to complete long or short passes, he just wasn't a guy you could trust to complete them -- period.

People forget as well that Elway was really only a very average quarterback for the first 10 years of his career (the highest he rated in between 1983-1992 was 83.4) and although he has over 50,000 career passing yards and 300 TD, he has 226 INT as well. (His career rating, for the record, is 79.9). He was, however, a strong-armed gunslinger in the model of Brett Favre, and leading the team to consecutive Super Bowls in '97-'98, including one over Favre's Packers, ensured that didn't matter. Watching Plummer attempt mightily just to get it to the guys in blue and orange didn't quite match up. Besides, Elway had that steely-eyed, jaw-set charisma of a natural-born leader, and the much-ballyhooed and parodied "intangibles" that could will a team to win. He was responsible for orchestrating one of the best and most mythic comebacks in NFL playoff history (The Drive, 1987) and was a guy that you could always feel confident would inspire the others to play at their highest potential. Plummer, on the other hand... let's just say he didn't invoke that kind of confidence. The best you could hope for was that he wouldn't mess up too badly, or he'd stumble his way into a good game, and that reaches the players as well as the fans. They're professionals, they always play hard because it's their job, they're being paid, and they (presumably) all love football, but there's a big difference between having a quarterback with average skills and an Elway mindset and a quarterback with average skills and a Plummer mindset. But enough about J.C.'s predecessors.

Jay Christopher Cutler, future saviore to a Denver team weary of Plummer's farting around, was born on April 29, 1983, in the festively named Santa Claus, Indiana (yes, the one where they send all those Christmas letters to get the Santa Claus postmark) and grew up in a subdivision named Christmas Village, which means he probably got sick of Christmas when he was a teenager. Attending Heritage Hills High School in Lincoln, Indiana, he, like many other of the quarterbacks we've examined, played three sports; he made All-State in basketball and baseball (where he was a shortstop). But he excelled in football, and started for three years both as a quarterback and as a safety. (Cutler was good at safety, too. He intercepted 9 passes as a senior -- only one short of the 10 put up this year by San Diego's Pro Bowl corner Antonio Cromartie. Of course, this is the NFL, that was high school, but still). But when he wasn't making other quarterbacks miserable, he was doing a decent job of it on his own -- more than decent. (It should also be noted that Jay Cutler was the best Patriots quarterback in organizational history. Er, the best Heritage Hills Patriots quarterback, that is). But like his NFL counterpart Tom Brady, he also led the Patriots to a perfect season -- 15-0 his senior year after going 11-1 as a junior. Also like the NFL's Patriots, they tyrannized the competition -- the Heritage High Patriots scored 746 points while permitting only 85, and Cutler presided over a 90-0 shutout of Pike Central High School at one point, an embarrassment that would have made Belichick proud. But unlike the real Patriots, they sealed the deal. (Burn). Cutler led Heritage High to the school's first 3A state championship, in which Zionsville High School was unable to play the part of the New York Giants and pull an upset. The Patriots won 27-24.

Cutler chose to attend Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, an unfortunate member of the SEC (Southeastern Conference) alongside heavyweights UGA, UT, UK, and UF, and generally their doormat. (Seeing as Vanderbilt is the most scholastically inclined of the lot, that explains why it becomes a problem when they face off against their football-minded rivals, who get all the best athletic recruits). But Jay started 45 games at quarterback for the Commodores, not missing a game to injury or, ahem, unavailability, which was a school record. A four-year starter (and team captain for three) Cutler wasted no time in making his mark -- as a freshman, he set records for rushing (393 yards) and touchdowns (9, plus 10 passing ones) running more than any other QB in the SEC, and was named to the All-SEC team. As a sophomore, he threw for 2,347 yards, 18 TD, 13 INT, and a 127.7 rating, as a junior it was 1,844 yards, 10 TD, 5 INT, and a 134.8 rating, and as a senior, it was 3,073 yards (only the second Commodore to throw over 3,000 in a season) 21 TD, and 9 INT with a 126.1 rating. For his performance, Cutler was the first Commodore to be named SEC Offensive Player of the Year -- in a division with the Volunteers, Gators, and Bulldogs, remember -- since 1967 and Bob Goodridge. At one point, Vanderbilt almost upset the Gators in Florida, lasting until double overtime before succumbing 49-42. They still managed to put up the second most points ever on the Gators in the Swamp, and when evaluating the Broncos' pickup in 2006, that led John Lynch to remark, "If this guy can take a bunch of future doctors and lawyers and have them competing against the Gators, this guy is a stud." He seems to be quite right thus far, and another year will only help.

