Hope is in the air.
Inside the Miami Dolphins’ bubble of an indoor practice facility, Jay Cutler is dusting off his bust for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. During an 11-on-11 drill, he plants a foot at his 48-yard line and—ding!—drops a perfect touch pass into the hands of a blanketed DeVante Parker for a touchdown. Moments later, during seven-on-seven, he uncorks a fastball up the seam that Jarvis Landry snares with one hand.
He isn’t a meme. He’s lights out.
And once the real games began, sure enough, Cutler threw for 230 yards, one touchdown and—get this—no interceptions in a thrilling 19-17 win over the Los Angeles Chargers.
Of course, this is precisely when past teammates would send up flares. Cutler has teased before, only to leave legions of fans and players and coaches feeling like they’ve just been mugged and robbed and left on the curb. Right here is easily one of the most polarizing quarterbacks of our generation. Cutler has a rocket arm…yet throws interceptions on passes 14-year-olds wouldn’t attempt at the park. He’s tough as nails…yet supposedly tapped out of the biggest game of his life.
At 34 years old, Cutler has become a caricature of himself. His picture is constantly slapped online with a cigarette hanging from his mouth.
And you know what? It pisses off former teammates. In Nashville, outside of a Barnes & Noble on the Vanderbilt campus, there’s a wide-eyed Jovan Haye literally pounding the table. There’s George Smith III outside his auto body shop and Erik Davis sipping a drink at Casa Fiesta, both vehemently defending their former college quarterback. There’s Bears tight end Zach Miller, popping up from a stool inside the Titans’ visitors locker room the second he hears Jay Cutler. He speaks so passionately you’d assume Cutler was his blood.
But, yeah, other teammates are pissed, too. Many ex-Bears are pissed at what could have been.
By now we all know Cutler doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Good, bad, indifferent. That quality is to be admired and, yes, that quality is also his curse. So B/R Mag followed his footsteps to Miami to look beyond the meme that has become Smokin’ Jay Cutler—to unravel what’s real, what’s perceived and what’s next.
Jay Cutler does not give a damn what you think.
As the urban legend goes, a fan once spotted Cutler at a urinal and tried to strike up a conversation. He told Cutler he also went to Vanderbilt and may know some of the same people—which, per the legend, prompted Cutler to tilt his head back and yell, “Doooonnnnttt caaaaarrre!” Those who know Cutler best laugh and say they can see him doing something like this.
In an age when Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers and every quarterback with a pulse carefully crafts a public image for your consumption—not too sweet, not too sour, a blend that leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside—Cutler could not care less that he’s mocked nationwide.
But to what lengths does Cutler not care? It’s one thing to dismiss criticism, and another to dismiss your profession. His stone-faced glare leaves us (and teammates) all guessing where he draws those lines.
Jovan Haye, former Vanderbilt DT: That look on his face, you can call it sour. Whatever. That’s Jay Cutler. That’s him. You don’t know if he’s happy. You don’t know if he’s sad. It’s the same look. And I respect that.
George Smith III, former Vanderbilt WR: I’ll say this: There was never a time when we were on the field that Jay didn’t take his job 100 percent seriously. Never.
Corey Wootton, Bears DE (2010-2013): He’s like: “Hey, I’m getting paid to do what I love. I couldn’t care less what you people are thinking.” If more people thought that, we wouldn’t see as many Twitter back-and-forths between players and fans. You have to respect that.
Erik Davis, former Vanderbilt WR: The stoic look can mean 25 to 30 different things. He cares, but he’s not going to let you see that he cares.
Marlon White, former Vanderbilt WR: I don’t understand why it’s not interpreted as he’s just even-keeled.
Haye: He cares! That’s what I’m saying! … But he has that look of “Whatever…what?”
Zach Miller, Bears TE: Smokin’ Jay Cutler! He makes a lot of faces that you could really throw a cigarette right into.
Lance Briggs, Bears LB (2003-2014): In the league, in that circle, we create the story of who we are. When people mention specific names, it’s “Ray Lewis: oh, he’s intense.” This is his character. This is what people say about him. … And when we talk about Jay, we say, “Jay, it looks like he doesn’t care.” That persona is something that he built. That’s the one he’s most comfortable with.
Rashied Davis, Bears WR (2005-2010): As a quarterback, you need that. As a teammate, you don’t.
Erik Davis: He never tried to brand himself. He’s not out to market himself. I mean, he should because comically he has that nonchalance. He could take that and just run with it! Like, “This is Cutler when he’s mad. This is Cutler when he’s happy,” and just have the same look!
Haye: If people think this motherfucker cares [about criticism], you’re out of your mind. You’re out of your rabbit-ass mind if you think he cares.
