The 2017 NFL season is a more compelling story with Jay Cutler involved. This Miami Dolphins squad could turn out to be better for it, too.
Like a grizzled film antihero dragged out of retirement for one last job, the appeal of working for old boss Adam Gase one more time was too perfect for Cutler to pass up. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday that Gase “would not take no for an answer” from a waffling Cutler, who was looking forward to a broadcasting career and more time with his family. Those goals will have to wait, as Cutler gets one final chance to prove he cares.
This is not the plot twist that Gase or Ryan Tannehill were originally hoping for. The team has not yet announced whether the Dolphins’ starting quarterback will undergo surgery on his left knee, which he partially tore ligaments in last December. But this signing indicates that the Dolphins are ready to move on without him. The money in Cutler’s contract — $10 million with $3 million more in incentives — clearly puts Cutler ahead of longtime Dolphins backup quarterback Matt Moore in the pecking order. It also gives deference to Tannehill by giving Cutler a borderline starter salary well below Tannehill’s $17.975 million. But make no mistake that a painful week for Tannehill just grew darker with the knowledge that this is no longer his team. The NFL coldly moves on from injured players and there’s no guarantee Tannehill ever gets this team back.
Cutler set up for success
Gase earned his first head coaching job in Miami in large part because he already tamed Cutler. A maddening talent who contributed to many coordinators losing their jobs in Chicago, Cutler was a steady presence under Gase’s tutelage in 2015. The numbers tell the story. Despite playing with a receiver group ravaged by injuries, Cutler finished with the best passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career. The season ranked among Cutler’s best three seasons in QBR, interception rate, yards-per-attempt and completion percentage. There was a level of comfort and maturity in Cutler’s decision-making that was missing for much of his career. Often known for his open questioning of his coaches, Cutler trusted Gase implicitly.
Much of Cutler’s success in 2015 can be attributed to Gase asking him to do less. The Bears were as run-heavy as possible in close situations, which is the same playbook Gase used with Tannehill in 2016. After one of the worst stretches of his career early under Gase, Tannehill’s season only turned around once the offense ran through running back Jay Ajayi.
That’s one of the reasons why this situation looked so inviting to Cutler. Not only does he know the system, he knows that he’ll be propped up by a deep and promising young skill position group. Ajayi has the complete skill set and aggression to be a top-five running back. Receivers Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and tight end Julius Thomas provide a group of pass-catchers as loaded as any Cutler has ever played with. (The 2013 Bears with Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were pretty great, too.)
The Dolphins’ offensive line was dreadful a year ago, and will depend on second-year left tackle Laremy Tunsil and hope for the health of center Mike Pouncey for improvement. The team’s defense, led by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake, has too much talent to play as poorly as it did a year ago. Overall, this is a more talented team than the ones Cutler had grown accustomed to in Chicago. It gives all the scorned Cutler believers (ahem) one last chance to be right about his incredible talent.
Are the Dolphins worse off?
Tannehill and Cutler are similar players in many ways. Both have more than enough raw skills to excel, but neither has consistently shown the anticipation or the pre-snap mastery displayed by the game’s greats. Cutler is more likely to complete a few “wow” throws per game, while Tannehill is more likely to play it safe. One of Cutler’s improved traits under Gase was his ability to get the ball out of his hands quickly, something that Tannehill has struggled with throughout his career. While there is still hope that Tannehill can grow into more than just a mid-level quality starter, this injury will make the Dolphins face some uncomfortable truths.
Tannehill will be 30 years old entering his seventh NFL season in 2018, yet to definitively prove that he’s the guy for the long term in Miami. The guaranteed money in his contract runs out after this season, which will make it easy for the Dolphins to move on from his should they choose whether with a restructured contract, release or a potential trade.
This isn’t your average devastating August loss of a starting quarterback because no one can say with confidence the team is even worse off with Cutler starting instead of Tannehill. This looked like a borderline playoff contender with Tannehill and the same holds true with Cutler.
Still only 34, Smoking Jay’s ability to run this offense will act in some ways as a referendum on Tannehill’s value to the organization. Should the team wind up barely missing its franchise quarterback, perhaps Tannehill isn’t a franchise quarterabck at least. Cutler’s final troll job in a career full of them could be putting off the broadcast booth and all that family time for more than just one season. Sometimes that one last job is hard to give up.
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