Jay Cutler to the Fins – Good or Bad Move?

Likely concerned about Ryan Tannehill’s apparently serious injury, the Dolphins have signed Jay Cutler to a one year, 10 million dollar deal. In doing so they coaxed him out of retirement and his newly minted deal as a broadcaster with Fox, so he likely will be the starter if Tannehill is forced to miss time, which is looking increasingly likely. The move will likely draw eye rolls from many, so it’s worth looking at whether this was a good decision or not. I’ll start by saying, however, that upon hearing that Tannehill may miss time, my immediate thought was that the Dolphins should have gone after Romo (even though I knew they likely wouldn’t). Romo did make his retirement announcement more permanent-sounding than Cutler did, but for both of them, the decision to retire was after limited to no interest in the offseason, and that really surprised me on Romo’s end. If healthy (which to be fair, is a serious question), he makes practically any team an immediate playoff contender. But, that’s a topic for another blog post…

Whenever we’re talking about big and potentially controversial decisions like this, it’s important to look at things from the eyes of a coach, and ask what the coach was thinking. The coach’s job is to win games, and when your starting QB is faced with a potentially season ending injury, it’s tough to move forward with the backup. That often feels like giving up on the season. Most backup QBs have a pretty limited ceiling.

So when it comes to the most important position on the field, many coaches are willing to doll out some extra money and take a risk or make a seemingly desperate move if it means they’ll be able to compete, as the alternative–not doing anything–can be a tough pill to swallow. I talked about this in my post here: It’s much easier to be skeptical as fans; we’re not being paid to win games and our jobs aren’t in jeopardy if we lose games. Additionally, fans and pundits tend to find a way to be skeptical regardless of the decision made. It’s just as likely that not signing anybody would look just as bad and invite just as much criticism; we just don’t see this because rarely do coaches choose not to pay the quarterback.

The other thing to remember is that coaches deserve at least some benefit of the doubt because they’re in the building with their players everyday and as a result know them much better than we do. An interesting case to look at here is Brock Osweiler, who the post I just linked to was originally focused on. Brock Osweiler turned out to be pretty bad last year and it ended up being his only year in Houston. In limited sample size, Tom Savage–who had already been on the team before the Texans signed Osweiler–looked a lot better, which likely led many to wonder why the Texans didn’t just roll with Tom Savage. One answer is, as I alluded to earlier, the coaches felt pressure to make a big move at the game’s most important position. But the other answer is that the Texans know something we don’t about Savage and don’t feel like he’s the answer, and the fact that they drafted Deshaun Watson in the first round this year seems to suggest that that is at least part of it. Obviously, hindsight tells us that Osweiler was worse than Savage likely would have been, but Osweiler also played okay in 2015, and even though the Broncos didn’t feel comfortable matching what the Texans offered him, they still did offer him a lot of money, indicating that they too thought he was a good player.

But the other part of this and the counterargument is about value, and just because coaches feel pressure to make a move doesn’t necessarily make it justified. One of my favorite writers, Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, has argued that if you’re going to miss the playoffs anyway, you might as well lose a bunch of games and go get a good draft pick than pay way too much for a couple more wins and go 8-8. Look at the Vikings with Sam Bradford last year: He played much better than he had in the past and than what was expected, and the Vikings still only went 8-8 and missed the playoffs. (Although Sam Bradford I believe is good enough to take the starting job from Teddy Bridgewater, which he very well may do if Bridgewater’s injury lingers, so that move is a little more complicated.)

While coaches may not think in terms of losing games and getting good draft picks, the question of value still remains because the stronger part of that argument is that often, the difference in talent (and therefore, the number of wins gained) between the guy signed and the existing backup isn’t large enough to justify the money being paid to the new guy. And that often is a very valid argument. If you’re going to go blow a bunch of cash and sign a free agent and he’s not even going to play that well, then that’s a bad move. And while coaches obviously don’t do it expecting to miss the playoffs, if that ends up being the outcome, then it’s still worth asking from the start if the acquisition was a good one, or if coaches are misevaluating talent or making moves out of desperation.

