The Gameface: Cutler, Bears go all in
“What?????” Rodgers texted back almost immediately, reacting to the completion of the NFL’s biggest offseason saga since the one that involved him and a certain Titletown legend a year ago.
Though Cutler’s departure from the Denver Broncos after three promising seasons had loomed as a possibility for the past month and a half, the trade with the Chicago Bears still sent shock waves through the NFL community.
That’s a testament to how rare it is that a 25-year-old franchise quarterback would switch teams. Factor in the hefty price – the Bears sent two first-round draft picks, a third-round selection and quarterback Kyle Orton to the Broncos for Cutler and a fifth-round pick – and it was the NFL’s biggest blockbuster deal since the Jon Gruden trade.
Seven years ago, when the Oakland Raiders sent their head coach to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for two first-round picks, a pair of second-round selections and $8 million, NFL fans were treated to a relatively quick payoff: The two teams met in the following year’s Super Bowl, with Gruden’s Tampa Bay team tearing apart the Oakland squad coached by his former offensive coordinator, Bill Callahan.
This time, as Rodgers noted Thursday in a follow-up text, there’s another early prize for the football-watching public: “Opening weekend just got a bit more interesting.”
True dat: It was announced at last week’s NFL owners meetings that the Packers will host the Bears on Sept. 13 for the season’s first Sunday-night telecast, a game that will now match two promising young passers who are very much under the gun.
Rodgers, the man trying to succeed the legendary Brett Favre, and Cutler – the discarded heir to Hall of Famer John Elway aiming to show he’s not an oversensitive pouter – tangling at Lambeau Field? Something tells me I’ll be enjoying a few Spotted Cow Ales that weekend.
It goes beyond a single marquee matchup, however. The Packers and Bears, NFC North foes who meet twice a year, will have a chance to build around these potentially special quarterbacks and invade one another’s airspace for a decade or more.
That’s good news for the league, and as such it represents the happiest possible ending to a highly avoidable hissy fit that devolved into a fiasco.
The Bears, three seasons removed from a Super Bowl appearance but still decidedly blasé before this trade, got an immediate offensive identity – and, if Cutler continues to progress, a chance to have their first true superstar on offense since the late Walter Payton.
Denver, which seemingly had backed itself into a very unfavorable position by announcing earlier this week that the Pro Bowl passer would be dealt, got a bounty of face-saving proportions – not to mention a serviceable replacement, at least for the short term, in the underrated, heady Orton.
Cutler, by definition, got a new employer that clearly craves his services and views him as the answer to its prayers. Even if you’re in the camp that regards him as a fragile crybaby, he no longer has any reason not to smile.
And as for Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, who has already had an enormous impact in Denver without even conducting an official minicamp? Well, we’ll have to see how this plays out over the next nine months.
On paper, the 32-year-old McDaniels scored himself some security with this deal. After failing to placate Cutler, who bristled after learning the Broncos had tried to trade him for Matt Cassel in February and came to believe his new coach had been dishonest in the process, McDaniels clearly had a problem on his hands. However, Cutler’s lack of responsiveness toward the organization – at least according to the Broncos’ side of the story – alienated owner Pat Bowlen to the point where he was the one issuing Tuesday’s statement that the team would trade Cutler.
Now Bowlen is the heavy, and he’ll presumably stand behind McDaniels even if the Broncos struggle in ’09.
Meanwhile, McDaniels now has the opportunity to acquire a young passer – possibly by using the team’s two first-round picks in next month’s draft to move up high enough to draft Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez – and groom him while getting by in the short term with Orton and/or newly acquired Chris Simms.
Like I said, that’s the way it appears on paper. But Bowlen is an owner who is used to winning, and if the trade turns out to be an obvious disaster, I’m not so certain he’ll stand by his man.
Imagine Cutler tearing it up in the Windy City while his successor (or successors) stinks it up in the Mile High City. Picture deep outs that fall miserably short of their intended target and a losing season that has the Broncos staring up at even the Raiders in the AFC West.
Come season’s end, McDaniels, who came in acting a lot like Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells – minus the credibility and track records – might be confronted with the same surprise trip to Bowlen’s office that predecessor Mike Shanahan made this past December.
I’m not saying it will happen. But you’re crazy if you don’t think it could.
