Before Jay Cutler could broadcast the first game of his television career, the allure of the NFL has already drawn him back to the playing field. The Miami Dolphins signed the veteran signal-caller to a one-year, $10 million deal on Sunday to entice him out of retirement.
Cutler sought out a starting job all offseason following his release from the Chicago Bears, but came up empty as even quarterback-poor teams such as the New York Jets offered only lukewarm interest. When no landing spot materialized, Cutler announced his retirement and signed on with Fox Sports 1 as a game analyst, appearing to close the book on his 11-year playing career.
That changed last week when Dolphins saw their starting quarterback go down with a serious injury. During a training camp practice, Ryan Tannehill reinjured the knee that cost him the final four games of Miami's season including a wild-card round tilt with the Pittsburgh Steelers. While an MRI revealed no additional damage to the ligaments, Tannehill's availability and the decision not to perform surgery on his knee last year have come into question. A definitive answer on his injury remains elusive, but the doubt cast over his health proved strong enough for Miami to contact Cutler about putting his television career on hold.
The decision to sign Cutler came at the expense of other options, especially Colin Kaepernick. The controversial QB offers considerable playoff and Super Bowl experience, as well as a skillset somewhat comparable to the injured Tannehill, but his reverence for the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and his polarizing demonstrations during the national anthem likely made him too radioactive for Miami's fan base. Alternatively, the Dolphins could have stood pat and elevated Matt Moore into the starting job, but the quarterback significantly lowers the ceiling for the offense.
Adding Cutler made the most sense for Miami. He played under Dolphins head coach Adam Gase in Chicago, setting career highs in passer rating (92.3) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (21:11). The experience also provided Cutler with a thorough understanding of the offense he must now pilot. Rather than wait for Kaepernick to learn a new playbook or scheme around Moore's limitations, the team can simply allow Cutler to step in and take the reins immediately.
Still, the tradeoff from Tannehill to Cutler presents complications. At its apex last season, Gase's aerial attack thrived on the deep ball. The Dolphins' success rate in the passing game exceeded the league average to all areas 15 yards or more down the field. Tannehill's accuracy on those throws provided the necessary balance to Jay Ajayi and the running game. Cutler, never a particularly accurate or consistent passer, will struggle to match those numbers.
Similarly, Gase will likely have to scrap elements of the offense predicated on quarterback mobility. Though not often thought of in the same breath as scramblers like Russell Wilson or Tyrod Taylor, Tannehill's regularly operates outside the pocket and averages nearly 5 yards per carry for his career. Gase implemented designed QB runs and run-pass options to take advantage of Tannehill's legs. Cutler, while not a statue in the pocket, never threatened defenses nearly as much as a runner. Cutler's age (34) has further reduced the impact of his legs.
But while Cutler might not replicate every aspect of Tannehill's play, the Dolphins' talented trio of receivers can help mitigate the drop-off. Kenny Stills has developed into one of the league's preeminent big-play receivers, averaging over 17 yards per catch and posting nine touchdowns in 2016. Jarvis Landry has built his career on turning short passes into long gains, finishing first among all AFC wideouts in yards after the catch a year ago. DeVante Parker has just begun to scratch the surface of his potential and could become one of the breakout stars of the upcoming season. Even the triumvirate of Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, and Martellus Bennett that Cutler worked with in Chicago might not match Miami's big three.
However, even if the combination of Gase's coaching and a talented playmakers on offense help Cutler overcome his flaws this season, the Dolphins ultimately remain in limbo. The franchise, which tied its future to Tannehill two years ago, has yet to decipher whether the 29-year-old signal-caller can carry a team deep into the playoffs and win a Super Bowl. Another lost year for him -- Cutler's signing heavily suggests Tannehill will undergo season-ending knee surgery -- means another year without an answer for Miami. The potential loss of athleticism for Tannehill only complicates the matter further. Until he firmly establishes himself as either a true field-tilter or merely the bridge to the next potential franchise quarterback, the Dolphins will continue to tread water.