So philosophically, there’s a lot to take into consideration from both sides, but enough of that; let’s look at this specific situation in Miami and whether Cutler was worth the signing. He didn’t sign that expensive a deal so in this case it’s really about whether he can take the Dolphins to the playoffs and be an upgrade over their current backup, Matt Moore.

My initial feeling was skepticism. I’ve always liked Jay Cutler and would love for him to succeed. But their backup, Matt Moore, is more than capable. He doesn’t have a great arm, but he throws with good touch and anticipation and generally has a pretty good understanding of the fundamentals of playing QB. He’s reasonably quick twitch, moves well, and gets rid of the football fairly quickly. He’ll occasionally force balls, but for the most part, he usually knows where to go with the football against defenses. To use the cliche, he’s a professional quarterback. In fact, I remember that I partially questioned the Dolphins starting Tannehill when they drafted him in 2012, since Moore had come off of a pretty good 2011 season and they theoretically could win right away with him.

Jay Cutler certainly has a (much) better arm than Moore. But he’s been in this league a while and we have a pretty good idea who he is. He’s never really lived up to his talent level or been a consistent player. Leaving Denver and Mike Shanahan seemed to have messed up his development. Ever since then, everyone’s really been waiting for Cutler to become this “elite” guy, and it never really happened. 2009 was an incredibly turnover plagued year mixed in with a few really impressive throws here and there. 2010, Cutler’s lone playoff year, saw the Bears lose to the Packers in the AFC Championship as Cutler watched from the sideline on the bike, nursing… some sort of injury. He wasn’t great overall that year as the team mostly leaned on run/defense/ST for their wins, but he did start to come on late in the year with some impressive throws. 2011 was a good start, but he was injured. 2012 was a step back. 2013 saw Jay Cutler play well in Marc Trestman’s system (although Josh McCown arguably played better), only to take a step back in 2014. In 2015, Adam Gase, the current dolphins coach (more on that later), came in and simplified the system and Cutler played decently, although he wasn’t asked to do much. In 2016 he only played five games before getting injured, and it wasn’t a great start. The Bears released him that offseason, and there was apparently close to no interest from other teams.

There are a few concerns with Cutler. Obviously it starts from a quarterbacking standpoint: He’s been in the league for a long time and he’s never lived up to expectations; what reason is there to think he will now? Second, he’s 34 years old. Even though the QB is becoming more of an old man’s position than it used to be, that’s still old, and if anything Cutler is on the back end of his career. Third, Cutler has never proven that he can carry a flawed team to the playoffs. The Dolphins already have an uphill battle being in the same division as the Patriots. I haven’t followed them closely enough to really say, but I’m not sure they’re good enough to carry an average QB to the playoffs. Their offensive line in particular seems to be an issue, which is problematic because Cutler often likes to hold the ball, certainly moreso than Moore. And lastly, Cutler himself has been injury prone. He’s played less than 15 games three times (not counting his rookie year, where he didn’t come in as the starter), had his shortest season at 5 games last year, and only played 16 games three times, and that was 07 thru 09. When you’re replacing a starter who you lost due to injury, it doesn’t really make sense to get a backup who’s injury prone. This was another concern with the Vikings when they signed Sam Bradford last year, but surprisingly, he was able to make it through the season.

The Dolphins lost Tannehill to injury late last year as well, and they got crushed in the playoffs by the Steelers in Pittsburgh with Moore starting. Perhaps that had something to do with this move, but I don’t think that’s a good justification. The Dolphins were totally demolished in every phase of that game and especially could not protect the Quarterback. I have trouble believing the result would have been any different with Tannehill in the lineup.

The one reason this may work is because Adam Gase was the Bears’ Offensive Coordinator in 2015. Gase is rightly regarded as something of a QB whisperer, and Cutler had a decent year that year. He and Gase know each other, and he knows the system. I guarantee you that relationship is likely what motivated this signing, and it’s also a reason Gase likely feels comfortable plugging Cutler right into the offense.