There’s similar pressure on Bears general manager Jerry Angelo and head coach Lovie Smith, the Super Bowl XLI trip notwithstanding. Since that defeat to the Colts, a pair of disappointing seasons and a string of dubious decisions have put both men closer to the firing line.
Surely, if Cutler doesn’t help turn Chicago into a contender in ’09, there’s a decent chance Angelo, Smith or both could be dismissed. If nothing else, how tempting would it be for the Bears to make a run at Shanahan, who drafted Cutler out of Vanderbilt with the 11th overall pick in ’06 and helped shape him into the feared passer his team had lacked since Elway’s retirement a decade ago?
Whatever happens, I think Angelo and Smith made the right move. Before Thursday, the Bears were a mediocre team, one which, it could be argued (as my colleague Jason Cole did quite eloquently), hasn’t had a quarterback capable of taking over a game since Sid Luckman, who retired nearly six decades ago.
As Tom Cruise’s Joel Goodson, another Chicago-area icon, learned a quarter-century ago in “Risky Business,” sometimes you’ve just gotta say, ‘What the … ‘ ”
Brad Childress and the defending NFC North champion Minnesota Vikings didn’t, and they’ll presumably go into training camp with Sage Rosenfels and Tarvaris Jackson competing for the starting quarterback job. Their fans, I’m fairly certain, are thrilled by the organization’s passivity.
The Redskins, while undeniably aggressive, couldn’t close a deal on Thursday, and now they’ve got a mini-McDaniels/Cutler situation on their hands, with an incumbent starter (Jason Campbell) who knows his bosses were trying to replace him.
The Jets, Browns and Bucs struck out, too.
What about that fourth NFC North franchise, the one that went 0-16 in ’08? The Detroit Lions, appropriately, came up empty as well. General manager Martin Mayhew and new head coach Jim Schwartz might satisfy their fan base by taking Stafford or Sanchez with the No. 1 overall pick, but even if they do, they’ll simply be trying to get one of those passers to be as accomplished in three years as Cutler is now.
Meanwhile, in Green Bay, general manager Ted Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy – two men who were the emblem of the WTF mantra last summer – are still waiting to learn whether they’re geniuses, Judases or somewhere in between.
After Favre ended his brief retirement and told the Packers he wanted to come back to play for Green Bay, Thompson and McCarthy rejected Titletown’s most beloved athletic icon and ultimately dealt him to the Jets. In doing so, they hitched their fortunes to Rodgers, who’d waited three years for his opportunity but was a far riskier bet than Cutler is now.
Rodgers was poised and productive in his first year as a starter, but the Packers backslid badly as a team, following a 13-3 campaign in ’07 with a 6-10 flop. Anything less than a substantial improvement will be blamed on Rodgers and the men who put him under center.
For this reason, even though they’re now destined to be fierce rivals for the foreseeable future, Rodgers and Cutler can relate to one another on an almost innate level, and each passer likely will be cheering for his NFC North counterpart on the inside.
One night last July at Harrah’s Lake Tahoe casino in Stateline, Nev., Rodgers and Cutler, each of whom was competing in the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship, sat together at a blackjack table for well over an hour. At one point, each man split a pair of identical cards, resulting in several large stacks of chips that nearly collapsed onto one another.
Before taking their respective hits from the dealer, Rodgers and Cutler looked at each other and grinned. Like their current employers, they were all in – and totally at peace with it, consequences be damned.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
Tiger Woods – duh – will win the Masters. … John Calipari will win a national championship at Kentucky, and then the ‘Cats will go on probation – and not very many people in the Bluegrass State will sweat it. … You know it pains me to say this, but Stanford will take down mighty UConn in the women’s Final Four.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. After mistakenly notifying 28,000 applicants that they had been admitted to UC San Diego, university officials enlisted the services of former Dallas police officer Robert Powell and Denver’s McDaniels to break the bad news.
2. After watching French pole vaulter Romain Mesnil run naked through the streets of Paris (while holding his pole) in an effort to secure a new sponsorship deal, thousands of Parisians took to the streets to protest tennis player Tatiana Golovin’s endorsement contracts.
