Mike Shanahan knows all about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, whom his Washington Redskins will face this weekend. As head coach of the Denver Broncos, Shanahan pulled the trigger on Cutler in the first round of the 2006 draft and coached him for three seasons.
"We had a natural athlete that I thought did a fantastic job at Vanderbilt," Shanahan said this morning. "He had a lot of pressure all the time on him, yet he sat in the pocket and made the throws he had to make in the SEC to give Vanderbilt a chance to compete. That really stood out to me. Just a very intelligent, very smart guy that worked extremely hard and had all the things that you look for in a quarterback."
Shanahan sat his rookie signal caller until Week 12 of the 2006 campaign, inserting him in place of the ineffective Jake Plummer.
"It was a decision that you make," Shanahan said. "We made that decision because we went to the AFC Championship game the year before and I really felt at that time that was as far as Jake was going to take us. I thought Jay Cutler had the intangibles and the skills to possibly take us to the next level. I thought he was experienced enough to go in that direction. That's why I made the change."
Cutler started the next two years in Denver and blossomed under the tutelage of Shanahan, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2008.
"He played at a Pro Bowl level his first year as a starter, his second year in the NFL," said Shanahan. "I think he had well over 600 throws, and I don't remember exactly what his sack amount was, but I think he had like 11, 12 sacks in all those throws, so he got rid of the ball very quickly and distributed the ball well, and I really liked what I saw."
Shanahan was fired following the 2008 campaign and Cutler was shipped to Chicago. Since then, Cutler has yet to find that same level of success with the Bears as he did his final year with the Broncos … until this season. Under Marc Trestman, Cutler is finally playing at a Pro Bowl level again. Currently, he's setting career highs in completion percentage (65.9) and passer rating (95.2). He's also on pace to throw 32 touchdowns this year, which would easily beat his previous high of 27, set in 2009.
It's been a long time coming for Cutler, who floundered the past four years with inept coordinators, porous offensive lines and mediocre options at the skill positions.
"That's part of building a team around a quarterback," Shanahan said. "It doesn't happen overnight and one of the reasons why you go after a quarterback is you have to have one to give yourself a chance to win, and you try to put a supporting cast around him so he has a chance to be successful."
To that end, Bears GM Phil Emery has reconstructed the offensive line, and used both the draft and free agency to dramatically upgrade the weapons at Cutler's disposal.
"I think you have to have a system that you believe in, and Jay picks up any system very quickly, and a better supporting cast," Shanahan said. "You're trying to get the best supporting cast to give your quarterback a chance to be successful, and that's what I see that they've done to give him a chance to utilize his talents."
Shanahan also drafted Brandon Marshall in the fourth round in 2006, a player for whom he still has immense respect.
"I can tell you that Champ Bailey came to me the first time we practiced with Brandon Marshall — he said, ‘What happened? How did we ever get this guy in the fourth round?'" said Shanahan. "So when you get a Pro Bowl player that realizes the talent of a guy like Brandon Marshall right away, the upside a guy like Brandon brings to a team. One thing about Brandon, he's a fun guy to be around. He's got an infectious personality. He's a difference-maker."
Marshall and Cutler have always had a strong connection both on and off the field, which has resulted in some outstanding production for both players. When asked why the two get along, Shanahan didn't hesitate in his response.
"Because Brandon can catch the ball," he said. "He's very physical. He's going to beat bump coverage. He's going to go up for the ball and make big plays and right from the beginning the, I don't know if it was the second game, he had 18 catches or something against San Diego. Right from that time you knew they were going to have some great chemistry together."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.