"Jay thinks he's just good, but he's better than good," says Shanahan. "As time goes on, I think he'll be great. You know why? He's not afraid to stand in there and make plays and throw it downfield. Some quarterbacks want to dump it all the time rather than look downfield, because the pressure of the game is so great or because they want to protect their quarterback rating. The guys who have confidence, who really believe in themselves, want to be Elway. You can teach a guy to dump the ball off. You can't teach a Vanderbilt guy to be the [offensive] MVP of the SEC, which Jay was. He's got to have something inside him to accomplish that."
The harder part of Cutler's adjustment from Commodore to Bronco has come off the field, in dealing with life under the microscope in a major market, and with higher expectations from the fans and the media. He's a small-town Indiana native—from a subdivision called Christmas Village in the town of Santa Claus (pop. 2,041)—who played college football in a city, Nashville, where the Tennessee Volunteers, the NFL's Titans and the NHL's Predators command more of the media's attention than Vanderbilt. That was fine with Cutler. When Vandy quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser visited Cutler in Denver during a minicamp, they went to a Colorado Rockies game one night. "Everyone's whispering, pointing, like, There he is," Kiser says of the attention paid to Cutler. "No question he's uncomfortable with that. He comes back to Nashville when he's got some time off, I think just because he can be normal here."
SOMETIMES WE forget what an arduous process it is to build a great NFL quarterback. Take Elway, for instance. After 10 seasons in Denver he had won three AFC championships, but he hadn't delivered a Super Bowl victory, hadn't had a 60% passing season and had thrown only one more career touchdown than he had interceptions. Four seasons later Elway's playoff record had dropped to 7--7, and Shanahan says, "A lot of our fans wanted to run him out of town." Then Elway led the Broncos to the two Super Bowl wins in his 15th and 16th years in the league. Now he's the Mickey Mantle of the Rockies.
Cutler certainly won't have that long. The pressure will become intense if it takes him even four years to win his first playoff game, which is how long it took Elway. The team has already gone through Brian Griese and Plummer in its bid to get back to the NFL's championship game, but the quarterback hot seat isn't unique to Denver. Leaguewide, passers are routinely getting five years or fewer to prove they have what it takes to lead a franchise into title contention before being dumped (see: David Carr, Joey Harrington and Patrick Ramsey from the 2002 draft; Byron Leftwich from '03, etc.).
Not wanting to add to the pressure on his predecessors, Elway does his best to keep his name out of the media when it comes to the Broncos (last week he didn't return three calls from SI asking for comment on this story) and tries to stay out of camera view when he's in an Invesco Field suite for home games. But Elway did have lunch with Cutler, Heimerdinger and Shanahan before training camp. At Elway's, of course. The Broncos wanted Cutler to hear from the master how to handle everything from fans in public (Elway: "If you want peace and quiet, don't go out") to the media to becoming a great quarterback. "Lots of guys can play quarterback in the NFL on first and second downs," Elway told Cutler, "but you get paid for converting third downs."
Cutler eagerly listened to and digested each lesson. He's smart enough to know there's no escaping the shadow of number 7.