Should NFL Teams Finally Give Up on Jay Cutler?

Doug Farrar@@BR_DougFarrar NFL Lead ScoutJuly 9, 2018

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 17:  Jay Cutler #6 of the Miami Dolphins reacts during the first quarter against the Buffalo Bills on December 17, 2017 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York.  (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

On April 27, Ian Rapoport of NFL Network reported veteran quarterback Jay Cutler was likely to retire. It was an expected outcome given Cutler's mediocre results in 2016 and 2017. But as has happened with many quarterbacks wavering between retirement and continuing their careers, it appears Cutler may not be done.

In a conversation posted July 2 with his wife, reality television personality Kristin Cavallari, Cutler said he can't be sure he's 100 percent done and that he wouldn't know until September. That would imply he could return to the NFL as an injury replacement.

If Cutler does come back, he'll probably want to come back as a starter, and that's where things get complicated. He retired after the 2016 season, his last with the Chicago Bears, to start a career in broadcasting. But when Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill was lost for the 2017 season to an August knee re-injury, the appeal of working with head coach Adam Gase—who had helped Cutler to a career year in Chicago in 2015—was too great to turn down.

Cutler was at his best when Gase kept him straight, both in a mechanical sense and by outlining how he needs to read defenses. Gase seemed to have an intrinsic sense of how best to deal with the downsides of Cutler's skill set.

Though he has one of the best arms of his generation and he's more mobile than he's given credit for being, Cutler has two major issues that have stood in the way of his development. First, he's what you call a "see it and throw it" quarterback—he doesn't throw with anticipation consistently. That means his play-designers need to adapt by focusing on route concepts that result in easy openings for receivers. Otherwise, Cutler will throw the ball into coverage in ways you'd expect a rookie quarterback to get chewed out for.

Cutler's second issue is he has a supreme belief in his arm and his ability to make throws other quarterbacks can't. While he's proved to be correct occasionally, that's also kept him from dealing with the mechanical issues he needs to fix to throw with consistent placement and velocity. Throughout his career, Cutler has thrown far too many passes flat-footed when he should have driven the ball with his lower body. He also tends to throw with touch with a motion similar to a fadeaway jumper in basketball, which increases the margin for error on such throws, especially in the red zone.

Without a coaching staff able to rein in his rogue tendencies and scheme around the ones it can't control, Cutler—for all his talents—is a middle-of-the-pack quarterback at best, and despite Gase's presence as his head coach last season, that's exactly what he was. In 14 games, Cutler completed 62.0 percent of his passes for 2,666 yards and 19 touchdowns with 14 interceptions.

His high interception ratio shouldn't have been a surprise—Cutler led the league in picks in both 2009 and 2014 (tied)—but last year, he also lacked in explosive plays. His 6.2 yards per attempt was by far the lowest mark of his career, and per Pro Football Focus, his adjusted quarterback rating of 69.7 (PFF's metric takes into account "big-time throws" and "turnover-worthy throws") was the fifth-lowest in the league, above only those of Brett Hundley, DeShone Kizer, Blaine Gabbert and Brock Osweiler.

By any account, Cutler regressed after his decision to hang up his cleats, and even Gase seemed frustrated at times, though he endeavored to put the blame on anybody but his quarterback.

"I know where the ball is supposed to go, I know who's supposed to do what on every play," Gase said after the Dolphins fell to 1-2 following a 20-0 loss to the New Orleans Saints in London, via Chris Perkins of the Sun Sentinel. "If we protect him and give him a second to throw the ball, we'll be all right. If he's going to get hit from start to finish, I don't care who you put back there. We need to do a better job of protecting him, being where we're supposed to be."

In that loss, Cutler completed 20 of 28 passes for 164 yards with an interception in the end zone to safety Ken Crawley on a pass to tight end Julius Thomas. On that play, Cutler made a quick throw, and pressure wasn't the issue. Thomas didn't press Crawley to the back of the end zone, and the second-year man notched an easy pick.