Cutler went out with a flourish, closing his college career with a 28-24 win over the Volunteers in Knoxville -- the Commodores' first at their in-state rival's field since 1975, and their first overall since 1982. When he was all through, he held school records for total offense, TD passes, yards, completions, attempts, and total touchdowns, and graduated in December 2005 with a degree in human and organizational development before attending the annual NFL Scouting Combine the next spring. He impressed there as well, completing 27 repetitions on the 225-pound bench press (higher than some linemen and able to press as high as 400) and recording a 4.77 40-yard dash, being rated as the third-best quarterback prospect behind UT's Young and USC's Leinart. (Although Leinart was later selected by the Cardinals, some mock drafts had Cutler going there instead. I am glad this wasn't the other way around).

Although the Cardinals, Ravens, Raiders, and Lions had all expressed interest (dear god, I pity poor Jay if he ended up on any of those teams, especially the Raiders -- I wouldn't like having to hate him) the 11th-overall selection by the Broncos stunned everyone, Jay himself included. The Broncos had traded their 15th and 68th picks to the St. Louis Rams to take their selection, and nabbed the third ever first-round pick from the Commodores. Plummer had done nothing to endear himself in the last game the Broncos had played, a 34-17 AFC Championship game loss to the Steelers in which his three fumbles and one interception led to three Pittsburgh touchdowns, and Denver was less pleased with him than ever. It was time for a changing of the guard.

Cutler didn't bother with any silly Quinn/Rivers holdouts, signing a six-year, $48 million contract with the team in July 2006. But despite all, the brain trust wasn't ready to hand the keys to the Denver offense to a rookie just yet, and gave Plummer one last chance to prove he wasn't a total tool and could be trusted to run the team. Plummer, however, failed unequivocally at this; in passing for 1,994 yards, 11 TD, 13 INT, and a 68.8 rating, it was a miracle that the team got to 7-4, which is where it stood when Shanahan finally gave him the boot, ending weeks and weeks of Cutler/Plummer debates in the Mile High City. Plummer had his supporters, mind you, who argued that he'd gotten the team all the way to the AFC Championship the year before and that Cutler was still a rookie from a less-heralded program. But it's safe to say that nobody was really too broken up to see Plummer go.

Cutler started out with a 23-20 loss to the Seahawks on Sunday Night Football, completing 10 of 21 passes for 143 yards, 2 TD, and 2 INT. One of these TDs, however, was a 71-yard bomb to rookie WR Brandon Marshall, offering the first glimpse of what eventually could become a lethal combination in the Denver offense; if not Brady/Moss, then maybe Romo/Owens or Manning/Harrison. (Marshall is a big receiver with speed, good hands, and strength -- he excels in getting after-catch yards and it generally takes a double team to bring him down. He and Cutler took advantage of it this year, as Marshall had a 102-catch, 1,325-yard, 7-TD season and looks only to build on it next season. He and Jay, along with tight end Tony Scheffler, are spending the winter training together in Atlanta, Georgia). It took Cutler a few tries to win his first game, as he lost to the Chargers on the road the next time out, but even that wasn't without its highlights, as he and Scheffler connected for two touchdowns in the space of 48 seconds.

