The Expectations of Jay Cutler in South Beach

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Jay Cutler as the new quarterback presents a number of questions for the Dolphins

As you may have heard, Jay Cutler has made the very sound financial decision to put off his broadcasting debut (valued somewhere between $400-450k) to sign a one-year contract with the Miami Dolphins for $10 million dollars guaranteed. Let it sink in for a moment that we live in a world in which Jay Cutler has these kinds of options.

The Cutler deal is pretty much the only juicy quarterback signing that we get to sink our teeth into this off-season. Thus, the furnace of hot takes is broiling extra hot right now in trying to make sense of what could happen with Cutler under center. In the last 48 hours, I have read articles predicting an unprecedented Super Bowl run for the Dolphins, an early injury to Cutler leading to the signing of Kaepernick, and everything in between. Today, I want to dig stat deep to see if we can use evidence to map out what could happen with Miami this year and what it could mean for next year’s off-season news cycle.

Let’s First Ask: Could This Actually Be An Upgrade for Miami?

When comparing Jay Cutler to Ryan Tannehill, it’s important to remember that there isn’t really a perfect comparison. They have been on vastly different teams with vastly different playing styles. However, we do have one clear indicator we can worth: they both have a year under Adam Gase.

Jay Cutler had Gase as his offensive coordinator in 2015. During this year, Cutler started 15 games with the following statline: 3,659 yards, 21 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 244 ypg, and somehow managed to make this happen. Cutler had plenty of faults, the Bears ended up finishing the year 6-10 and he was by no means overly impressive. But one can’t pinpoint all of Chicago’s struggles on Jay.

Ryan Tannehill got Gase as his head coach in 2016. Due to injury, he only ended up starting in 13 games, but over that stretch, he netted 2,995 yards, 19 touchdowns, 12 interceptions, and averaged out at 230 ypg. The Dolphins, however, surrounded Tannehil with a competent team that could effectively run the ball, haul in interceptions, and had a dynamic receiver in Jarvis Landry. Once Tannehill was out, the Dolphins playoff dreams got immediately shot down by Pittsburgh in the wild card round.

So the two are very similar: Nothing drastically stands out. Cutler has the slighter edge, but Chicago also had to resort to the passing game a lot more and Cutler has a bigger tendency to go for the deep ball if all else fails. Cutler is actually a very very slight upgrade from Tannehill. And despite what Jay may suggest in press conferences, he’s actually not a terrible runner when he goes mobile. Cutler rushed for 50 more yards than Tannehill did during their respective Gase years.

What Are Realistic Expectations for the 2017 Dolphins?

Since we’ve basically established that Cutler is a small upgrade over Tannehill, let’s not get too carried away with our expectations for Miami. While the Dolphins did rise from the ashes to go on a miracle sprint to the playoffs, let’s stop and consider which teams got beat on the way there: Browns, Big Benless Steelers, the Bills twice by narrow margins, the Jets twice by narrow margins, Chargers, Rams, 49ers, and the Cardinals. Five out of eight of those teams ended up with top 10 draft picks, two others still missed the playoffs, and the one playoff team they did beat unleashed the smack down on them when it actually came to the playoffs.

Simply put, Miami got the luck of the draw last season. This made Tannehill look better than decent.

Miami has a talented team to be sure, but their schedule is looking a little rough this season. They have their usual AFC East foes which could just as easily be another 4-2 venture as it could be a 1-5 venture, they’re taking on the oft unpredictable but on the rise NFC South, the dangerous but beatable AFC West, with the Ravens and Titans thrown in for good measure. The Dolphins, once you exclude divisional games which are always about as guaranteed as a game of roulette, don’t have any shoe-in wins on paper with Tannehill. This doesn’t change much with Cutler. The Jets prove to be their easiest opponent who they will luckily face twice, but even the Jets can manage an upset. Make no mistake, Cutler does not suddenly make this team dangerous. But he also doesn’t cripple them either.

The Most Likely Outcome? 

We’ll assume the Dolphins have some growing pains with their new starter since he has a little over a month to get ready, but that might just work out fine since their first four weeks are the easiest stretch of games the Dolphins are going to get. Against the Bucs, Chargers, Jets, and Saints the potential to go 3-1, maybe even 4-0 exists. We’ll say 3-1 since the Bucs may catch a lucky break against a still adjusting Cutler. Their next stretch of six proves to be the real challenge. Against the Titans, Falcons, Jets, Ravens, Raiders, and Panthers you have one maybe two games that you could favor Miami in. The Jets, Ravens, and Titans provide the easiest challenges, but the Falcons defense is a force to be reckoned with as well as those of the Raiders and Panthers. A 3-3 stretch is the best case scenario, putting Cutler’s Dolphins at 6-4 heading into their bye week.

Then it’s a hailstorm of menacing defenses: The Patriots twice, the Bills twice, the Broncos, and the Chiefs. If we’re being optimistic, Cutler has a shot to beat the Bills at least once, possibly twice, and maybe Kansas City. At best, their season ending stretch goes 3-3 ending with a 9-7 record. At worst, the Dolphins could end 6-10. Now, we’re discussing averages here and we’re not totally accounting for any injuries that could befall any team Miami ends up facing. But given what we know Cutler has shown he can do and the caliber team Miami has to face the playoffs seem to be just out of reach. However, it’d be foolish to say that Miami’s ceiling is 9-7. There are plenty of winnable games on this lineup. Miami has just a good a shot of going 10-6 again, maybe even 11-5. But that final stretch of 6 games is going to be the make or break of Miami’s season. They have to be able to hang with quarterback eating, run stopping defenses and there are a ton of them standing in Miami’s way.

What About the Future of Ryan Tannehill?

Missing the playoffs seems to be the second exit for Cutler. For a quarterback to continue to justify extending his career, he has to ask how much gas he has left in the tank. For Cutler to continue being a Dolphin or even to gain attention from other teams, he probably has to win a playoff game. Impossible? No. Likely? Also no. There probably is a scenario where Cutler gets attention next offseason without a playoff win for Miami under his belt, but Cutler’s 2017 season numbers would have to be massive for teams to dish out the millions for a QB that will be 36 years old by that time.

Speaking of age, one thing Ryan Tannehill has going for him is that he is five years younger than Cutler. So even while we are considering Cutler to be a slight upgrade over Tannehill for this season, Tannehill is undoubtedly the better option of the two going forward for Miami (and then cue the inevitable “breakout year” talk). That being said, we can cool our jets on wondering where Ryan will be next season. Come that time, Jay will be lounging comfortably at some exotic location after adding a cool $10 million to his savings account and we will all be debating whether this is the year where Tannehill’s career finally takes off.

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