In this week's "Six Points," Mort and Adam look at Jay Cutler's profound effect on coaches, why Johnny Football is getting the ball, the Watt-Dalton rivalry, a QB reunion in Indy, and much more.
Jay Cutler's play could cause a coaching change
"Cutler's Law" could be an NFL math conundrum. The player most likely to get a coach fired by playing erratically is the one most likely to get a coach hired by playing consistently well.
During ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, before the Bears routed the Rams, Mike Ditka said Jay Cutler is playing the best football of his career. Cutler then went out and threw for 258 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in Chicago's upset win at St. Louis. Cutler never has had a better TD-to-INT ratio or Total QBR during his 10-year NFL career than he does today. Never.
On Sunday, he'll face the Broncos organization that traded him away; Denver, of course, is dealing with its own new set of quarterback issues. The Denver-Chicago matchup has more storylines than any game this week. But most now revolve around Cutler, just as they usually do.
This season has not gone the way many around the league expected, especially considering the events of last offseason. Chicago, with a new general manager in Ryan Pace and a new coach in John Fox, wanted to unload Cutler in the worst way in the offseason. If they could have found another team to take Cutler, they would have traded him quicker than the Bears fired Marc Trestman at the end of last season. But there just wasn't any interest.
While certain teams wanted Sam Bradford and others wanted Nick Foles -- the Bears even brought Jameis Winston to town for a visit -- nobody wanted Cutler. Fast-forward to today, and Cutler has turned in the strongest performance of any quarterback who was available in the offseason.
After starting the season 0-3 and trading away Jared Allen and Jon Bostic, Cutler has led the Bears to a 4-2 record in their past six games. During that time, he has completed 65 percent of his passes, thrown 11 touchdowns and three interceptions and given Chicago hope that maybe it can make a second-half playoff surge, starting Sunday against Cutler's former team. The Bears are 4-5, and trending up.
As good as Cutler's play has been, it is impacting the Bears in unintended ways as well. For one, the Bears no longer are likely to lose enough games to position themselves for the top quarterbacks in the 2016 draft. Plus, Cutler has been so good that it is shining a light on the job that Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase has done.
Now, when the mass of head-coaching firings occur at or shortly after the end of this season, Gase will be one of the most sought-after candidates. Cutler's play this season has made it more difficult for Chicago to keep Gase next season. The flip side is, Chicago might have found its quarterback of the future after trying hard to unload him. -- AS
Why Johnny is starting
When the Cleveland Browns named Johnny Manziel as the starting quarterback for what is believed to be the remainder of the 2015 season, it was a necessary step that was discussed thoroughly during a "state of the franchise" meeting the team quietly conducted on Nov. 8, a few days after their Thursday night game against Cincinnati.
A couple of things remained clear -- the Browns aren't playoff-bound and they don't know whether Manziel is a starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL.
The Browns could have waited until December to move Manziel into the starting role, but starter Josh McCown is beat up and Manziel played reasonably well in his start against the Steelers, throwing for 372 yards. (He also threw an interception, lost a fumble and was sacked six times.)
It also was not a coincidence that while the Browns named Manziel the starter, the NFL announced that it did not have sufficient information to discipline the quarterback for an incident with his girlfriend that caused headlines. The team could not have moved forward with Manziel unless he was cleared by the league. In the meantime, Manziel carries the burden of scrutiny, the obligations of mandated counseling and continued support for his substance abuse problems that placed him in rehab for 10 weeks in the offseason. -- CM
The history of Watt and Dalton
J.J. Watt walked off the field Monday night victorious, and not for the first time against Andy Dalton and the Bengals. Nevertheless, one has to always wonder whether Watt's postgame "Red Ryder BB Gun" tweak at Dalton was rooted in the pain that Dalton once inflicted upon him on New Year's Day in Pasadena, California.
That was a very competitive 2011 Rose Bowl game in which Dalton led TCU to a 13-0 season with a 21-19 win over Watt's Wisconsin Badgers. TCU was a member of the Mountain West Conference at the time and was the first school from a non-automatic qualifying conference to play in the Rose Bowl. Ultimately, it was a game that helped TCU move into the Big 12.
Watt and Dalton both were playing in their final collegiate game before the 2011 NFL draft, where Watt was selected in the first round and Dalton in the second. Watt clearly was pained that his last game as an amateur would be a hard-fought defeat. He gave a tearful postgame assessment, saying, "We work 365 days for this, and then we come out here and don't execute."
One of those plays that was not executed came on a 4-yard touchdown run by Dalton. The Horned Frogs lined up in a pistol formation and left Watt unblocked as Dalton meshed with his running back, who was aligned directly behind him. Watt froze as he instinctively took a step toward the back, only to realize that Dalton had read the option perfectly, kept the ball, and run around the defensive end for the score and a 14-10 lead.
