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Posted: Monday March 16, 2009 7:11AM; Updated: Monday March 16, 2009 1:57PM
Peter King Peter King >
MONDAY MORNING QB

Cutler's time as Bronco nearing end

Story Highlights

Josh McDaniels and Jay Cutler can't find common ground in meetings

DeMaurice Smith, the new NFLPA exec director, has big task in front of him

L.T.'s future, Lions-Seahawks trade and more thoughts on my new hometown

jay-cutler.jpg
Jay Cutler is 17-20 in two and a half seasons as the Broncos starting quarterback.
Peter Read Miller/SI
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Quite an offseason we're having. The NFLPA elects someone no one outside the District of Columbia Bar Association has ever heard of to succeed the late Gene Upshaw -- and all he has to do is go head-to-head with Roger Goodell on the most important CBA negotiation in a generation. One of the rising star quarterbacks in football, Jay Cutler, moves closer and closer toward divorce court with the Broncos. And LaDainian Tomlinson, who was supposed to get his contract cut to smithereens in his renegotiation deal with the Chargers, actually did quite well. Maybe not well enough to retire a Charger, but close.

I'll tell you a few nuggets about the election of DeMaurice Smith as the new NFLPA head, but this story has been Don Banks' baby on this site all month, so please give him a read this morning. I'm going to lead with the Cutler story, following two chats I had with Denver coach Josh McDaniels late Sunday night. I got the sense he can't believe it's come to this duel at the OK Corral.

"I would probably be really good for Jay, and I know he would be really good for me,'' McDaniels told me over the phone from Denver. "I think that's the part that's shocking to me.''

That it probably will never happen, he means.

It makes no sense. None. When the Broncos report for the start of their offseason program this morning at their plush complex south of town, Cutler will be a no-show. I reported recently that Cutler wanted to be traded after the Broncos lost both Mike Shanahan (fired) and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates (went to USC as offensive coordinator), and that message was delivered to the Denver front office. Now I expect Cutler, through agent Bus Cook, to reiterate his demand ... and what's more, I expect the Broncos to seriously consider it. Owner Pat Bowlen said Sunday night, "we might lose'' Cutler, though he was not specific about how, or why, or when, and Cutler told Chris Mortensen of ESPN he has asked Cook to formally request a trade.

Denver has to tread carefully here. McDaniels told me he is frustrated by Cutler's interpretation of a conference call and then an in-person meeting this weekend, and he still wants to talk with Cutler again face-to-face to see if they can iron out their differences. If McDaniels walks into his first meeting with his players this morning, and they think he's trying to kick Cutler to the curb, they're going to ask, "Why did Bowlen hire this idiot?''

But in the end, Denver will have to strongly consider trading Cutler. If you're a rookie coach, as McDaniels is, and you've got to set the right tone for the team, how can you have a quarterback who doesn't want to be there as your franchise leader? Parting with Cutler would be forcing the Broncos to start over at the game's most important position when they thought they had the position filled for the next decade. But Cutler, who is one of the best quarterback prospects to enter the NFL in years, can be moody, and if he never buys what McDaniels is selling, it could drag the team down.

How we got to this point, in chronological order:

McDaniels said he was not considering trading Cutler until he was contacted "by two teams'' at the Scouting Combine -- presumably Detroit and Tampa. They were pie-in-the-sky inquiries, though, and he didn't consider anything seriously, he said, until the day before the Feb. 27 beginning of free-agency, when he got a serious proposal for Cutler.

"This was a non-issue until Thursday [Feb. 26],'' McDaniels said. "There was obviously a scenario where teams figured we'd be interested in Matt Cassel, because I'd coached him in New England. When someone calls, I'm going to consider it, because that's my job.''

Cutler believes the Broncos were much more interested in trading him and signing Cassel than they've said. I asked McDaniels if he'd been interested in Cassel before the contact by the two teams at the combine, going back to when he knew Cassel might be on the market and available in trade from the Patriots. "No, that's totally untrue,'' he said.

McDaniels did pursue a deal with New England on the first day of free agency, but not intensely, he said, because he and Broncos general manager Brian Xanders were in the middle of doing six free-agent negotiations in the opening two days of free-agency. "I think we were too late to the dance,'' he said, meaning the Chiefs had already made the deal with New England -- a second-round pick for Cassel and linebacker Mike Vrabel. Denver would have given more, likely a first-round pick, but Patriots coach Bill Belichick had his deal done with the Chiefs.

"Do I understand about Jay being hurt that we'd consider this?'' McDaniels said. "Sure. But I can tell you that it wasn't like there was any grand plan by us to trade Jay Cutler. That wasn't the case. But when we've told them [Cutler and Cook], I think it's fallen on deaf ears.''

I texted Cutler and got no response. In his comments to Mortensen earlier, he said his time in Denver "had run its course,'' the rift between him and McDaniels is "not something they want to fix,'' that McDaniels -- in their meeting Saturday -- "made it clear he could still entertain trading me,'' and said the coach "made it clear he wants his own guy.''

