Playing quarterback in the NFL is a wonderful opportunity, provided your team is playing well. When the losses mount and the passer struggles, the huddle can be the loneliest place on the field. Mark Schofield looks at two signal-callers – Jay Cutler and Robert Griffin – who face uncertain futures with their teams and in their huddles.
Much like any other business venture, professional football is a results-oriented industry. Workers that cannot deliver for their organizations are quickly replaced with individuals who can. Perhaps no other position illustrates this point better than the quarterback. As the draft approaches, two of the game’s signal-callers face uncertain prospects over their place on their current team.
No One Even Placed A Bid On The Football
At a charity event in Chicago held on March 26, the Anti-Cruelty Society, a Chicago-based organization dedicated to animal welfare, held an auction to raise money for their group. One of the items up for bidding was a signed Jay Cutler football.
This article of memorabilia failed to receive a single bid, and was only sold after the event to an anonymous donor for $100. While this incident received some media attention it is emblematic of the larger problems surrounding Cutler.
The quarterback signed a seven-year contract extension with the Bears in early 2013 worth $126.7 million, with $38 million of that deal guaranteed on the third day of the 2014 league year. For the upcoming season, his $15,500,000 yearly salary is fully guaranteed.
What has Chicago – and Cutler – done since signing that contract extension? The Bears are 10-16 in games in which he started at quarterback, and while he has thrown 47 touchdown passes over that time, he has also given 30 interceptions to the opposition. Cutler also fumbled the football 17 times over that period, losing nine to the other team.
Perhaps no stretch exemplified Cutler’s 2014 season more than two drives against New England. Following a strip-sack by Dont’a Hightower that was returned for a touchdown by Rob Ninkovich, Cutler threw an interception only three plays into the next offensive possession:
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Matters reached a head in December. NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport reported during a Sunday pre-game show that Chicago had a “serious case of buyer’s remorse” over Cutler’s contract. Further, the reporter indicated that some within the organization thought Cutler’s failures in reading defenses were in large part the reason for the team’s struggles.
It came out later that the source for these comments was none other than Cutler’s offensive coordinator, Aaron Kromer. The coach later offered a tearful apology for his comments to Cutler, but the damage was done. Later in the month, head coach Marc Trestman benched Cutler for a December 21 game against Detroit in favor of Jimmy Clausen.
After the season, Trestman was fired, as was Kromer. At the NFL Winter Meetings, incoming head coach John Fox indicated that there will be an “open competition” at the quarterback position between Cutler and Clausen. But questions about Cutler linger. Veteran kicker Jay Feely, signed by Chicago late in 2014, questioned the quarterback’s ability as a leader during an interview with Mad Dog Sports Radio. When asked if the quarterback was the answer for Chicago at that position, he responded:
Not as a leader, no. That’s not who he is. You’re going to have a vacuum there. So you have to know that as a general manager or a head coach, ‘Hey, we’re not going to have that leadership from this position, so we’ve really got to have other guys that are going to step up and are going to be our verbal leaders.
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The Team Didn’t Even List Him
In an off-season letter to members of the team’s Premium Club fan organization, Washington executives stated that “Head Coach Jay Gruden, new General Manager Scot McCloughan, and Defensive Coordinator Joe Barry will lead a nucleus of Ryan Kerrigan, DeSean Jackson, plus Pro Bowlers Trent Williams and Alfred Morris. The [Washington Football Club] are poised to rebound next season!”
One wonders if Robert Griffin III is a Premium Club member.
In the 2012 NFL Draft, Washington traded with the St. Louis Rams, moving up from the sixth selection to the second. They club handed the Rams first-round picks in 2012, 2013 and 2014, as well as a 2012 second-round pick.