As a coach, nothing’s more frustrating than losing your starting Quarterback to injury. Gase thinks very highly of Tannehill; Tannehill played better under Gase, and they both likely felt that things would only be that much better in Tanehill’s second year of the system and Gase’s second year as Head Coach. In just his first year, they already made the playoffs as a wild card, their first berth since 2008.

With that much positive energy regarding the upcoming season, and with the disappointment that likely came upon learning of Tannehill’s injury, it’s understanding why Gase would feel the need to go make a big move to get his team back in the playoff hunt and recapture that energy and enthusiasm so it’s not a lost season.

I would love to see Cutler succeed, but I’m skeptical it’s going to work. I also think Moore is one of the better backups in this league and would have felt fine with him under center.

Having said that, there’s not a ton of downside to this move. It’s a fairly cheap signing. If Cutler plays well, great. If not or if he gets hurt, just plug Moore right back in. If Cutler had not played (and played well) for Gase before, there’d be little reason to be optimistic. But Gase is a good coach, and I wouldn’t underestimate him.

Still, history has mostly told us what Jay Cutler is, so until he shows otherwise, it’s best to remain skeptical. Overall, I’m not sure I would have made the move, but I understand why Gase did it. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens going forward.

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The Bears Release Robbie Gould

In a somewhat surprising move, the Chicago Bears have parted ways with their longtime kicker, Robbie Gould. The move comes less than a week before the start of the season. Gould was Chicago’s all time leading scorer with 1207 points and was the most accurate kicker in franchise history. He had been with the team since 2005, and currently ranks ninth all time in career field goal accuracy percentage at 85.449%. <pfref>

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Robbie Gould is the Bears all time Leading Scorer

 

Gould hit on 33 of 39 field goals last year, good for an accuracy percentage of 84.6%, ranked 19th in the league. But he had crucial misses in back to back weeks: In week 13, Gould had ugly misses of 40 and 36 yards, the latter of which would have won the game. Then, in week 14, Gould missed a game-tyer late from 51 (career long is 58). The Bears went on to lose both games. They finished the season 6-10. That’s a potential extra two wins cost because of your kicker. Coaches have very little patience for that stuff.

Gould also appeared to be getting progressively worse on his kickoffs. According to teamrankings.com, his 46.99 touchback percentage ranked 27th in the league. And according to footballdb.com, his average kickoff distance of 60.3 yards ranked dead last. (Although, Bleacher Report’s Kicker Rankings have him at 63.4 yards, so not positive what the correct number is there.) This was a kicker once known for his strong leg; although to be fair, leg strength on field goals doesn’t always translate to kickoffs, and vice versa. Gould did, however, try to increase his weight over the offseason, which I can’t imagine would be for any reason other than adding strength.

The fall for kickers is often swift and unforgiving. Billy Cundiff used to be a pro bowl kicker for the Ravens. He was never anywhere near as good as their current kicker, Justin Tucker, but he hit on 26/29 (89.7%) in 2010, good for sixth in the league. He also led the league with a ridiculous 40 touchbacks in 2010, back when kickoffs were still from the 30 yard line. That was a record for kickoffs after the instatement of the K-ball rule. The Ravens signed him to a long term extension after the 2010 season.

We all know where this is going. In the 2011 AFC Championship game, Cundiff missed a 32 yard chip shot to send the game to overtime in Foxborough with 15 seconds left, and the Patriots went on to lose to the Giants in the Superbowl (hehe). He was released before next season started.

I feel bad for Cundiff, as I don’t really entirely blame him for missing the kick. Never talked about is the fact that the scoreboard at Foxborough was actually behind a down, causing Cundiff to think it was only 3rd down when it was actually 4th. This caused Cundiff to be late coming onto the field, as the replay shows him running to get to the play with the clock at 15 seconds and counting. As a result, he likely rushed the kick, causing him to over-rotate his hips and miss wide left. Kickers are creatures of routine like no other. Any time that routine is off, chaos can ensue.

