IT IS UNAVOIDABLE, almost suffocating, but it is one of the realities of playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos: being compared with John Elway for as long as you have the job. Though he retired eight years ago after leading the team to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs, Elway is still very much a presence in Denver—as the former baron of an auto dealership chain, co-owner and CEO of the Arena league's Colorado Crush, and co-owner of the hottest steak house in town (Elway's, of course). But second-year pro Jay Cutler, who has great respect for Elway's lifetime achievements, isn't trying to make people forget the most famous athlete in Colorado. "I'm not John Elway," says Cutler, who became the starting passer with five games remaining in his rookie year, "and I'm not going to be the next John Elway."
If he becomes even a reasonable facsimile of old number 7—and remember, Elway wasn't Bradyesque in his first few seasons—Cutler will have been well worth the 11th overall pick Denver spent on him in the 2006 draft. The next stage in the development of the mop-topped Cutler begins on Sunday in Buffalo, when he leads the Broncos against the defensively challenged Bills. A strong start would seem imperative considering the need for an improved passing game in 2007 and the four opponents following the opener. In '06, with Jake Plummer starting the first 11 games before Cutler was sent in, the team's aerial attack ranked 25th in the league, and its 2,799 passing yards were the fewest of coach Mike Shanahan's 12 seasons in Denver. After playing Buffalo, the Broncos face three of last year's top 10 defenses (the Raiders, Jaguars and Chargers, all at home) with a road game against the defending champion Colts mixed in. For Denver to be a playoff team in the top-heavy AFC, Cutler will have to be more consistent and productive than the departed Plummer, who got the team past the wild-card playoff round only once in four seasons.
Socially, Cutler is nothing like Elway, who tends to be the life of the party. Broncos beat writers find Cutler somewhat aloof, and he is noticeably reserved, preferring to prove himself as a player before exerting his influence on and off the field. Otherwise, there are numerous parallels between the two at similar points in their careers.
At 6' 3", both were standout baseball players in high school in addition to being blue-chip quarterbacks, both set every major passing record at universities more acclaimed for academics than football (Elway at Stanford, Cutler at Vanderbilt), both were mainly pocket passers who were first-round draft picks, both brought reputations for unflinching toughness into the NFL, and both began their second seasons as 24-year-old starters in Denver.
OVER THE off-season Shanahan and assistant head coach Mike Heimerdinger set out to add to that list of similarities by improving Cutler's mobility. In Shanahan's offense, as Elway proved, a quarterback has to be able to make plays on the run. "We even looked at tape of John," says Heimerdinger. "I wanted Jay to see his feet, and how John moved, and how he still made plays sliding in the pocket or running out of the pocket."
In his first start last season, Week 13 against the Seahawks, Cutler faced a heavy rush midway through the second quarter. He spun out of a potential sack and tried to throw downfield while still being jostled; the ball flew out of his grasp and into the arms of defensive end Darryl Tapp, who returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. Denver lost by three. On the sideline Shanahan immediately accepted blame, telling Cutler that he called a stupid play—but Cutler was just as culpable for taking such a stupid chance.
Fast-forward to this summer's training camp. In one practice, a limited-contact, 11-on-11 passing drill, Cutler took the snap on third-and-three and immediately felt pressure coming from his right side. His tight end was covered. Cutler wanted to dump the ball to either of his running backs, but they had been jammed at the line and were not open. So he took off, side-stepping the first pass rusher and sprinting right to avoid another one, before spotting wideout Domenik Hixon deep down the right side, a stride ahead of All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey. On the run, Cutler let it fly. The ball traveled 62 yards, dropped beyond Bailey and landed in Hixon's arms. Touchdown.
"The great player makes that play," an enthusiastic Shanahan said later that day. "That's what drives defensive coordinators crazy."
Says Cutler, "What my coaches have trained me to do is, if my first, second and third reads aren't perfect, I've still got to make a play—and in our offense, I should be able to." He is convinced that having been a four-year starter for undermanned Vanderbilt, traditionally one of the worst teams in the powerful Southeastern Conference, is a huge reason why he's an NFL quarterback today. The Commodores won two, two, two and five games in Cutler's four seasons. "Every week we played teams with better talent,'' he says. "We'd have to grind through every single game and survive all kinds of breakdowns. That's life in the NFL—plays are never perfect."
Cutler's determination in the face of regular failure was part of the reason the Broncos traded up four slots in the draft to select him.
"Jay thinks he's just good, but he's better than good," says Shanahan. "As time goes on, I think he'll be great. You know why? He's not afraid to stand in there and make plays and throw it downfield. Some quarterbacks want to dump it all the time rather than look downfield, because the pressure of the game is so great or because they want to protect their quarterback rating. The guys who have confidence, who really believe in themselves, want to be Elway. You can teach a guy to dump the ball off. You can't teach a Vanderbilt guy to be the [offensive] MVP of the SEC, which Jay was. He's got to have something inside him to accomplish that."
The harder part of Cutler's adjustment from Commodore to Bronco has come off the field, in dealing with life under the microscope in a major market, and with higher expectations from the fans and the media. He's a small-town Indiana native—from a subdivision called Christmas Village in the town of Santa Claus (pop. 2,041)—who played college football in a city, Nashville, where the Tennessee Volunteers, the NFL's Titans and the NHL's Predators command more of the media's attention than Vanderbilt. That was fine with Cutler. When Vandy quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser visited Cutler in Denver during a minicamp, they went to a Colorado Rockies game one night. "Everyone's whispering, pointing, like, There he is," Kiser says of the attention paid to Cutler. "No question he's uncomfortable with that. He comes back to Nashville when he's got some time off, I think just because he can be normal here."