Watt has extracted some revenge for that Rose Bowl loss. Following Monday night's 10-6 win that pinned the first defeat of the season on the Bengals (8-1), the Texans are now 4-0 against Cincinnati with Dalton as quarterback. That includes two playoff wins for the Texans.
After the Monday night win, Watt trotted out a fairly benign poke at Dalton during the postgame interview: "Our goal was to come out here and make the Red Rifle look like the Red Ryder BB Gun and I think we did that." A little corny? Sure. But no harm, no foul. Or so one would think. Dalton took offense. He said he was disappointed. He questioned Watt's integrity. He cited what a poor example those comments were for kids.
In fact, Dalton's response was so thick that more than one NFL observer said the postgame reaction revealed much more about Dalton than it did Watt -- in a negative way. Said one GM: "It would make me worry if I was the Bengals. Just when you thought [Dalton's] skin had thickened, he maybe showed us he's not prepared for the pressure games in January."
It's a long way from Jan. 1, 2011, when Dalton had the last laugh on Watt in the Rose Bowl. Glory days, they'll pass you by. Bruce Springsteen wrote it, sang it and now Dalton is back to living it until he proves differently. -- CM
Colts turning back the clock at QB
Indianapolis 2015 has turned into Seattle 2010, minus some Starbucks.
Back in 2010, Matt Hasselbeck was the quarterback of a Seattle Seahawks team that won just seven games yet still made the playoffs. His backup that year was Charlie Whitehurst. Now, five years later, Hasselbeck is the quarterback of a Colts team that currently leads its division with a sub-.500 record. And Hasselbeck's new backup, claimed off waivers last week from the Tennessee Titans, is none other than Whitehurst.
With Andrew Luck sidelined for at least a month with a lacerated kidney, it is now up to Seattle's former quarterback combination to hold down the fort and lead this team to a division title.
From the moment Luck was diagnosed with a kidney injury, Indianapolis knew it wanted an experienced backup for Hasselbeck. Colts offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski reached out to his former quarterback in Cleveland, Jason Campbell, but Campbell was more interested in a return to the NFL next season, not this one.
About the time Campbell was rebuffing the Colts, the Titans -- with Marcus Mariota and Zach Mettenberger on their roster and without the desire to carry another quarterback -- released their No. 3 quarterback, Whitehurst, whom former Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt liked.
One AFC South executive expressed displeasure and dismay that Tennessee would allow an experienced veteran backup to be released at the exact moment the Colts were looking for one. And, on cue, Indianapolis claimed Whitehurst, just as many suspected and some in the division feared.
It's not that Whitehurst has been so stellar, but as one AFC South source texted, "Would rather have them turn to a guy that has never played before."
Now Hasselbeck and Whitehurst are charged with carrying the Colts to the playoffs, just as they were charged with getting the Seahawks to the playoffs five seasons ago. -- AS
Dolphins' under-the-radar superstar
There might not be a defender across the league who makes more plays and gets less attention. Jones has worked in relatively anonymity and put up numbers that compare favorably with almost anyone's.
Hard to imagine, but who would have thought this: In his first 81 NFL games, future Hall of Fame safety Troy Polamalu registered 402 tackles, 13 interceptions, two touchdowns and seven sacks.
Through the same first 81 NFL games of his career, Jones has registered 450 tackles, 13 interceptions, three touchdowns and 8.5 sacks.
So at the exact same stage of their careers, Jones has outproduced Polamalu, who is considered one of the finest players in Steelers' franchise history. Who knew?
After watching him for the first six seasons of his NFL career, Miami has had a pretty good idea of how good and valuable the 27-year-old Jones is. It already is paying him an average of $7 million per season, making him one of highest-paid safeties in the game -- a great return on the 2010 fifth-round pick from Georgia, where he was college teammates with Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston (how did that team not win a national championship?).
But Jones has been making game-changing plays like the one he had last Sunday in Philadelphia, and hopes to keep making them starting Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys. -- AS
President Hasselbeck vs. CEO Ryan
Matt Hasselbeck and Matt Ryan are both Boston College alums as well as opposing quarterbacks on Sunday in Atlanta. There are some interesting comparisons and contrasts between Hasselbeck and Ryan.
Hasselbeck was once described by former Boston College head coach Dan Henning as someone he could envision running for president one day. Not class president. The president of the United States.
Ryan himself has been portrayed as the classic CEO of a franchise. Not without irony, an NFL quarterback makes far more money than a U.S. president, just as a sixth-round pick like Hasselbeck made a lot less than a first-round pick like Ryan. Hasselbeck made $369,500 in his rookie year (1998) with the Packers. Ryan made $34.7 million in guaranteed money when he signed his rookie deal in 2008.
Nobody is counting the dollars Sunday. Only the win. -- CM