But he at last got his first win as a starter on December 17 against the Arizona Cardinals, 37-20, and again showed off the howitzer attached to his right shoulder by bombing a 65-yard TD pass to Javon Walker on the offense's third play from scrimmage. He finished with a 101.7 game rating, the highest for a Broncos rookie QB since Elway (of course) and earned praise from Shanahan. He definitely wasn't making anyone miss Plummer (which would have been hard anyway, but still). The Broncos won against the Bengals on Christmas Eve, 24-23, but just missed the playoffs in the last game of the season against the 49ers. Cutler had a chance to show his own toughness -- although he got concussed in the first half, he stayed in the game (this is either totally admirable or total lunacy) and even led the Broncos on a game-tying drive in the last minutes to force overtime. They didn't get as lucky there, as the 49ers kicked the winning field goal to deal Denver a heartbreaking 26-23 loss, which was made even more heartbreaking in the wee hours of January 1, 2007, only hours after they'd been eliminated. Cornerback Darrent Williams was killed in possibly gang-related violence during a New Year's party. One shot to the neck killed him instantly, and he fell onto Javon Walker, who was with him in the limousine -- what a terrible experience to have to go through, with your friend and teammate dead in your lap and gunshots outside. The team honored him by placing his #27 in prominent view during the next season, but it understandably left them stunned and grieving, marking a very somber close to the 2006 campaign. Jay finished the year with a 59.1 CP, 1,001 yards, 9 TD, 5 INT, and an 88.5 rating in 5 starts.

Cutler opened 2007 as the unquestioned starter, and in Week 1, led the Broncos 12 plays and 42 yards in the last seconds of the fourth quarter to set up Jason Elam's game-winning last-second field goal for a 15-14 triumph. (However, this was the game in which Buffalo TE Kevin Everett sustained a career-ending injury that led to doubts about if he'd even walk again after colliding with Denver kick returner Domenik Hixon; Hixon is now with the Giants. Everett's recovery is a truly heartwarming story and if you're a football fan, go read it now). But Jay also did it again the next week -- at home in Invesco against the archrival Raiders, he moved the chains 15 plays and 78 yards with 2:18 left in the fourth quarter to set up another Elam game-winning field goal. Unfortunately, there were three straight losses after that -- all to playoff teams Jaguars, Colts, and Chargers -- that left Denver fans muttering and grumbling. They went into the bye and came out of it beating the Steelers, 31-28, and lost to the Packers again in overtime the next week. However, the fact that they even got to overtime was remarkable, as Cutler proved to Favre that the young gunslinger could sling just as well as the old one, leading an 89-yard drive with 2:27 remaining to get Elam to tie it at 16. Unfortunately, they lost the coin toss and Favre unleashed a bomb to Donald Driver to win it, no doubt feeling threatened and wondering if Cutler was going to run at him and launch him into the stands with a T-shirt gun. (Yet again, I have no evidence for this, but it's fun anyway).

Cutler suffered a leg injury early on against the Lions, which led to backup Patrick Ramsey taking over instead. (Due to a video showcasing Cutler's game-by-game performance, and in which Ramsey was partnered with the "It's peanut butter jelly time!" song, I can no longer think of him as anything but Peanut Butter Ramsey). This, um, did not go well. Firstly, Denver lost to lowly Detroit in embarrassing fashion, 44-7, and Ramsey painfully proved the difference between him and Jay. He lost a fumble that was immediately run in by the Lions for a touchdown, threw another interception that was run back for another touchdown, and ended up with a 76.5 rating for the game. Fortunately, Jay was back the next week, and he rebounded in fine fashion, completing 17 of 29 with a TD and INT to lead the Broncos to a very rare 27-11 road win in the Chiefs' notoriously hostile Arrowhead Stadium. (Then again, the Chiefs just weren't that formidable this year, finishing 4-12, which might help). He also led them to a 37-20 Monday Night Football triumph against the Titans and friend Vince Young, completing 16 of 21 passes for 2 TD and no INT, but the week after that was the Bear Game That Will Not Be Spoken Of, in which all you really need to know is that Sauerbrun kicked it to Hester, twice, and Broncos fans everywhere may never get over it.

