Cutler deal was beginning of end for Denver

Denver has won just 12 games since trading quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago in 2009. Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US Presswire

Jay Cutler became a Denver Bronco months after the team advanced to the AFC Championship Game.

When the Broncos traded up to take Cutler with the No. 11 pick of the 2006 draft, they probably would have been thrilled to know the quarterback would lead his team to a home championship game appearance in his fifth NFL season.

Unfortunately for Denver, Cutler is now a member of the Chicago Bears. The Broncos traded Cutler in April 2009, and they are still looking for their first playoff berth since they drafted him.

“This is the type of move that can adversely affect a franchise for five years,” Scouts Inc.'s Gary Horton said. “There is no question. The Broncos are in much worse shape today than they were the day before they made this trade.”

This week gives Denver a painful reminder of how far the organization has fallen in the two years since Josh McDaniels replaced Mike Shanahan as head coach. Shanahan left a good offense, but Denver’s defense needed to be retooled. The job appeared to be an attractive one. The 8-8 Broncos were headlined by a 25-year-old quarterback who was coming off a Pro Bowl berth is in his second full season as a starter.

One of the primary reasons McDaniels was hired at age 32 to replace Shanahan was his ability to work with Cutler. Instead, the entire franchise was changed after McDaniels tried to acquire former Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, who was instead traded to Kansas City. McDaniels and Cutler then feuded. Cutler was shipped out.

While Cutler is preparing to face Green Bay in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday, McDaniels is beginning a stint as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis. He is trying to rehabilitate his once seemingly boundless coaching career after a disastrous 28-game run in Denver. Among McDaniels’ biggest missteps in Denver were poor personnel decisions, beginning with the Cutler trade.

While the Bears are exactly where they hoped they’d be after the trade, Denver is trying to erase the McDaniels mistake. The team is now beginning the John Fox era with another young quarterback, Tim Tebow.

“Chicago got the big prize here,” Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. “The way this trade worked out for both Chicago and Denver is proof why teams don’t trade young, franchise quarterbacks. It’s just not something you do.”

What bothers Williamson and Horton most about the trade is what Denver did with the picks it got in the Cutler deal.

“The Broncos got value,” Williamson said, "but they squandered the picks.”

Because Denver made so many draft picks, it’s difficult to break down exactly what it received for Cutler. Denver originally sent Cutler and a fifth-round pick in 2009 (which turned out to be productive Bears receiver Johnny Knox) for quarterback Kyle Orton, first-round picks in 2009 and 2010 and a third-round pick in 2009.

Denver took defensive end/linebacker Robert Ayers with the 2009 first-round pick (No. 18). Ayers has shown some ability, but not as much as Denver hoped. It packaged the Bears’ 2009 third-round pick and its own third-round pick in a deal with Pittsburgh for the final pick of the second round and a fourth-round pick. Denver took tight end Richard Quinn in the second round and guard Seth Olsen with the fourth-round pick. Neither has made an impact. Pittsburgh took standout receiver Mike Wallace with the pick from Chicago.

Denver had the No. 11 pick in 2010 from the Bears. The pick was flipped several times and Denver packaged the compensation with other picks that resulted in the selections of receiver Demaryius Thomas, Tebow and receiver Eric Decker. All could have promising futures. The players selected by other teams as part of the 2010 trade were San Francisco first-round pick Anthony Davis, Philadelphia first-round pick Brandon Graham and New England fourth-round pick Aaron Hernandez.

Tangibly, it is safe to say Denver received Orton, Ayers, Quinn, Olsen and some of the trading power to help fuel the early 2010 selections.

Orton played well for Denver, but he could be traded if Denver gives Tebow the opportunity to start in 2011, which is expected. Ayers will have a chance to play defensive end with Fox’s defense likely going to a 4-3 scheme, but he still doesn’t look like a foundation player. It has to eat at Denver fans that the Broncos passed on linebacker Clay Matthews in favor of Ayers. Matthews is a star for Green Bay.

"Denver could have gotten so much more,” Horton said. “You saw Chicago get Knox and Pittsburgh get Wallace in this deal, and you just have to think the Broncos wasted a great opportunity here.

“The Broncos have to hope Tebow is a hit or this franchise will [be] set back for years. You look at Cutler, Brandon Marshall [traded to Miami], Peyton Hillis [traded to Cleveland], Mike Wallace and look at all the missed chances. This could be a very good team. But it’s starting over all because of this [Cutler] trade.”

Chicago is one game away from the Super Bowl.

“It’s not difficult to argue who won this trade,” Williamson said. “It wasn’t the Broncos.”