Erik Davis: He’s the rebel going against the grain. But that’s what makes him who he is. You have to let him be who he is. Love him. Hate him. Just roll with it.
Jay Cutler is tough as hell.
At Vanderbilt, Cutler basically quarterbacked a JV team in the SEC—Vandy was forever the overwhelmed conference doormat. And until his senior year, Cutler ran the triple-option. Veering down the line of scrimmage, he was hit from all angles, for four quarters, every Saturday.
It’s been a decade, but college teammates can still remember those beatings.
Their voices skip and their faces cringe.
White: He took some vicious hits. I mean poundings. There were times he came to the huddle and he was not there, man. He would never come out of the game. … I know without a shadow of a doubt there were games he played and he was concussed.
Haye: There was a game in 2004, he was just battered. I thought he was dead. If he would’ve died, you’d say, “Yeah, that made sense that day.”
White: If your quarterback is taking these type of shots, anything that you’re dealing with, it goes to the backburner. You’re not going to take any time off, any plays off. You feel a little ankle pain? Man, he’s getting obliterated.
Erik Davis: We had LSU at home, and they were just pinning their ears back. They pinned their ears back and kept coming … and kept coming. It was nonstop. It was brutal. But every play, he’d come back … and come back … and come back. That kind of toughness, quite frankly, a lot of guys in the NFL don’t have.
Haye: If he was in my foxhole, I’d feel good, man. There’s a lot of quarterbacks I wouldn’t want in my foxhole.
White: When they question his toughness, that’s the one thing nobody should ever question about him. Like, ever.
Jay Cutler is a bad leader. No wait, he’s a good leader.
His defining moment remains the 2010 NFC Championship Game. Cutler suffered an MCL sprain and tapped out, and cameras captured what appeared to be the sorest of losers. All game, Cutler offered zero help to his replacement, Caleb Hanie, as the Bears fell 21-14 to the Green Bay Packers.
His second defining moment? Two years later, on national television, Cutler shoved one of his offensive linemen (J’Marcus Webb) amid a seven-sack, four-interception disaster.
Ex-Bears teammates remember both moments well. They remember a quarterback who rarely spoke up in moments most quarterbacks would. He stayed in the background.
Yet outside of the auto body shop, tucked away in a Nashville cul-de-sac, George Smith III taps his chest. Jay? A bad leader? Please. What millions of people never saw was their Vanderbilt team running routes vs. air before a scrimmage against Tennessee State.
About five yards away, on a short slant, Cutler gunned the ball as hard as he could at Smith and bruised his chest. Smith never tried to catch the ball with his body again. He loved Cutler’s silent, yet scathing brand of leadership.
So which leader is he?
ON THE 2010 NFC TITLE GAME DEFEAT
DJ Moore, Bears CB (2009-2012): This is the last game of the year. If you don’t win, you’re going into the offseason. So I think a lot of people were upset with him. I know I personally was. Like, man, could you try? And then it made it worse when Hanie is out there and he’s not giving him pointers. Once you see somebody like that not fighting for you, it frustrates you.
Rashied Davis: It’s hard to question whether a guy is injured or not…. But I will say there’s a difference between physical toughness and mental toughness. Mental toughness really kicks in when the game is on the line. When it’s not just physical pressure you’re taking. It’s pressure to win a game, it’s pressure to perform. I’m not 100 percent sure he has that part of the game. … That’s my question about Jay: Is he as mentally tough as you would need to be the leader of your team?
Moore: Moments like that make really, really good quarterbacks. In a game like that, to beat your rival and beat a really good quarterback like Aaron Rodgers to take Chicago to the Super Bowl, in especially a city like Chicago—it’s all football—it could’ve changed who he was and how a lot of people looked at him.
Wootton: He’s not a vocal guy like a Drew Brees or Tom Brady. But for a guy that’s getting paid that much—a franchise quarterback—people want that guy to be a vocal leader. That’s just something he wasn’t.
ON SHOVING J’MARCUS WEBB
Moore: Nobody shoved him when he was coming off the sideline throwing picks. He’s showing [Webb] up like, “This is all your fault.” Once you do that to someone, it’s like, “This is your fault and your fault only,” when I don’t think that’s the case. And somebody like Webb is real quiet. You can imagine if he would’ve pushed somebody else, it would’ve been a whole other story.
Gabe Carimi, Bears OT (2011-2012): You have to know J’Marcus’ personality. Sometimes, he needed a little push. … None of us got bent out of shape by it.
Haye: He dogged off on one of my good friends. He’ll cuss him out and grab him by the facemask. So is he an a-hole, or isn’t that leadership? Isn’t that passion?
