Some things are too beautiful for this cruel world. For Bears fans, the idea of Jay Cutler sitting in the Fox broadcast booth for Chicago’s season opener against the Falcons is one of them. Instead of getting that strangely poetic sight, though, the football world now awaits Cutler taking the field for the Dolphins when they face the Buccaneers in Week 1, a result of his one-year, $10 million signing in the wake of Ryan Tannehill’s preseason knee injury.
Cutler’s deal brings questions, on both the team and player sides. According to ESPN’s Jeff Darlington, the 34-year-old quarterback was apprehensive about walking away from a cushy TV job, coming out of his short-lived retirement, and leaping back into the fray. The decision to give up football and stand naked near beaches is rarely an easy one for big-name players; this is speculative, but Cutler’s choice to go back on that likely took some spur-of-the-moment rewiring. Cutler is also the father of three kids under the age of 5, has made more than $100 million in his playing career to this point, and is coming off a torn labrum that ended his 2016 season in November. Under those circumstances, the seat next to Kevin Burkhardt in the Fox booth might’ve had the gravitational pull of a small planet.
To coax Cutler—whose give-a-shit level has often seemed lacking over the years—away from that gig required a powerful set of circumstances. By signing a contract with barely two weeks left in training camp, Cutler will get $10 million (half in base salary and half in bonuses, according to the NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport) for fewer than six months of work. That ain’t bad. He’ll also be reunited with Dolphins head coach and play-caller Adam Gase, who helped propel Cutler to the best campaign of his career when he was the Bears offensive coordinator in 2015. Cutler completed 64.4 percent of his passes for 3,659 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions that season, piloting an offense that finished 10th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA despite getting 13 combined starts from its best two pass catchers.
Taking that into account, it’s understandable why this move was attractive to Cutler. But that doesn’t explain why Cutler was so attractive to Miami. While the two situations have differences, this deal is reminiscent of the Vikings’ trade for Sam Bradford after Teddy Bridgewater went down with a gruesome knee injury in training camp a year ago.
After making the playoffs in the 2015 season and returning virtually all of its major pieces from that roster, Minnesota regarded itself as a Super Bowl contender entering last fall. The deal for Bradford, one that required the Vikings to give up a 2017 first-round draft pick, was an indication that the team felt compelled to get all it could out of its promising array of talent. For Miami, signing Cutler has a similar feel, albeit with a smaller price tag. The Dolphins didn’t have to part with any draft picks to bring him aboard, yet the move still hints at a certain amount of desperation.
The 2016 Dolphins finished 10th in weighted offensive DVOA—the largest ranking gap between that stat and a team’s season-long offensive DVOA finish (14th) among the top half of teams in the league. Miami’s offense had found its stride by season’s end, and even if its playoff berth ended in a blowout loss in the wild-card round, the group had plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2017. While the Dolphins’ offensive line remains a giant, neon question mark (especially on the interior), their arsenal of skill-position weapons rivals any outside of Pittsburgh and New England. The trio of Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, and Kenny Stills stacks up to any receiving corps in the league; if Parker can stay healthy and make the jump that some experts expect he will in his third professional season, Miami has a chance to be devastating.
Combine that group with newly acquired tight end Julius Thomas (who caught 24 touchdowns in two years under Gase in Denver) and a running game built around Jay Ajayi (who rushed for 1,272 yards last season), and things get really interesting really fast. With that caliber of talent sharing a huddle, the Dolphins’ brass felt an obligation to do what it could to prevent 2017 from becoming a lost season, even with Tannehill on the shelf.
The question, though, is whether Cutler is the guy who can lift Miami from enticing collection of talent to legitimate AFC threat. For those making the case that the Dolphins’ ceiling is higher with Cutler than it would have been with Tannehill, I don’t know what to tell you. Tannehill completed 67.1 percent of his passes in 13 games under Gase last year. During his mythical 2015 season with Gase, Cutler finished at a 64.4 percent clip. And if we’re going to ding Tannehill for playing in a system that prioritized short, easy throws, let’s do the same with Smokin’ Jay. Tannehill’s efficiency in Gase’s scheme and his ability to accurately push the ball downfield to Stills and Parker made him the Dolphins’ best option heading into Week 1.
With Tannehill sidelined, Miami’s choice boiled down to whether the team preferred spending on Cutler to riding with Matt Moore. And that’s where the parallels to the Vikings’ Bradford trade end. Part of the reason that Minnesota felt motivated to make last year’s deal is that the front office was uncomfortable handing the reins of the offense to Shaun Hill, who was 36 years old at the time and had eight starts in the previous five seasons. After watching Hill’s performance in a 25–16 win over the Titans, I get why.
Moore, for his part, is not Hill. He turns 33 on Wednesday and has long been one of the most trusted backup quarterbacks in the league. Moore’s most recent campaign as the team’s primary starter came in 2011, when he completed 60.5 percent of his passes while throwing 16 touchdowns against nine interceptions. In three regular-season starts following Tannehill’s injury last December, Moore completed 63.2 percent of his passes and averaged 8.3 yards per attempt. All a team can ask out of its backup quarterback is for him to make the offense function at something close to full capacity. That’s precisely what happened once Moore took over last season in Miami, and it likely could have happened again had Moore been handed the keys. Though Cutler hasn’t technically been named the Dolphins starter to date, it stands to reason that the team wouldn’t have brought him in if that weren’t its intent.
Given his history with Cutler, Gase was better equipped than anyone to decide which quarterback gave the Dolphins their best chance to thrive in Tannehill’s absence. Miami’s ceiling with Cutler probably is higher than it would be with Moore, but how much is up for debate. Cutler’s success with Gase in 2015 was the product of the coach using play-calling and design to simplify Cutler’s decision-making. Run-pass options, play-action throws, and straightforward choices while on the move—all of the things that Cutler does best—were the building blocks of that Chicago offense. Cutler’s most damning issue in his time with the Bears was his propensity to turn over the ball. In that regard, Gase’s offense could often save Cutler from himself.
Still, at this point it’s worth tempering expectations. Cutler is a lightning rod whose name brings more interest to Miami’s scenario than is probably warranted. With Tannehill slinging the ball, the Dolphins looked poised to have one of the league’s most intriguing offenses. That reality has vanished. Now, instead of preparing to watch Cutler in the booth, Bears fans can leave the Miami faithful with one enduring thought: Good luck.