Miami Dolphins/NFL Professional

Dolphins Sign Cutler, Keep Future Flexibility At Quarterback

When Ryan Tannehill’s injured left knee gave way and he tumbled to the ground during practice this past week, the Miami Dolphins had a lot of tough decisions to make.

In the short-term, it had to be determined what would be the course of medical action taken to repair Tannehill’s knee. The 29-year-old, six-year veteran opted not to have surgery to repair the ACL and MCL ligaments in his knee after it was originally injured this past December – instead choosing to receive stem-cell treatment and other no-invasive means of repair.

Obviously, that didn’t turn out so well.

Though the team hasn’t officially confirmed whether or not Tannehill will have what is expected to be season-ending knee surgery, the team’s next order of business was to figure out if it wanted to roll into the 2017-18 season with Matt Moore as its starting quarterback.

Moore has spent the past six seasons as Miami’s backup and has accumulated 28 starts in his 10-year career. While Moore has proved to be a solid, if not, good backup – like most reserve quarterbacks he has a ceiling on his potential and is best suited to contribute in spots not as a long-term solution.

Because Moore, who helped the Dolphins win two of its final three regular season games after Tannehill went down in 2016, wasn’t going to cut the proverbial mustard, Miami head coach Adam Gase and Dolphins brass had to decide who they’d bring in to take the reins of the offense prior to the team’s September 10th season opener.

The “Colin Kaepernick narrative” continued. But the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback turned NFL pariah was never really on the Dolphins’ radar.

Gase and the Fins made multiple overtures to freshly retired and almost-Fox NFL analyst Jay Cutler – ultimately wearing him down and persuading him to come back to the gridiron.

Miami agreed to a 1-year, $10-million deal with Cutler Sunday. The deal also includes $3 million in incentives if Cutler hits certain agreed upon thresholds.

After spending the first three years of his career with the Denver Broncos, Cutler was traded to Chicago before the 2009 season and served as the No. 1 quarterback in the Windy City for eight seasons – including a 2010 trip to the NFC championship game.

Cutler only played in five games for the Bears this past season – sustaining thumb and shoulder injuries that limited him and probably led to his retirement announcement after his 11th season in the NFL.

Gase was adamant on bringing in Cutler because of their familiarity with one another. Prior to becoming the Dolphins head coach in 2016, Gase was the Bears’ offensive coordinator in 2015 – where he coached Cutler and helped the Vanderbilt grad achieve a career-high in passer rating and have arguably one of his best seasons as a pro.

Because Cutler probably still has a decent level of fluency in understanding and running Gase’s offensive system, his learning curve wouldn’t be nearly as steep as, say Kaepernick’s would.

The Dolphins won 10 games and were a playoff team this past season. The franchise feels confident in Gase as a coach and a lot of NFL pundits believe that Miami is the greatest threat to the New England Patriots within the AFC East division. So signing Cutler denotes a “swing for the fences” – with the team going after a quarterback with more NFL cache.

However, Miami’s latest move also has long-term implications.

Bringing in a quarterback like Cutler almost certainly means that Tannehill will miss the entire 2017-18 season. There’s no reason to think that Cutler would put his cushiony broadcast career on hold to be an 8 or 10 game “place holder”. The team had to have given him some sort of guarantee that the Dolphins’ offense would be his and his alone this coming season.

Miami gets a one-year rental of Cutler, keeping the team in position to be relevant while not alienating Tannehill – who can have surgery and begin rehab without the pressure of having to come back to save the 2017 season.

The Dolphins also left the door open for any combination of moves to occur after the season.

If Cutler bombs, doesn’t fit in with the team, and looks like the Jay Cutler we saw in Chicago last year; the franchise can eat the one year and move on without flinching because Tannehill should be ready to return in 2018-19.

If Cutler has an outstanding season and feels that he has more football left in him, the Fins will have a difficult – but optimistic – decision to make.

In 2017-18, Tannehill carries a $20.3 million cap hit. He also represents nearly $25 million in “dead cap” – the money that a team must allocate to a player that has been cut.

The dead cap money is the number. While Tannehill’s dead cap number is staggering this season, it drops off significantly for 2018. Upon turning 30, Tannehill’s dead cap number falls to $4.6 million – meaning that’s all the team would have to forfeit if it were to cut him.

Tannehill has been a “second tier” quarterback throughout his career. Definitely not in the group with the Tom Brady’s, Aaron Rodgers’ and Ben Roethlisberger’s of the world, but maybe keeping company with the Andy Dalton’s and Alex Smith’s of the league.

His career numbers of 18,455 passing yards with 106 touchdowns and 66 interceptions while completing just under 63 percent of his passes are “meh” but to his credit, Tannehill had one of his better years in his first season working under Gase.

Ultimately though, Miami could justify and afford the move to keep Cutler beyond this season if they so choose by cutting Tannehill – which would save the franchise $17.5 million.

The Dolphins could also choose to move on from Tannehill and Cutler and explore their options in the 2018 NFL Draft – which is set to include Southern California’s Sam Darnold, Wyoming’s Josh Allen, UCLA’s Josh Rosen and 2016 Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.

Or Miami can take the most conventional route and let Cutler play out his one-year deal, see what happens, and wait for Tannehill to come back from injury in 2018 and play out the strings.

Either way, it would appear that the Dolphins are making the most out of a bad situation.

J.T. Wilcox
J.T. Wilcox is an award-winning sports journalist who has worked in South Florida for more than a decade. He authors "The Bald Predictions" blog and "The Baldcast" podcast.

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