Smith: You go to the military, it’s everywhere. And this is what we pride our country on. What’s wrong with accountability like that on the field? … That’s why I liked Jay’s style. It was raw and uncut. No sugarcoating.
Jerrell Freeman, Bears LB: You like to talk shit to him. He’d talk shit right back and I like that. I like fucking with the QB and the QB fucking right back. … He’d call a play [in practice] and I’d say, “You can’t run this shit!” and he’d run it, get a first down and talk shit: “Take that, 50!”
Miller: He never pointed fingers. He’s as stand-up as I’ve seen. … He took a lot of heat and never bitched about it.
Smith: I’m here to tell you, this guy’s got a lot of heart. He is one of the toughest competitors I’ve been around. What more can you ask of the leader on your team?
Wootton: Me personally, I want my quarterback to be a vocal guy. A leader. Somebody who when the game’s on the line is giving that speech.
Haye: That’s the dumbest piece of crap I hear people say. How you inspire, you win damn games. You throw for 320 yards and three touchdowns, no interceptions. That’d inspire everyone.
Jay Cutler is an asshole.
Those close to Cutler insist that the quarterback during those first four years in Chicago was a different person than the man of the last four. He matured. Still, Cutler rarely lets anyone in. White estimates Cutler maintains a circle of five close friends. Tops. Which, of course, can be perceived as standoffish. When tied with incidents like Cutler wrecking a public phone on Vanderbilt’s campus, reaming out teammates and flipping off paparazzi and fans alike, Cutler can come across like a raging asshole.
That’s the consensus in the Twittersphere, anyway.
Haye: He got into trouble here on campus, and I realized, “Yeah, he’s a regular dude.” If Jay would’ve played safety, it would’ve been a non-issue. Quarterbacks are all supposed to act a certain way.
Miller: He is one of the most loyal friends you’ll ever have. Once you get to know the real Jay, he’d give you the shirt off his back. … I love the dude. It’s not even his jokes—it’s his demeanor. He can say something straight-faced and everyone knows he’s taking a dig at you. You’ve got to be around him to really appreciate the real Jay Cutler.
Smith: Asshole is not the way to put it. An asshole is deliberately trying to poke at you. If somebody is trying to tell you how to run a route better so we can score a touchdown, that’s being a perfectionist. And sometimes, perfectionists seem to be assholes because they’re anal about every little thing.
Erik Davis: Now, he comes off as an asshole because he’s distant. But once you talk to him and once you get to know him, he’s a great person.
Haye: There’s a lot of prima donnas out there. He’s never been one.
Rashied Davis: I would just say his opinion of himself is more valuable than anyone else’s opinion.
Erik Davis: In the locker room, [Tom Brady] and Cutler are very similar. I was around Tom like six weeks [as a WR for the Patriots]. They’re not going to aggressively go, “Hey buddy, how’s it going?” They’re not that type of person. They’re going to stay reserved to who they are. But if you go to them to have a conversation, they’ll have a conversation. … Perception is everything. He’s passionate and this other guy’s an asshole. It sucks.
Rashied Davis: He became the Bears’ all-time leading quarterback and said, “Well, that’s not saying much.” Are you kidding me? How disrespectful is that! That’s disrespectful. I wasn’t on the team when he said it, but I was flabbergasted.
Jay Cutler has the strongest arm in the NFL.
So feelings get hurt. Who cares? It’s football, for god’s sake.
Cutler sure can sling it, and he’s always been able to sling it. Maybe nothing else matters.
Smith: You tell me who has a stronger arm than he has. Nowhere. That’s why this guy’s special.
Erik Davis: He did rip some gloves. You’d catch it and they’d just split. It’d hiss at you when it comes at you. It sounds like a snake hissing at you. That’s exactly how it sounds. It’s a Ssssssssss coming to you…and then it just sticks! He has a cannon, man. It’s effortless, too. It’s not like he’s one of those guys who’s winding up. It jumps off his arm with velocity.
Adam Gase, Dolphins head coach: I had always heard about it. When I saw it live, I was like, “Wow.” In Chicago, we’d go out to practice and there’d be a ridiculous wind and I’m thinking, “Oh, I might have to change the script,” and he’s like, “Don’t worry about it. I’ll be all right.” That’s a skill.
Erik Davis: My senior year we beat Arkansas at Arkansas. It was 4th-and-12. I was the slot guy and we went for it. A little inside move and he threw it under duress. He unloaded as he was getting hit. The guy was draped all over my back and I extended for it. It felt like it pulled me an extra two yards. We got the first down, went down and got the touchdown.
Wootton: On paper, man, in practice you’d see some of the throws and go “Wow!” In the games, sometimes, just unbelievable There’s maybe one other quarterback who can make that throw.
