Passing on Cutler the Right Move

When Kellen Clemens and Brett Ratliff learned that the Broncos had traded the face of their franchise, quarterback Jay Cutler, to the Bears, both Jets quarterbacks must have taken a huge sigh of relief. At this point last season, Clemens was thrust into a open quarterback competition with Chad Pennington but the opportunity to become a full-time starter ended on the eve of the Jets’ preseason opener. General manager Mike Tannenbaum pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade with the Packers for Brett Favre and Clemens was once again handed the clipboard. Clemens had only eight starts under his belt (2-6 record) and had tossed twice as many interceptions (ten) as touchdowns (five), yet he had still shown flashes that he could lead the team’s sputtering offense.

Tannenbaum could have easily closed the door on Clemens’ future with the Jets had he been able to orchestrate his second blockbuster trade for a star quarterback in as many years, but the Bears beat him to the punch. The Jets could still draft a young quarterback in April’s NFL draft (Josh Freeman?) or sign an underacheiving veteran (Byron Leftwich? JP Losman?) but the road appears open for Clemens and Ratliff to take over as the starter. While a deal for Cutler would have landed the Jets a franchise quarterback and possibly the strongest arm in the league, sometimes the best deals are those you don’t make.

There is no doubt that Cutler is more talented than Clemens and Ratliff, but there’s more to being a quarterback than just throwing touchdown passes. Quarterbacks are supposed to be leaders in the locker room and Cutler’s recent antics with the Broncos portrayed him as a whiny diva. Several Jets took offense to Cutler’s repeated trash talking in a 34-17 loss to the Broncos last November and bringing that fiery attitude into the locker room could have been trouble from the start.

“A lot of guys don’t like that,” cornerback Darrelle Revis said yesterday of Cutler’s trash talking. “If he would come here, I think [teammates] would question him a lot about that.”

Cutler didn’t exactly receive a ringing endorsement within the Jets’ locker room, as most players, including wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery, sounded eager about giving Clemens and Ratliff a chance to start.

“I have a bunch of confidence in those guys. I’ve been watching them work since they have been here. Those guys have been preparing like starters. Definitely, playing behind Brett [Favre] you know you are not going to get a chance to play at all,” Cotchery said. “[Favre] played I don’t know how many consecutive games, but those guys still prepared like they had a chance to play and you can respect that.”

Cutler would certainly make some friends at Florham Park, N.J. after tossing towndown passes and leading the Jets to victories, but his me-first attitude would grow old after losses. Quarterbacks have to become leaders, especially in New York, where the spotlight would be centered on Cutler every week.

While Cutler is still just 25 years old and has both a 4,000 yard passing season and a Pro-Bowl appearance on his resume, the Broncos’ asking price was enormous. The Broncos cannot be blamed for asking the moon for a franchise quarterback who has yet to reach his prime, but bringing aboard Cutler’s whiny attitude was too much of a risk. The Bears shipped their first (18th overall) and third round picks in this year’s draft, their first round pick in next year’s draft, plus quarterback Kyle Orton. The Jets could have surrendered their 2009 first round pick (17th overall) but there were rumblings that Denver also asked for cornerback Darrelle Revis or linebacker David Harris. Quarterbacks with Cutler’s abilities come around very sparingly, but defense helps win championships. Head coach Rex Ryan envisioned building a dominant, ball-hawking defense from the moment he accepted the job in January and dealing either Revis or Harris would have set the Jets back. Revis has already developed into one of the league’s true shutdown corners, which are almost as difficult to find as a polished quarterback.

Cutler could very well lead the Bears to the playoffs in the weak NFC North next season, but would it deal a black eye on Tannenbaum’s regime? It will likely depend on the play at the quarterback position next year for the Jets. Clemens could prove to be a capable starter or the same signal-caller who was fairly inaccurate during his opening audition in 2007. Ratliff could prove that his strong preseason last year was a true portrayal of his abilities, or he could show that his league-leading passer rating (122.5) was simply a matter of feasting on second-string defenses. Either way, it’s time to find out.

The Jets may still target Freeman at 17th overall in April’s draft, but it’s now important to keep an eye on the Broncos, who hold both the and 12th and 18th overall picks. The Broncos obviously would not have been in play for a quarterback had they kept Cutler, but with Orton and Chris Simms on their depth chart, their plans have likely changed. With the extra draft picks acquired, they could jump the Jets and trade up for either Southern California’s Mark Sanchez or Freeman.

Clemens and Ratliff will likely keep an eye on the proceedings, but barring a late surprise, they remain the Jets’ top options. Surely all good things come to those who wait.

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