3. If convicted of DUI manslaughter, Browns receiver Donté Stallworth will still be a less heinous criminal than Michael Vick, because all he did was make a mistake.
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
Those readers who, after checking out my column last Friday, drew a comparison between Jeff George and Uncle Rico of “Napoleon Dynamite” fame will be pleased to know that the 41-year-old quarterback mailed me a DVD of a practice session from his brief stint with the Raiders in the summer of 2006. Yes, another parallel. There’s one major difference, however: Unlike Uncle Rico’s grainy video of his past high school feats, George looked good. He completed a variety of throws with touch, accuracy and his trademark velocity, and he certainly didn’t look washed up. To be fair, I’m no eagle-eyed talent evaluator, but it seems to me that some of the people in the business might want at least to grant George a workout and judge for themselves. It’s just a thought. As for those of you who have a spare 40 minutes and are eager to hear what I sound like without ample oxygen – or if you’re hungry for more movie references (“Henry and June,” “Boogie Nights”), riffs on the Cutler situation or tales of bodysurfing with NFL GMs – check out the podcast I did for Deadspin on Wednesday.
LET’S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Arizona Senator John McCain. Yes, McCain and I have our political differences, and I was a bit hard on the Maverick during the election season. But McCain’s resolution to pardon former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson for the brash boxer’s absurd Mann Act conviction in 1913 was an absolute stroke of long-overdue legislative genius. It also ensures that a certain New York congressman who co-sponsored the resolution is now my second-favorite Peter King.
ROLLIN’ WITH THE ROYALS
Reading resumes its push for promotion back to the English Premier League with a seven-game stretch that could end with a Football League Championship title – or, if all goes to pieces, a colossal missed opportunity. The Royals play at Coventry City on Saturday before returning home to face Sheffield United the following Friday, hoping to come up big in rematches with two teams they defeated earlier in the season. If the Royals, currently third in the FLC table, can end up first or second, they’ll be promoted automatically; the teams finishing third through sixth stage a playoff for the final promotional bid. If the latter happens, my friend Dan the Man – who was with me on the original trip to Reading that launched our Royals obsession – is threatening to fly out to witness the madness.
THIS WEEK’S PROOF THAT CAL IS THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
The afterglow of Cal’s first NCAA women’s swimming and diving championship continues, with star senior Dana Vollmer winning the Honda Sports Award as the nation’s top collegiate athlete in her sport. Vollmer will now compete with 11 others for Collegiate Woman Athlete of the Year honors. Meanwhile, senior forward Ashley Walker was named a U.S. Basketball Writers Association All-American and earned a spot on AP’s third team. For more on Walker’s legacy, check out the latest “Pure Silver” on Rivals’ Cal page. Also, congratulations to the 12th-ranked Golden Bears softball team for a weekend sweep of then-No. 4 UCLA and to Jack Clark’s dominant rugby program for completing a 27-1 regular season and securing the No. 1 overall seed in the 16-team tournament that will decide the national championship. Clark has won 20 of those in his 25 years as Cal’s head coach. Any questions?
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
Once the Broncos announced their intention to trade their franchise quarterback, the phone lines at Dove Valley began burning up like Shanahan’s face after a day on the Vail slopes. According to the Chicago Sun Times’ Mike Mulligan, it got to the point where the Broncos imposed a text/email only decree to potential suitors. Perhaps that should have told the Denver brain trust something – apparently a lot of other people around the NFL think Cutler is pretty valuable. For the Bears’ Angelo and Smith, he may be a job-saver. Here’s the daring duo riffing on Chicago’s new passing fancy, who’ll undoubtedly be No. 6 in their program and No. 1 in their hearts, to the tune of Kings of Leon’s “Sex On Fire”:
Play where you’re playing?
Don’t be absurd
Come to Chicago
All the commotion
Best thing since MJ
Has people talking
Our 6 is on fire
Dissed by McDaniels
You blew off his texts
Bowlen was whining
Our arms are open
Knuckles black and blue
Ready for wining
Our 6 is on fire
Now we might not get fired
Let’s go to Gibson’s
Then let’s get wasted
Come have some pizza
Deep dish is the greatest
Like Jay is
Our 6 is on fire
He’s our gun for hire
Pulled out of the pyre
Big 6 we admire
Our 6 is on fire