Ultimately though, none of this mattered. The NFL is a results oriented business. Cundiff was cut. He kicked here and there for the Redskins and Browns, but never kicked higher than 80 percent in a season after the Ravens cut him. He’s currently unsigned.

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Billy Cundiff misses a chip shot to take the Ravens to the Super Bowl in 2011

 

Blair Walsh also had a big time miss in the playoffs that wasn’t necessarily his fault. Walsh missed a go ahead 27 yarder with 26 seconds left in the game in last year’s divisional round vs Seattle. But the punter, Jeff Locke, gave Walsh the laces for the second time that day. Who knows whether this truly affected that specific kick or not, but anyone who’s seen Ace Ventura: Pet Detective knows that giving the kicker the laces is a no-no. The Vikings chose to stick with their young kicker, but a few weeks ago in the preseason at Seattle, he missed a longer kick with almost the exact same trajectory. It’s just one kick, but the jury is still out as to whether Walsh will bounce back or not.

Bouncing back as a kicker is tough. The position is so mental. Josh Scobee played ten years with the Jaguars, but he was released in 2014. He was also released by the Steelers last year after going just 6/10, and missing two late kicks against Baltimore that could have put the game away. He was injured last year, but again, it’s results that matter in this business.

Good kickers are around for so long, due to the non-contact nature of the position, that they often become part of the identity of the team, as well as some of the more well known faces of the league. Adam Vinatieri, currently the oldest player in the NFL, has been playing in the league since 1996. That’s absolutely ancient for this league. He’s older than the Giants new coach, for crying out loud! Gould has been around for a while and has been one of the better kickers in the league. I feel bad for Gould. It would have been nice to see him retire a Bear. Apparently, he struggled during the preseason. And like I said, he wasn’t great last year. I know it’s a brutal business, but the Bears could have at least given him a chance to rebound. If they were worried about money, they could have asked him to take a pay cut. That’s what the Packers did with Mason Crosby after his horrendous 2012 season in which he hit just 21 of 33 for 63.6%. I was surprised when they didn’t cut him, but he bounced back nicely and has been above 81% every season since. I believe he was just extended.

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Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997 against Brett Favre’s Packers (Left). Vinatieri, now a Colt (Right), continues to be one of the best kickers in the NFL today.

 

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Phil Dawson, 41, after a successful career with the Browns, continues to be an asset with the 49ers.

 

Do kickers ever find life on new teams after such long tenures with their first team? David Akers, after 11 years with the Eagles, had a great season with the 49ers in 2011, but struggled in 2012 and was cut after the season ended. He is now retired. Phil Dawson, one of the best kickers in the league, was released after 13 years with the Browns and is now in his 4th season with the 49ers. He is still going strong. (The Niners did, however, take him off kickoff duty, just like the Colts did with Vinatieri in 2009.) Olindo Mare stands out as similar to the Gould situation because, although he, unlike Gould, bounced around teams for a lot of his career, Mare missed some late crucial field goals in 2011 for the 6-10 Panthers, and was cut the year after. (Unlike Gould, Mare was a great kickoff man that year.) The Panthers replaced Mare with Graham Gano, a guy who’s had a really nice turnaround in Carolina after a few terrible seasons in Washington. Gano’s different however because he was still young when he went to Carolina and hadn’t been with Washington for that long. He also made some really noticeable mechanical changes after coming to Carolina; he looks like a different kicker. Gould doesn’t struggle mechanically. He’s always been a really smooth and easy kicker. He just needs to make the kicks. And Gould is 34 years old. Even though like I said, age isn’t as much as an issue for kickers in terms of the body wearing down, it’s still the case that when older kickers start to falter, it usually tends to be pretty final. Kicking is just a position that’s so mental, and a position where there’s just not a lot of tolerance for error.

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Robbie Gould had a great ten years with the Bears. I wish him all the best. If the Giants do end up getting rid of Josh Brown because of the recent domestic abuse incidents that are starting to come to light, I would be happy to give Gould a shot in Blue.

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