Rashied Davis: I guess the question is the question most people have on him. Does it translate to the football field?
Jay Cutler is one colossal missed opportunity.
Lance Briggs was ecstatic when the Chicago Bears traded for Cutler before the 2009 season. That arm? With this defense? Right then, he admits, Bears players were all saying, “We’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Cutler took the Bears to the postseason once in eight years. He never led a Super Bowl parade. Instead, he went 51-51 and was booed incessantly. The No. 1 reason? That muzzleloader of a right arm always gets him into trouble. Whereas Aaron Rodgers has 74 interceptions in 144 career games, Cutler has 146 in 140 games.
This is where not giving a damn has derailed Cutler most. He believes he can make any throw into any window anytime. There was one flicker of hope. When Cutler played under Adam Gase in 2015, he threw 21 touchdowns with only 11 picks.
Moore: At times, it was like, “You didn’t see that guy?” You know what I mean? It’s not like the picks were close or tipped. Even at practice, you’d see it. You can’t force it through nothing. It was always surprising to see. Some games, you’d see it coming, that it was going to be a four-pick game. And some games, it was “He’s going to throw four touchdowns.” The not knowing of it got frustrating.
Erik Davis: It’s like having that weapon you know you can use. You’ve got more confidence. But at the same time, it gets you interceptions.
Freeman: I’d rather have a quarterback with a gunslinger mentality, trying to fit some stuff in there. … I like an aggressive guy. He definitely has that Brett Favre mentality that, “Shit, I’ve got this gun and I’m going to use it.”
Wootton: It was tough, especially in 2012, because we were playing at such a high level defensively. You just thought if offensively we could’ve got it going, it would’ve been different.
Briggs: I think Jay Cutler’s career, on and off the field, can be used as a study for a lot of young quarterbacks and guys in leader positions. … If you’re on a team where your defense is extremely strong and you have decent special teams, then—as a quarterback—your responsibility to win the game doesn’t mean you have to keep taking shots every play, every opportunity. … And you just know that the persona you display, the things that you display, are going to get magnified. Everything’s going to get magnified. Because you are the quarterback of the team. You are the most important person.
Gase: There’s times where he knows when he can take a chance. … I put it on myself to call the right plays and not put him in positions where he has to make a crazy play.
Moore: Can he not turn it over? Who knows? It’s going to be tough.
Jay Cutler can still rewrite his legacy.
Standing alone on the sideline, Dolphins coach Adam Gase beams with optimism.
The Dolphins’ season didn’t blow up in smoke when Ryan Tannehill tore his ACL. Instead, Gase picked up the phone to call Cutler. As he explains, it’s almost like the two were destined for this.
Gase first remembers scouting Cutler out of college as an assistant with the Lions, saying the Lions were "really interested" in the QB. They drafted linebacker Ernie Sims instead at No. 9, and Cutler went No. 11 to Denver. When Gase was hired as the Broncos receivers coach in 2009 and Cutler was the QB, they’d talk an hour every day...only for Cutler then to be dealt to Chicago in April.
When Gase was up for the Bears head coaching job in 2015, he told Cutler he only had interest in the job if he was the quarterback. And when Gase didn’t get that job but was hired as the offensive coordinator, he proved to be the one coach capable of getting the best out of Cutler.
Now, Cutler pens the final chapter of his turbulent career.
If he wanted to, hell, he could cash in on social media’s obsession with Smokin’ Jay and flick away cigs as an anti-smoking pitchman. If he wanted to, sure, Cutler could cheer and yell and cheer some more whenever a camera points his way. He could be everything you want him to be.
But, no, he’ll be himself.
And he’ll bring the Dolphins along for the ride.
Gase: He did everything I asked [in Chicago]. I don’t get this job if it’s not for him.
Briggs: You would hope after this many years that Cutler would be the Cutler I saw under Gase. But there’s a lot of talent in the NFL, and some guys’ talent doesn’t necessarily equate to wins. For a guy as talented as Jay Cutler—as talented as he is—he’s only been to the playoffs one year, and that was on the back on his defense and special teams.
Erik Davis: He could ride out as a knight on a glorified horse. He can do it. He could shock the world.
Haye: He still has that itch. When he retired, that’s not the way he wanted to go. He wanted to go out on his terms.
Smith: I’d bet on him. I’d put him on my fantasy team. The NFL stands for Not For Long, and he’s still there.
Briggs: The way he was used under Gase—they emphasized the checkdown and ran the ball—and gave the Bears a fighting chance at the end of the game. That’s all Jay ever needed to do when he was with us.
Rashied Davis: Give him a chance. I’ll say that. Give him a chance.
Moore: I feel he had the tools to be an all-time great, but it never panned out. Well, I guess he still has time.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.