The move seemed to pay off during Griffin’s rookie season. After Washington started 3-6, they won their final seven games to claim the NFC East title. But in an early-December victory over the Ravens, Griffin sustained a sprained MCL on a hit from Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata. The quarterback missed the next game, in which backup Kirk Cousins led the team to a victory over Cleveland, and returned for the final two regular season games, wins over Philadelphia and Dallas.
But in Washington’s Wild Card game, the quarterback struggled against Seattle – on the poor FedEx Field sod– and on a play late in the first quarter, his knee buckled on the grass and he tore his ACL.
Griffin had surgery on January 9, 2013 to repair the ACL and LCL in his right knee, and speculation immediately began over when he would return to game action. Adidas ran a big marketing campaign in the run up to the 2013 season featuring Griffin with the slogan “All in for Week 1.” Despite not seeing any live action in the preseason, he started Washington’s season opener against Philadelphia. Griffin played in the team’s first 13 games of 2013 but, with Washington sitting at 3-10 heading into Week 15, then-head coach Mike Shanahan shut down the quarterback for the rest of the year.
Expectations were high in Washington as the next season approached. With a full offseason to train, and not just rehabilitate, Griffin seemed poised to rebound from a tough 2013 campaign. New head coach Gruden, formerly the Offensive Coordinator with Cincinnati, and Jackson were the club’s biggest offseason acquisitions and looked to boost the team’s offensive prospects.
The former Heisman winner dislocated his left ankle in the team’s Week 2 victory over Jacksonville. During his absence, an ineffective Cousins lost his job to third-stringer Colt McCoy. Griffin returned to action in Week 9 and, fared well against the Vikings, but struggled in the next two losses to Tampa Bay and San Francisco. He was benched for the team’s Week 13 loss to the Colts, but returned to action the following week when McCoy suffered a neck injury. Griffin then started the team’s final three games, leading them to one win (over the Eagles), but threw only two touchdowns against three interceptions over that time.
So far this offseason, the club has not only sent out the above letter that ignores Griffin, but also scheduled a private workout with Heisman-winner Marcus Mariota.
The Loneliest Place On The Field
The offensive huddle is a rather strange environment. Only the quarterback is to speak, with the eyes of the ten other guys fixed on his. But when things are not going well, when the team is struggling, or, more likely, when the quarterback is struggling, that huddle can be a very lonely place. I’ve been there. The questioning looks. The guys staring back at me, the disappointment and despair behind their eyes. The doubt in the next play call. The doubt in me.
Questions swirled around Cutler and Griffin throughout 2013. Cutler was criticized by a coach. Reports of locker room feuds and finger-pointing surrounded the team down the stretch. Griffin’s return to action was questioned by some in his locker room, including allegations that the quarterback had alienated his team, prompting Jackson to come to his defense in the media.
But words are not enough. At some point each player will need to deliver on the potential and promise – as well as the contracts and pre-draft deals – they represent. Otherwise those doubtful eyes will remain transfixed on them each time they enter the huddle.
Returning to Feely’s radio interview for a moment:
Here’s my thing with quarterbacks in general. You are the person that every guy in that locker room looks to. When there’s a problem, they look to the quarterback. They want the quarterback to lead. When you have a quarterback who doesn’t like to lead, it leaves a hole in the team. When a quarterback is not a leader, there’s always going to be a vacuum there.
Jay Cutler can win on the field, but he would be so much better and the team would be so much better if you’re a leader off the field as well. And I never saw him lead verbally. If he doesn’t want to do that, he doesn’t want to be that person, it’s not in his DNA, then you’re always going to have a vacuum there that somebody else needs to step into and fill.
With OTAs and other offseason programs looming for Chicago and Washington, both Cutler and Griffin face an uncertain future. Each player needs to grab control of his team and lead them into the next season. Otherwise they might go from being the loneliest person in the huddle, to the loneliest person out of a job.
Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.
Mark Schofield knows play action, the free release, spectacular plays and how to throw on Cover 2, Cover 3 and Cover 6.
All video and images courtesy the NFL and NFL Game Rewind.