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Original Issue

Cutler's Last Stand?

Convinced the Broncos nearly traded him last month, a furious Jay Cutler has turned the tables and wants out of Denver. Making peace with the quarterback won't be easy

AS THE annual NFL meetings got under way at the posh St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, Calif., over the weekend (Recession? What recession?), the big question facing this $7 billion-a-year industry was what strategy to take into negotiations with new players' union executive director DeMaurice Smith on the next collective bargaining agreement. Yet there was more talk in the hallways about the brash young quarterback who felt betrayed by his new coach and wanted to be traded:

What do you hear about Jay Cutler? The Broncos want two high-round picks for Cutler, plus something else? Who's got the best shot to get him?

The answer wasn't what reporters and bloggers combing the hotel lobby hoped to hear—that Denver was shopping Cutler, its 25-year-old franchise passer who threw for 4,526 yards in 2008. On the contrary. "If somebody comes to me here to talk about [making a trade for] Jay, they're going to get a huge stiff arm," said Josh McDaniels, the Broncos' rookie coach, who was formerly the Patriots' offensive coordinator. "We haven't answered one phone call all week from teams trying to get Jay, and we're not going to. We've gotten a million. To pull the trigger on [a trade] when I know there's a way this could work out would be ridiculous."

And what way might that be? Since learning from news reports that McDaniels had looked into a possible trade for New England quarterback Matt Cassel on Feb. 27, Cutler put the word out that he didn't believe McDaniels sees him as Denver's long-term starter and wanted a fresh start elsewhere. For his part, McDaniels thinks he has been misunderstood by Cutler and his agent, Bus Cook, and wants a chance to square things with his reluctant QB in a one-on-one meeting. It doesn't appear that such a meeting will take place soon, however, because Cutler has cut off direct contact with the Broncos, including a boycott of the team's voluntary off-season program, which began last week. So McDaniels plans to wait a couple of weeks, let Cutler simmer down and then attempt rapprochement sometime before the draft on April 25. But then the problem is not just about the timing.

According to Cook, Cutler has no desire to meet with McDaniels one-on-one. "The question is," says the agent, "what's so secretive about what Josh has to say that he can't say it with other people in the room?"

FRIENDS OF Cutler's say that if he believes in someone, he'll run through a wall for him; they say if Cutler thinks he's been wronged, he'll never forgive. Or forget. Even McDaniels said last Friday, "He may never love me, but hopefully he can come to respect me and what we're doing offensively."

Cutler did not return SI's calls, but according to those who have spoken to him recently, he remains adamant that McDaniels lied to him about his future in Denver and believes his new coach was close to making the deal for Cassel—whom he tutored to surprising success last season in New England. When McDaniels tried to smooth things over in a meeting on March 14 that also included Cook and Denver general manager Brian Xanders, the friends say, Cutler received no assurances that the coach wouldn't try to trade him again.

McDaniels is just as adamant that he never even considered trading Cutler until Detroit and Tampa Bay approached him at the NFL combine in late February and asked about acquiring the quarterback. Then on Feb. 26, McDaniels says, one of the teams proposed a three-way trade in which the Broncos would give up Cutler for high draft choices they would then trade for Cassel. The next day McDaniels began exploring a trade for Cassel, but "we were late to the dance," he said; New England already had a deal with Kansas City. As evidence that the Broncos were not close to making the trade, McDaniels says he didn't discuss such a deal with owner Pat Bowlen, as he would have been obligated to do, and Bowlen concurs.

Regardless, the meeting on March 14 didn't come close to clearing the air or calming the rattled Cutler. At the end of it, McDaniels says, Cutler asked if he could have a few hours to think and then he'd call the coach. McDaniels told him, "Call me on my cellphone." But Cutler never called. Instead, Cook called Xanders and requested a trade. The two sides had no contact last week and can't even agree on who should call whom. "Jay is waiting for them to call him," Cook said last Saturday night.

A strong-willed young man with principles, perhaps, but Cutler may also be jeopardizing his place in one of the best young offenses in the NFL.

FROM A football perspective, it makes no sense for Cutler to want to leave Denver. The offense ranked second in the league last season (395.8 yards per game), and he has four other young rising stars around him in tackles Ryan Clady and Ryan Harris and wideouts Eddie Royal and Brandon Marshall. By contrast, Detroit and Tampa Bay between them have one great offensive player, Lions wideout Calvin Johnson. As Cook says, "I have told Jay, 'You'd better be careful. You don't have any control over where you play.'"

In addition to his passing skills, what makes Cutler attractive to any team, including Denver, is that he has three years left on his rookie contract (at $1.04 million, $1.42 million and $1.81 million), and he has not had the sort of success (17--20 as a starter) that demands the deal be redone now.

Coincidentally, it was a lack of communication that led to Cutler's becoming a Bronco in the first place. After the 2005 season coach Mike Shanahan decided he needed to replace quarterback Jake Plummer to get his team back into Super Bowl contention. Two months before the '06 draft Shanahan studied game tapes of Texas's Vince Young, USC's Matt Leinart and Vanderbilt's Cutler. Everything—the strong arm, the confidence, the ability to make deep throws into small spaces—pointed to Cutler. But Shanahan told no one that Cutler was his choice, not even then G.M. Ted Sundquist or any coach on his staff, for fear that the news would leak before the draft.

Shanahan never spoke to Cutler and didn't pick the brain of a single person close to him. Finally, on the day before the draft, Shanahan phoned a friend, Titans coach Jeff Fisher, who has close ties to the nearby Vanderbilt program, and asked for a reference on Cutler. Fisher, who would draft Young at No. 3, heartily endorsed Cutler. The next morning Shanahan told his staff to start pursuing a trade up from Denver's spot at No. 15, and only shortly before the draft started did he finally tell them that Cutler was his man.

The Broncos moved from 15th to 11th in the draft order, and when they made their pick, a shock went through the league—and the Cutler draft party in Nashville.

"No clue," Cutler said last fall, recalling the day. "We'd gotten all the caps of the teams we thought might take me so I could put the right one on when I got picked. I'd said, 'We don't need Denver. They never talked to me once.'"

Now, will Cutler and the Broncos ever talk again?

Says Cook, "I have told Jay, 'You'd better be careful. You DON'T HAVE ANY CONTROL over where you play.'"



Don Banks breaks down all the buzz, rumors and news coming out of the owners' meetings in Dana Point, Calif.



Photograph by Peter Read Miller

MAD MEN Despite their rift, McDaniels (above, right) believes he and Cutler can still find success together on the field.



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HIGH HOPES Playing with fellow young standouts such as Clady (78) should make Cutler think twice about leaving Denver.