I texted McDaniels, and shortly before 1 a.m. Eastern on Monday, he called to react to Cutler's words.

"Oh boy,'' he said, and sighed. "No, no, no. Nothing like that was conveyed.'' And he sighed again.

"I think the hangup is, 'Well, you considered doing it once, would you ever consider it again?' It keeps coming out like I want my own guy. Thinking we want to trade him now is totally opposite what we've been trying to do here ... We've been trying like hell for two weeks to get a face-to-face meeting.''

What frustrates McDaniels is that the two sides met -- he thinks without acrimony -- and then word gets out that there was tension or vindictiveness in the meeting. "It's hard to believe we're sharing the same intentions and can have such different interpretations of the meeting,'' he said. "When we met [Saturday], my point was, 'We all know where this was, and now we all have to try to move forward.' After we met for a while, and went over a lot of the same ground we'd been over, Jay said to me, 'Can I have a few more hours to think?' I said, 'Yeah, give me a call on my cell phone.' He never called. Bus [Cook] called Brian [Xanders], but Jay didn't call me.''

I asked McDaniels if he feels he'll be forced to trade Cutler.

"No,'' he said. "He's got three years left on his contract. We're not at the point where we're going to do it now ... [But] it's probably something we're going to have to talk about. We've been trying to communicate, and I still want to try, but if that's the direction we're headed, we're going to have to talk.''

There's such a gulf in the two versions of events. But it looks like, taking the long view, Cutler will be playing elsewhere unless he and McDaniels sit in a room together for two hours and come out married. That's not likely to happen. Maybe Cutler can't take the dissing he feels from McDaniels, or maybe he's fabricating the dissing to justify in his own mind going somewhere else. I don't know. But I do know this: If I had the choice of Denver, Tampa Bay, Detroit and the Jets, and the Denver coach has worked successfully with Tom Brady and Matt Cassel, I'd be thinking very hard about not burning a bridge that can't be reconstructed.

***

"It's like the Dutch beating the Dominicans,'' one player agent said early this morning.

DeMaurice [pronounced De-Morris, not Dee-mo-REESE) Smith winning the executive director's job at the NFLPA might have been seen as possible in the last 24 hours, but before that? Few in the league knew much of anything about him before the player reps and others watched his overly impressive presentation to them Saturday in Maui, where the union was meeting.

"There was one important thing in this election,'' said one player agent who'd spoken to a couple of reps after the vote. "Change. The winds of change. I really think the union wanted to start fresh, from scratch, without the animosity of the past few weeks.''

That, I'm told, helped Smith, who was glad to push himself to the 32 player reps as the outsider. There was so much infighting between Troy Vincent (who'd likely have installed an entirely new regime) and Trace Armstrong loyalists that Smith didn't have to worry about stepping on toes on either side; he simply avoided the dogfight. Plus, his one-hour presentation to the players on Saturday, I'm told, left them with a vision of how they could get a deal done with the owners in what is shaping up as a contentious CBA process. The current bargaining agreement has two years left, and then the 2011 season would be the year with no football.

I'd heard Vincent planned to drive a hard bargain with the owners, and if he couldn't get a deal, he'd have pushed the players to play in their own league in 2011 and beyond, if necessary. Armstrong was more of an Upshaw man, planning to continue the policies of the current regime. Smith will be open to all ideas -- but I'm also told he won't hesitate to use political or Congressional means to try to move the owners off their position if need be.

Smith didn't take a call from Goodell Sunday night because the election wasn't over until about 11:15 p.m. Eastern time. But they'll speak today. Smith, I'm told, is very tough to intimidate, so I don't expect the Dan Snyders, Bob Krafts and Jerry Joneses will throw much of a scare into him. But he's got a heck of a task in front of him. In this economy, with owners opting out of the current CBA last year, how can he make the pie big enough for everyone?

***

Didn't we all think LaDainian Tomlinson was going to get squashed by the Chargers if he stayed in San Diego? Well, he stayed, and he did just fine. He was supposed to make $6.725 million this year, and he'll make every dime. He was supposed to make $8 million next year, and that's where the Chargers could recoup some dough if Tomlinson continues to decline. His pay was cut to $5 million in 2010, but he'll have three incentives: increments of $1 million if he gains 1,200, 1,300 and 1,400 yards. So if he has a typical LT year at 31 in 2010, he'll still make his $8 million. But the Chargers will be motivated to make their decision on Tomlinson early next year; $2 million of his pay is a roster bonus due in March.

I'm a little surprised San Diego did right by Tomlinson. The Chargers don't know if he's going to struggle again next year, and they've got to find increased carries for young and hungry backs Darren Sproles and Jacob Hester. If Tomlinson plays well and reclaims his spot as one of the league's best backs (how many runners do that at 30?), he'll be a Charger in 2010. If not, he'll probably go elsewhere to continue his chase of Emmitt Smith (see page 2).

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