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IT IS UNAVOIDABLE, almost suffocating, but it is one of the realities of playing quarterback for the Denver Broncos: being compared with John Elway for as long as you have the job. Though he retired eight years ago after leading the team to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs, Elway is still very much a presence in Denver—as the former baron of an auto dealership chain, co-owner and CEO of the Arena league's Colorado Crush, and co-owner of the hottest steak house in town (Elway's, of course). But second-year pro Jay Cutler, who has great respect for Elway's lifetime achievements, isn't trying to make people forget the most famous athlete in Colorado. "I'm not John Elway," says Cutler, who became the starting passer with five games remaining in his rookie year, "and I'm not going to be the next John Elway."
If he becomes even a reasonable facsimile of old number 7—and remember, Elway wasn't Bradyesque in his first few seasons—Cutler will have been well worth the 11th overall pick Denver spent on him in the 2006 draft. The next stage in the development of the mop-topped Cutler begins on Sunday in Buffalo, when he leads the Broncos against the defensively challenged Bills. A strong start would seem imperative considering the need for an improved passing game in 2007 and the four opponents following the opener. In '06, with Jake Plummer starting the first 11 games before Cutler was sent in, the team's aerial attack ranked 25th in the league, and its 2,799 passing yards were the fewest of coach Mike Shanahan's 12 seasons in Denver. After playing Buffalo, the Broncos face three of last year's top 10 defenses (the Raiders, Jaguars and Chargers, all at home) with a road game against the defending champion Colts mixed in. For Denver to be a playoff team in the top-heavy AFC, Cutler will have to be more consistent and productive than the departed Plummer, who got the team past the wild-card playoff round only once in four seasons.
Socially, Cutler is nothing like Elway, who tends to be the life of the party. Broncos beat writers find Cutler somewhat aloof, and he is noticeably reserved, preferring to prove himself as a player before exerting his influence on and off the field. Otherwise, there are numerous parallels between the two at similar points in their careers.
At 6' 3", both were standout baseball players in high school in addition to being blue-chip quarterbacks, both set every major passing record at universities more acclaimed for academics than football (Elway at Stanford, Cutler at Vanderbilt), both were mainly pocket passers who were first-round draft picks, both brought reputations for unflinching toughness into the NFL, and both began their second seasons as 24-year-old starters in Denver.
OVER THE off-season Shanahan and assistant head coach Mike Heimerdinger set out to add to that list of similarities by improving Cutler's mobility. In Shanahan's offense, as Elway proved, a quarterback has to be able to make plays on the run. "We even looked at tape of John," says Heimerdinger. "I wanted Jay to see his feet, and how John moved, and how he still made plays sliding in the pocket or running out of the pocket."
In his first start last season, Week 13 against the Seahawks, Cutler faced a heavy rush midway through the second quarter. He spun out of a potential sack and tried to throw downfield while still being jostled; the ball flew out of his grasp and into the arms of defensive end Darryl Tapp, who returned it 25 yards for a touchdown. Denver lost by three. On the sideline Shanahan immediately accepted blame, telling Cutler that he called a stupid play—but Cutler was just as culpable for taking such a stupid chance.
Fast-forward to this summer's training camp. In one practice, a limited-contact, 11-on-11 passing drill, Cutler took the snap on third-and-three and immediately felt pressure coming from his right side. His tight end was covered. Cutler wanted to dump the ball to either of his running backs, but they had been jammed at the line and were not open. So he took off, side-stepping the first pass rusher and sprinting right to avoid another one, before spotting wideout Domenik Hixon deep down the right side, a stride ahead of All-Pro cornerback Champ Bailey. On the run, Cutler let it fly. The ball traveled 62 yards, dropped beyond Bailey and landed in Hixon's arms. Touchdown.
"The great player makes that play," an enthusiastic Shanahan said later that day. "That's what drives defensive coordinators crazy."
Says Cutler, "What my coaches have trained me to do is, if my first, second and third reads aren't perfect, I've still got to make a play—and in our offense, I should be able to." He is convinced that having been a four-year starter for undermanned Vanderbilt, traditionally one of the worst teams in the powerful Southeastern Conference, is a huge reason why he's an NFL quarterback today. The Commodores won two, two, two and five games in Cutler's four seasons. "Every week we played teams with better talent,'' he says. "We'd have to grind through every single game and survive all kinds of breakdowns. That's life in the NFL—plays are never perfect."
Cutler's determination in the face of regular failure was part of the reason the Broncos traded up four slots in the draft to select him.