Yes, Cutler was pressured more than you'd like a quarterback to be, but the frequency with which he made egregious throws and decisions from a clean pocket should be a dire warning to anyone who thinks he has a viable future as an NFL starter.

Even later in the season, when he should have had a clear familiarity with his targets and the routes they were running, Cutler reverted to a bad decision-making matrix far too often. This incompletion in the Dolphins' Week 16 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs is an optimal example.

Cutler has a trips left setup to the wide side of the field. Down 29-13 with 2:38 left in the game and facing a 4th-and-15, Cutler knows the Chiefs are backing off in coverage to prevent any receiver from getting past the deep safety.

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For the first 10 yards off the line of scrimmage, all three receivers run vertical routes. Then, middle receiver Kenny Stills curls back under cornerback Steven Nelson.

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When Cutler throws the ball in Stills' area, his two other receivers are open underneath the deep coverage with a vertical/crosser combo route, and he doesn't even appear to make the connection.

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The throw to Stills is so off-target that linebacker Derrick Johnson almost picks it off, but he drops the ball—perhaps out of surprise that it came to him in the first place. This was a grievous read error on Cutler's part—he could have had a big play to one of two receivers with a deep throw if he'd simply gone to either of those vertical targets with anticipation.

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When Cutler did create big plays with his arm last season, they were generally under specific conditions—a receiver open based on scheme, field position or defensive breakdown. He didn't make anticipation throws that arrived before coverages converged, but in this 36-yard completion to DeVante Parker in Miami's Week 15 loss to the Buffalo Bills, he did see an opportunity and seize the advantage.

Parker is the iso receiver to the right side, and the Bills are playing Cover 1 with Jordan Poyer as the deep safety and Micah Hyde blitzing from the defensive left side, which takes him out of the coverage picture. Linebacker Ramon Humber drops into the intermediate area in case Cutler wants to throw over the middle. Though cornerback Tre'Davious White is an excellent player, Cutler is wise to throw to Parker, whom White is covering.

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The scheme dictates that White take outside position on Parker from the line of scrimmage, and when White stumbles a bit, that's the opening Parker needs.

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Poyer is running to meet White over the top of Parker to prevent any game-breakers (the Bills are leading 24-6), but he arrives a step late, which makes a completion certain. Without White's false step, or if Poyer had arrived a flash earlier, this could have easily been an interception.

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One of the best examples of Cutler's misdiagnoses came in Week 10, in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.

The Dolphins have a two-by-two set with Thomas aligned to the left side and linebacker Luke Kuechly covering Thomas up the seam. Given that Kuechly is one of the league's best and smartest coverage linebackers, and Thomas is running the route like he's on sand, this was doomed from the start.

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As Thomas goes into the stem of his route, you can see it's not just Kuechly on Thomas—linebacker Thomas Davis is also keeping an eye on the tight end. The interception is predictable.

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Near the end of the first half, Cutler has a 1st-and-10. The Dolphins are down 10-7, and with running back Damien Williams wide-open out of the backfield, there's no way Cutler should make the throw he makes.

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Will Cutler play in the NFL in 2018? It's possible. Teams have a tendency to err to the predictable, and Cutler is a 12-year veteran who's been consistently good as recently as 2015. If you're of a mind to ignore how his last two seasons went, and you're in need of a quarterback, he could be an intriguing option.

But teams looking to knock on Cutler's door will have to realize what he is at this point in his career: a wildly inconsistent quarterback who never made the mechanical and diagnostic fixes required for long-term success. And when Gase, his one-time fixer in Chicago, can no longer fix him, that should be a giant red flag.

Cutler has an opportunity to rehabilitate his career if he's interested, but should teams be interested in him? Based on the evidence, Cutler would likely be a desperation signing in 2018 as he was in 2017. It might finally be time for him to head to the broadcast booth.