Jay Cutler shows poise on and off field _ and Broncos fans get taste of what they’re missing

By Jim Litke, AP
Monday, August 31, 2009

Despite rough welcome, round one goes to Cutler

Long before the game was over, even the announcers were second-guessing Josh McDaniels.

Not because of anything he did Sunday night, but because of what the Denver rookie coach was thinking last February. Shortly after taking the job, McDaniels hatched a plan to get quarterback Matt Cassel from his former employers and wound up driving incumbent quarterback Jay Cutler out of town and into the arms of the Chicago Bears instead.

By the time former All-Pro safety and soon-to-be sidekick Rodney Harrison joined announcers Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth in the booth midway through the third quarter, McDaniels’ fate was practically sealed.

“His career as a head coach,” said Harrison, who played for the Patriots last season, when McDaniels was still an assistant, “will be defined by this decision.”

That’s a little harsh — but only a little.

Denver’s 27-17 loss to Cutler and the Bears, after all, was only its third preseason game. McDaniels didn’t have his front line running back, top draft pick Knowshon Moreno, or his best receiver, Brandon Marshall, whom he suspended for insubordination last week, and starting quarterback Kyle Orton, who came over in the April trade that sent Cutler to Chicago, left after suffering a gashed right finger that created doubts whether he’ll be ready for the season opener in two weeks.

Cutler’s performance, meanwhile, left just the opposite impression. He entered to boos, but departed at halftime after leading the Bears on a coolly efficient 98-yard drive, finishing it off by squeezing a 6-yard touchdown pass through traffic to running back Matt Forte.

“We knew coming into it they would be a hostile environment, which was good. It was good preparation for us going into Green Bay for the first game,” Cutler said.

When news leaked out about McDaniels’ courtship of Cassel and Cutler responded by demanding a trade, locals were forced to pick sides. Some chose McDaniels, believing he was as smart as his mentor, New England coach Bill Belichick; others remained loyal to Cutler, certain that someday soon he’d justify the comparison to his most illustrious predecessor, John Elway. Based on the scant evidence of the past few months, the brash young quarterback looks likely to deliver on his promise first.

Cutler has ruffled a few feathers in Chicago already, but he’s done nothing to damage his tag as a “franchise” quarterback, either. He’s shown poise off the field as well as on, sidestepping the most provocative questions and scaling back his ambitions to dovetail with the Bears’ run-first offensive scheme.

Broncos fans still angered by the way Cutler left town haven’t picked up on his newfound maturity. Instead, they burned and shredded Cutler’s jersey, a few even showing up for the game wearing it over diapers to make a point about him being a crybaby. However much the nasty welcome might have bothered Cutler, it was forgotten soon enough, just about the time he realized his new teammates were playing hard enough to prove they had his back.

“I think the guys knew what kind of pressure I was going to be under,” he said, “and they came out and did a great job for me.”

McDaniels wasn’t quite that lucky.

Denver’s effort wasn’t lacking, but the talent level might be. The Broncos have turned over half their roster since last season, in part because McDaniels, like Belichick, puts his faith in a system and worries less about the individual parts. What he seems to have forgotten is that his former boss went 36-44 in five seasons at his first job with the Cleveland Browns, largely because Belichick’s quarterbacks there were an aging Bernie Kosar replaced by already aged Vinny Testaverde.

None of the other Belichick disciples — think Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini — have fared much better playing his system, though in fairness, none of them have featured Tom Brady at quarterback. The more Cutler reminded Broncos fans of what they were missing, the louder the catcalls aimed at McDaniels grew.

The closest the coach came to acknowledging that unhappy realization was this: “There’s certainly a level of excitement you don’t usually see in most preseason games,” McDaniels said afterward.

If he thinks those people are excitable now, just wait until the games start counting.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for the Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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