Jay and the Broncos had their best performance in Week 14 against the Chiefs, this time at home in Invesco. The Broncos slaughtered Kansas City 41-7, and Jay, in completing 20 of 27 passes for 4 TD and 0 INT, registered a career-best 141.0 game rating. Unfortunately, they lost to the Texans the next week, as the O-line might have put paper bags on the field in their uniforms for all the protection they gave Cutler, and dug themselves further with a 23-3 Christmas Eve defeat to the Chargers which saw Cutler record his lowest rating (32.7) and get shouted at by a smug prick in a lightning-bolt suit. But the Broncos rebounded to close the season in the same way they'd started, with a game-winning Elam field goal to seal a 22-19 overtime victory over the Vikings. However, their overall record was only 7-9, they lost four of their last six, and they missed the playoffs for a second straight year, which is never acceptable in football-country Denver. The Rockies made inroads into reclaiming their audience with their magical NL-winning pennant drive, but Colorado is and remains very much Broncos territory.

Cutler finished the year and made all 16 starts, later admitting it was a fatiguing grind to go through every game at the pro level, but he did quite well for it. The NFL's 12th-ranked quarterback at 88.1, he had the tenth-most yards at 3,497, which was good for seventh all-time in Broncos history. He also had the third best-ever franchise completion percentage at 63.6, and threw for 20 TD and 14 INT. He was the ninth-best in the league on third-down conversions, with a 92.0 rating (73-of-125) with 8 TD and 3 INT coming when the Broncos needed to keep moving the chains. However, he needs to work on controlling the ball better -- he fumbled at least once in 10 of 16 games for 11 overall, losing four of them. He has a formidable skill set already -- strong arm, good head, quick feet, and he is so cool under pressure as to lead to accusations of lethargy (there are always the type who want him to be a screaming leader, and apparently he's been working on taking charge of the clubhouse after a few veterans told him to make himself more of a presence). He does, however, have the mental makeup that Plummer lacks, is already a more polished talent, and shows every sign of finally being the signal-caller worthy, at least in the minds of the public, to succeed Elway. (He has already well outdone Elway's rookie and sophomore years. Starting 10 games in 1983, Elway threw for 1,663 yards, 7 TD, 14 INT, and a 54.9 rating. Starting 14 in 1984, he threw for 2,598 yards, 18 TD, 15 INT, and a 76.8 rating).

So why were the Broncos so terrible this year (at least by their standards?) One word: defense. As mentioned above, the Broncos had a porous, to say the least, D-line, and their run defense was particularly abysmal; no matter who had the football for the other team, they let him find the gaps. Their run defense was a 30th-ranked 142.6, and believe you me, for someone who watched or game-tracked all 16 games, that is very accurate; I can't count the number of times I was yelling at them to dogpile the little guy with the ball, but they never listened. Their strong corner tandem of Bailey and Bly kept their pass defense at a much more respectable 7th, but the defense ranked 28th in points allowed, permitting 25.6 on average a game, and they ranked 19th in total yards, allowing 336 on average a game. When your offense is only averaging 20 points a game and your defense is giving up 25, you can see how that becomes problematic. The Broncos will be drafting both offensive and defensive tackles, probably a safety, and at some point, need to look into taking a wide receiver as well. They have superstar in the making Marshall, but Javon Walker has worn out his welcome and will probably be leaving, Glenn Martinez is better as a kick returner only, and veteran Brandon Stokley, at 31, isn't getting any younger. The Broncos do have the pieces to effectively run a three-tight end set, with Tony Scheffler, Chad Mustard, and Daniel Graham, but they'll need more wideouts to help effectively spread the field and give Cutler more targets. The offensive run game was 9th, which isn't as bad as I was fearing, but with the Broncos' offense structured the way it is, it needs to stay there.

If they can find or sign the offensive lineman that protects Cutler and gives him time to throw, and make sure he has enough options on the other end to catch them -- plus upgrade their sad-sack defense -- the Broncos will have a chance to return to prominence next year, although they'll have a tough time with the Chargers to get atop the AFC West. They lost to San Diego twice this year, failing to score a touchdown as they combined for two field goals, one in each game, but that could always change next year. Cutler, as I and many other Broncos fans believe, is the type of player you can build a franchise around, and after he's spent the winter with Marshall and Scheffler, the three of them will have a better rapport than ever. I plan to thoroughly enjoy the Rockies' season first (BASEBALL HOLLA) but I am looking forward to September and the Broncos showing me what they can do. Hope springs eternal.

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