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Jay Cutler Is Miami Bound—Can He Save the Dolphins’ Playoff Hopes?

The would-be-retired passer is coming back, and plenty of questions remain

A photograph of Jay Cutler out of uniform Getty Images

In a shocking move on Sunday, Jay Cutler became the first person to head to Florida after he unretired. After back-and-forth reports suggested that Cutler returning was “close” on Friday and then “leaning heavily” toward staying retired on Saturday, Adam Schefter reported on Sunday that Cutler and the Dolphins agreed on a one-year deal worth around $10 million to replace injured starter Ryan Tannehill.

Tannehill’s “time bomb” of a knee detonated on Thursday, throwing Miami’s hopes of returning to the playoffs into disarray, and even worse, penciling in six divisional wins for the Patriots. There’s a possibility for Tannehill to delay surgery and try to come back midseason, but the Dolphins clearly felt that they needed a more reliable backup plan. Almost immediately after Tannehill reinjured his knee, Dolphins head coach Adam Gase began coaxing Cutler out of retirement. Gase and Cutler worked together in 2015, when Gase was Chicago’s offensive coordinator and Cutler had perhaps his best season, posting career highs in adjusted net yards per attempt and passer rating. Now the 34-year-old quarterback is coming out of retirement almost exactly three months to the day after he chose Fox Sports over finding a new NFL team.

Like Cutler’s deep balls, “guru” is a word that’s thrown around haphazardly in NFL circles, but Gase deserves the title. In 2013, Peyton Manning lobbied for Gase to get promoted from Denver’s quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator. The two rewrote the record book with Manning’s historic 55-touchdown 2013 season. (Last year when Tannehill went down, Gase half-heartedly tried to return the favor and recruit Manning for a playoff push.)

But Gase is not a miracle worker, and Cutler had surgery to repair his torn right labrum in his throwing shoulder in December. Banking on Cutler to return with his famous arm strength (or even his “meh” overall quarterback play) isn’t a guarantee. It’s also late in the summer to be bringing in a new quarterback. Cutler will have more time than the Vikings gave Sam Bradford to replace Teddy Bridgewater last season, but Bradford was six years younger than Cutler is now and knew that he was going into the season as a professional athlete. What kind of shape Cutler is in remains to be seen, and what is left of his physical abilities may end up dictating serious changes to the Dolphins offensive scheme mid-training camp.

Meanwhile, backup Matt Moore is stuck in the quarterback equivalent of the friend zone. Moore has been with Miami since 2011 and served admirably in Tannehill’s place during the Dolphins’ last four and a half games, including their playoff loss to Pittsburgh in the wild-card round. He led them to the playoffs at the end of last season, but Dolphins brass decided to sign Cutler anyway, labrum recovery and all.

It’s easy to swap out Tannehill and Cutler in our minds and say, “They both have big arms! Cutler played well under Gase! This could work!” The reality is the Dolphins play their first game of the season against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 35 days. In that time, Cutler will need to learn a large chunk of the Dolphins playbook, grasp it well enough to command the offense, and run enough reps with the first team offense so that the Buccaneers don’t swallow them whole. Also, Cutler has to learn everybody’s names. (I’d love to watch him introduce himself to Moore. “Hi, I’m Jay, nice to meet you.”) It helps immensely that Cutler has played with Gase before, but this is still an uphill battle, and it’s not just Cutler who has to adapt. All of the chemistry Miami’s offensive players established with Tannehill is now close to meaningless.

Now the Dolphins hope Cutler taking his brooding body-language talents to South Beach can preserve the double-digit win total (not five, not six, not seven!) the team recorded last season. Miami’s ship is taking on water. Hopefully the newest Dolphin remembers how to swim.