SOMETIMES WE forget what an arduous process it is to build a great NFL quarterback. Take Elway, for instance. After 10 seasons in Denver he had won three AFC championships, but he hadn't delivered a Super Bowl victory, hadn't had a 60% passing season and had thrown only one more career touchdown than he had interceptions. Four seasons later Elway's playoff record had dropped to 7--7, and Shanahan says, "A lot of our fans wanted to run him out of town." Then Elway led the Broncos to the two Super Bowl wins in his 15th and 16th years in the league. Now he's the Mickey Mantle of the Rockies.
Cutler certainly won't have that long. The pressure will become intense if it takes him even four years to win his first playoff game, which is how long it took Elway. The team has already gone through Brian Griese and Plummer in its bid to get back to the NFL's championship game, but the quarterback hot seat isn't unique to Denver. Leaguewide, passers are routinely getting five years or fewer to prove they have what it takes to lead a franchise into title contention before being dumped (see: David Carr, Joey Harrington and Patrick Ramsey from the 2002 draft; Byron Leftwich from '03, etc.).
Not wanting to add to the pressure on his predecessors, Elway does his best to keep his name out of the media when it comes to the Broncos (last week he didn't return three calls from SI asking for comment on this story) and tries to stay out of camera view when he's in an Invesco Field suite for home games. But Elway did have lunch with Cutler, Heimerdinger and Shanahan before training camp. At Elway's, of course. The Broncos wanted Cutler to hear from the master how to handle everything from fans in public (Elway: "If you want peace and quiet, don't go out") to the media to becoming a great quarterback. "Lots of guys can play quarterback in the NFL on first and second downs," Elway told Cutler, "but you get paid for converting third downs."
Cutler eagerly listened to and digested each lesson. He's smart enough to know there's no escaping the shadow of number 7.
"Jay thinks he's just good, but he's better than good," says Shanahan. "As time goes on, I THINK HE'LL BE GREAT."
Peter King tackles your questions in his online column every Tuesday.
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Just for Openers
Meaty matchups mean a whole lot of hurtin' in Week 1
IT'S ONLY the first Sunday—and Monday night—of the season, but there are four games that can't be missed.
Eagles at Packers
"I always told Brett that if I thought he couldn't play, I'd tell him," says Philadelphia coach Andy Reid, who used to be Brett Favre's quarterbacks coach in Green Bay. "But watching tape of him from last year, I think he'll still be good when he's 80." The Pack dragged its feet in pursuing offensive skill players in free agency, so Favre will need rookies Brandon Jackson (right), a RB out of Nebraska, and James Jones, a WR out of San Jose State, to have big seasons.
Key to the game: Eagles QB Donovan McNabb returns nine months after right knee surgery, likely wearing a brace. Will he be mobile enough to evade edge rusher Aaron Kampman?
Patriots at Jets
Two stats that bode ill for New York: QB Tom Brady is 6--0 against the Jets at the Meadowlands and 23--2 in games on artificial turf. What's more, Brady has two new WRs, Donte' Stallworth and Wes Welker, who are better than the go-to guys (Troy Brown, Reche Caldwell) he had a year ago in this game—and there may be a third in Randy Moss, if his hamstring injury is healed enough.
Key to the game: Will the absence of New England SS Rodney Harrison (four-game suspension for taking human growth hormone) give New York QB Chad Pennington a chance to get into a shootout with Brady?
Bears at Chargers
Only one team gave up fewer rushing TDs than the seven that Chicago allowed last year, and the Bears have 589 pounds of healthy, run-stopping DTs (Tommie Harris, Darwin Walker) plus two excellent sideline-to-sideline LBs (Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher) to go after Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson, who ran for 28 scores and was the league's MVP in 2006. What a matchup.
Key to the game: Tomlinson likely won't be able to shred the quick Chicago D, so it may come down to whether QB Philip Rivers can make enough big plays against the Bears' rising-star CBs, Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman, for San Diego to win.
Ravens at Bengals (Monday night)
A few weeks ago Cincinnati WR Chad Johnson called Baltimore LB Ray Lewis to chat with his buddy about this game, and Lewis bellowed, "Eighty-five [Johnson's uniform number], you know y'all won't score in this game!" Actually, the Bengals averaged 24.6 points in their last five meetings with the Ravens, and Cincy QB Carson Palmer doesn't get unnerved easily.
Key to the game: The Bengals did little to improve a defense that ranked 30th in 2006 and played especially soft down the stretch. The D has to develop a backbone in a hurry to stuff Baltimore's new Willis McGahee--led running game.
Photograph by Gene Lower/WireImage.com
BOTTOM LINE In five starts last season Cutler (below and inset) put up numbers that weren't bad—59.1% completion rate, 1,001 yards, nine TDs—but Denver won only two of those games.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
[See caption above]
ROBERT BECK (CUTLER)
COPYCAT Cutler (6) is learning to make plays after leaving the pocket, the way Elway did.
ERIC GAY/AP (ELWAY)
[See caption above]
JASON BRIDGE/US PRESSWIRE