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DANA POINT, Calif. – This can't go on forever, this little game of text messages and pleas and ignored olive branches. Denver Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels knows it, even if his quarterback, Jay Cutler, doesn't.
So when Tuesday came and McDaniels sat down with the media at the NFL's annual meetings, his most expansive moments since his fallout with Cutler were spent fortifying his position. In nearly an hour of questioning, and at a table that looked like it was hosting a town-hall meeting, McDaniels reiterated that Cutler is Denver's quarterback until he isn't. In mostly even tones and in an environment that never really got testy, the Broncos coach subtly put the ball in Cutler's court, stating that the team would do what it could to repair the relationship. But McDaniels also admitted the franchise hadn't actually moved off the stance that had agitated its Pro Bowl quarterback in the first place – that if something better comes along for the Broncos, his quarterback can be had, just like anyone else.
Many Denver-area fans blame McDaniels for the controversy.
Whether Cutler likes it or not, all his consternation in recent weeks hasn't made him any more untouchable.
"I think I would be contradicting myself if I said that," McDaniels said. "Like I said, he's our quarterback, we're committed to him, and – and – we will always do what's in the best interest of our team. That's why we're talking about this right now – because there was a scenario that was presented that was considered. I'm not going to fall back from that."
In essence, what Tuesday amounted to was McDaniels firmly reasserting his line of defense in a situation in which Cutler and his agent, Bus Cook, have done most of the talking in recent weeks. He acknowledged that the Broncos seriously entertained a three-way trade that would have sent Cutler to Tampa Bay and delivered New England's Matt Cassel to Denver. And he even went as far as to say that it was timing, as much as anything, that scuttled the deal. But McDaniels also once again said he now wants to move forward with Cutler, alternating between both a soft approach ("He's a very good player") and a more firm stance ("He's under contract. He's our quarterback.")
Interestingly, McDaniels said he still wants a one-on-one meeting with Cutler and gave the impression that such a meeting would cure some of the problems. It came off as a shot across the bow of Cook, who has been painted as a villain in the whole standoff in some media circles. Certainly, McDaniels didn't do anything to indicate that Cook was helping to solve the current problem, and even said that Cook shouldn't be involved in the talk that the coach wants to have with Cutler.
"It's not an issue for an agent," McDaniels said. "That's all I'll say. We're not talking about contracts. It's not an issue for an agent. That's why I want to speak with the player."
Cook hasn't returned several calls seeking his comment. But as a practical matter, it's unknown how many other concrete avenues are available to resolve the situation. While there have been a litany of media reports about the other NFL teams interested in Cutler, the validity of such interest hasn't been fleshed out very well. McDaniels said he hasn't been approached this week by other teams, even though this is typically a time when teams begin to put their heads together on potential predraft deals.
"They've never done it – zero," McDaniels said. "Nobody has approached me, called me – I don't know if they're afraid of me or if this thing is really silly. Nobody's talked to me, nobody's tried to communicate with me indirectly or directly. I know that people have briefly expressed interest to [Broncos general manager] Brian Xanders, but again, I'll reiterate, there's not any decision that's going to happen in our organization relative to our football team without going through me."
But after talking to a variety of personnel sources over the past 10 days, a handful of facts have emerged:
• Before Tampa was involved in a potential three-way trade for Cutler, Minnesota was actually the first team to become engaged in talks for the quarterback. McDaniels acknowledged Tuesday that another team had inquired about Cutler prior to Tampa Bay's interest, but he declined to name that team. A personnel source confirmed it was the Vikings. According to two league sources, the Vikings would have shipped draft picks to Denver for Cutler, and Denver would have turned around and sent picks to New England for Cassel. However, the deal fell apart early on, after some elements in the Minnesota coaching staff weren't entirely sold on Cutler.
• At some point in the process, the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears also expressed interest in Cutler. The depth of that interest is unknown, but both teams are still thought to be in play if Cutler once again becomes available.
• While the New York Jets have also been tabbed as a potential destination for Cutler, Jets head coach Rex Ryan spent much of Tuesday talking up his own quarterbacks and seemingly trying to extricate himself from the Cutler talk. But when cornered about what he would do if an opportunity presented itself for a veteran quarterback, Ryan left the door open, saying, "You consider all the options."
Yet the longer Cutler's standoff with the Broncos continues, the more damage he may be doing to his own value. Clearly, the situation has fostered some negative impressions of him in other organizations. One high-ranking NFC personnel man said last week that the public nature of Cutler's problems with Denver is definitely sending a message.
"It's human nature to form opinions, especially when you are reading [Cutler's] own words," he said. "Not being on the inside of it, it seems pretty immature. But, you know, how you conduct yourself when you're not happy says something about you. … He seems like an emotional guy – just volatile emotionally."
And while coaches and executives can't talk in specifics about players on other rosters, a handful pointed at emotions as a primary part of what separates quarterbacks. Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak spoke about the importance of the bond and trust that has to exist between a quarterback and his head coach. Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley took it a step further, suggesting that mental maturity is a key long-term factor.
"If you're sensitive and you're not mentally tough, you're not going to have a great chance to succeed," Haley said, speaking in generalities about quarterbacks. "Some of these guys, Kurt Warner and Tony Romo, some of these guys that weren't 'the guy' and had to go through these trials and tribulations – like Matt Cassel, who's been told ‘you're not good enough' for how many years? – you develop that shell that gives you a chance to overcome adversity. I think if you don't have that or if that's not your mental makeup, that's probably a problem."
Cutler's relationship with the Broncos has increasingly gotten worse since Mike Shanahan's firing.
(Byron Hetzler/US Presswire)
So here the Broncos are, with a player who continues to insist he no longer wants to play for them, yet they continue to dig in and push for a resolution without actually changing their approach. McDaniels said he believes Cutler will still be the team's quarterback five weeks from now; that he has confidence Cutler will show up for Denver's first mandatory camp for veterans next month; and that Cutler will ultimately succeed in the new scheme. But every day, damage is being done, both in terms of perception and preparation.
"Obviously, the days that are missed relative to installation and opportunity for any player to learn our system, it will obviously hinder our development in what we're doing," McDaniels said. "But that's part of coaching. … This isn't necessarily an ideal situation, but you've got to work with whatever time you have. You do what you can do within the system if a player doesn't have great understanding of something at some point."
For now, it's an awkward stance – hoping for the best and preparing to make do with the worst. But Denver's attitude has appeared to solidify: It's Cutler's move, and ultimately he's the one who will have to adjust.
"I can't convince anybody of anything if they don't want to believe it," McDaniels said. "I think part of it is, like I said, we want him to be here, we're committed to him, and I think it's got to be two ways. I think that's the biggest thing – if he wants to commit to us, then I think there are some certain things that he's going to have to get over personally. And that's a challenge for him. It's a challenge in this whole situation."