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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Will anyone ever challenge the Patriots?

Victories by Atlanta and New England today wrapped up one of the most noncompetitive postseasons we’ve seen in recent memory. Let’s only hope the ATL-NE Superbowl will be better. I think it definitely has the potential to be, but let’s save that discussion for another day. Right now I want to focus on the team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots.

Brady and Belichick will now head to their seventh (!!) Superbowl after clinching their what has to be a record fourteenth division title. I just want to ask a simple question: Why is it that nobody can ever beat, or even compete with, this team? It honestly feels like they can get to the Superbowl without even trying.

No, I’m not a fan of the New England Patriots. But I’m also not hating on them just for the pure sake of hating. As a fan, I want to see good football. Yes, I know the Patriots are good. They’re clearly one of the best coached teams and their players are some of the best at executing in the NFL. But still, it’s the NFL. Someone should be able to figure out how to beat them. They may be the Patriots, but they’re not impossible to beat. You just have to, obviously not make mistakes, but also, know how to play them.

But for the Patriots it’s not just that they win, but it’s that they win without barely any resistance. Lose Tom Brady for four games? It doesn’t matter. Lose your second stringer also? Doesn’t matter. Trade away your best defensive player? Doesn’t matter. I thought losing Gronkowski would be what would do them in as that’s what usually does, but it hasn’t stopped them yet.

In the divisional round, the Patriots played a sloppy game offensively… and still won by 18 points. And then we get to the Steelers today. It was a pretty sad showing; what was a 17-9 game at the half got out of hand pretty quickly and ended at 36-17, with the Steelers final score coming when the game was already out of reach. A couple years ago, when the Colts got crushed at New England, I chastised them for doing a generally terrible job defending the Pats offense, not just in that game, but throughout the decade. For the Steelers, it’s the same story. Teams just can’t get out of their own way vs New England.

I was pessimistic about this matchup for the Steelers from the start, not just the start of this game, but for most of the season as well–that is, if the Steelers were going to end up going to New England, I did not think they would succeed. That’s because the Steelers rarely ever play the Patriots well, and especially not at New England. This has been the case since about 2004, and regardless of what players are on the team, it rarely ever changes. You see Pittsburgh looking just as lousy, making the same mistakes, and not giving the kind of challenge to New England that they should for a team of their caliber.

Today we saw more of the same from Pittsburgh. More of the same ineffective tactics for defending the New England offense. Pittsburgh seemed largely overwhelmed with and unprepared for New England’s hurry up offense. They were often shuffling to line up and there were blown assignments and wide open receivers–not the first time that’s happened with these two. As usual, they played way too soft, gave receivers on the outside huge cushions, which allowed easy pitch and catches on quick outs and hitches, and allowed receivers to sit down in between zones (Edelman especially–we often saw sticks routes on 3rd and long) as well as run across the field on over routes through zones (no tackling by PIT) and run over the top of man. As usual, NE had little success running but had great success with play action and the spread game. Pittsburgh offensively wasn’t much better. Ben started off throwing the ball well, but they were overly stubborn with the run, showed no tempo late in the game, had a lot of drops, ran draws at the goal line, failed to get their playmakers involved, weren’t aggressive on 4th down, and had balls contested at the catch point in man-to-man coverage. The 4th and goal stop was a horrendous play call– a low percentage fade throw over the top from a tight formation that PIT had shown a couple times and NE had covered well.

Overall the main recurring problems for PIT against NE are the defense is way too passive with their zones and large cushions and often looks overwhelmed with NE’s spread tempo and ends up busting coverages. Some might say I’m being unfair because PIT was without Leveon Bell, but you can’t put the whole game on that, since these are issues for PIT that go back years before Bell was around, and more importantly, they’ve played well offensively without Bell plenty of times in the past. In fact, it almost seems like half their team gets suspended for drug use every year and they still find a way to put it together usually.

For Pittsburgh, I wonder if people are ever going to start questioning if coaching is a problem. I’m not saying it definitely is, but even though this is a good team, it just seems like a team that underwhelms to me so often. As I’ve mentioned, they always falter against NE. They also always have a few games a year where they play down to the competition (like their loss on the road to Miami this year). These few games either keep them out of the playoffs entirely or keep them out of homefield advantage. PIT isn’t going anywhere, but for a team with a hall of fame QB and an otherwise solid foundation, they should be making the playoffs every year and making deep playoff runs every few years, and that doesn’t seem to be happening.

For New England, it’s another trip to the Superbowl, and it’s just annoying to sit and watch teams make the same mistakes against them over and over again. They have such a good home field advantage (check out some of these stats at the middle of the page) that with HFA throughout the playoffs they’re basically a lock to at least the AFC Championship if not the Superbowl, and in that division they’re basically a lock for the playoffs. You look at the AFC at the beginning of the year and ask, who can challenge them? PIT is never up to the task. With KC, Andy Reid always seems to choke in the playoffs and struggle with some clock management issue. The Jets had some success against them in the Ryan era, and they play NE well about half the time (and get blown out the other half), but they’re not going to be anywhere near the playoffs for a while. Peyton Manning’s retired, so he’s not stopping anymore Brady runs like he did in 06, 13, and 15. The Ravens and Giants both play NE very well, but half of the time they’re not even making the playoffs. Andrew Luck could be the guy eventually, but his team’s not even good enough to get him to the playoffs, and his coaching staff certainly isn’t good enough to match up with Bill Belichick. Brady will probably be retired by the time his Colts are ready to challenge for the AFC Title. (Although once Brady does retire, he could have multiple rings in his sight. They have to get the team together first though.)

So off New England goes to Houston to play Atlanta for Superbowl LI. For the sake of all of us NFL fans, I ask you, Atlanta, please give us a game that’s worth watching, and don’t hand this thing over to NE.

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