Jay to the Redskins

The Redskins and Jay Cutler came close to living happily ever after

By Jason La Canfora /

The Redskins and Jay Cutler came close to living happily ever after
Jay to the Redskins
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Jay Cutler wanted to be a Washington Redskin.

It was 2009 and Cutler, irked by overtures from new head coach Josh McDaniels toward Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel, demanded a trade from the Broncos in 2009. Mike Shanahan, recently fired by Denver, had already become a favorite of Dan Snyder's as the Redskins owner looked to replace embattled coach Jim Zorn. Landing Cutler via trade consumed the team's brass as winter turned to spring and it was known, through backchannels and otherwise, just how eager Cutler would be to sign a contract extension if he had the opportunity to play for Shanahan again. It was a fact lost on no one within the team's hierarchy.

Jay Cutler wanted to come,” said Vinny Cerrato, Washington's Vice President of Football Operations at the time, “because he figured Shanahan was coming anyhow, and so he wanted to come, too. And for the agent and everybody, it would have been a very smooth transition.”

Snyder had soured on Zorn, according to numerous sources, and was losing faith in quarterback Jason Campbell, his former first-round pick, as well. So for months, the Redskins pursued Cutler, knowing that if they landed the gifted passer Shanahan had drafted in Denver (and who Shanahan coveted for his next head coaching job), they were even more likely to get the coach to Washington.

Alas, it was not meant to be as Cutler ended up being acquired by the Bears.

Shanahan, sure enough, did come to Washington in 2010, but an ongoing search for his next great quarterback led to a cycle of misery that included an ill-fated Donovan McNabb trade (2010), a grand failure with John Beck and Rex Grossman sharing starting duties (2011) and a doomed trade in 2012 to move up to select Robert Griffin III. During his final two years in Washington, Shanahan's relationship with Griffin turned ugly and led directly to the coach's firing after the 2013 season, and now the star quarterback's 2014 season is in doubt after he suffered yet another major injury.

The fallout didn't stop with the Redskins quarterback carousel. Within eight months of the trade Cerrato, Washington's top football executive at the time, was gone. Bobby DePaul, who expertly crafted the deal for Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, was unceremoniously dismissed two months later. The Broncos also parted with McDaniels late in the 2011 season and removed general manager Brian Xanders a year later.

The trade sent ripples through other quarters of the league, portending the blockbuster inter-division trade between Washington and Philadelphia for McNabb, a Pro Bowl quarterback, which cleared the way for Michael Vick to resurrect his career as a starter with the Eagles upon his reinstatement. It also left so many lingering what-ifs, particularly for Snyder and his team, as the Shanahan era ended in ignominy with RG3 benched for the final four games of a 3-13 season in 2013.

“It totally changed three organizations, and the direction they all went,” said Cerrato, now a sports talk show host in Baltimore. “You look now with Cutler, and (Bears coach Marc) Trestman is going to make a player out of Cutler, and Cutler's grown up now, too. I'm a big Cutler fan. Cutler's going to be a Pro Bowl guy. And Denver, Josh, that was just a matter of time. That was a time bomb to go off there … Mike would have never traded for McNabb … And you think of what they could have drafted with those picks (three first-round picks and a second-round selection), if you got some receivers and some offensive linemen -- just the depth they would have had. They wouldn't have to spend it all on a quarterback. It would have changed the outcome of a lot of organizations, but things happen for a reason.”

First dominos fall in Denver

Things began unraveling for the Broncos when another tepid finish in 2008 was met by Shanahan being let go by owner Pat Bowlen after a long and successful 14-year reign in Denver. That had Cutler's dander up, according to numerous sources, and when ESPN reported that new coach McDaniels was entertaining acquiring Cassel, whom the Patriots were shopping and whom McDaniels had coached in New England, the end was near.

Things became explosive with Cutler and McDaniels (now back in New England as offensive coordinator) at odds and Xanders, a rookie general manager, was left with the untenable -- and somewhat impossible -- chore of trying to reposition the franchise without Cutler. He went on to make the best of the situation, but with McDaniels in control of the 53-man roster and the rest of the league keenly aware of the interpersonal turmoil in Denver, the task was anything but easy. (Xanders, now an executive with the Lions, which face Cutler's Bears twice a season, declined to comment for this story.)

There were many twists and turns, including Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, at times, imploring Cutler and McDaniels to make things work. There were attempts to sign the passer to a new contract. And there was surely no shortage of private meetings aimed at keeping Cutler in Denver. But from the moment Cutler got word of the Cassel dalliance, a trade was the most likely endgame, and the Bears and Redskins knew it.

“It was an up-and-down kind of thing,” Cerrato said. “He's in, he's out. He's staying (in Denver), he's not staying. Because Dan would always ask, ‘Where are we at? Where are we at?' So I just kept tabs on the situation in a lot of different ways.”

For Washington, the pursuit was hands-on and continual. For Chicago, it was orchestrated more at an arm's length. Knowing that Snyder, notorious for overpaying to get his man in trades and free agency, would be willing to go to great lengths, DePaul made his case to Xanders early in the process. DePaul expressed that, no matter what, the Bears would put together the best package and beat any offer, said sources familiar with the negotiations.

The Bears also wanted to operate with extreme discretion, desperate to avoid the kind of hell that was created in Denver when its quarterback got wind of a possible trade.

Things started to unravel in Denver when New England coach Bill Belichick began shopping Cassel, who put together a quality campaign after he replaced Tom Brady on the fly when Brady tore his ACL in the opening week of the 2008 season. Naturally, Belichick first turned to former members of his staff, who knew and liked Cassel. Former personnel man Scott Pioli was running the Chiefs (where Cassel would end up traded), and McDaniels was in control of the Broncos. Belichick also shopped Cassel to the Bears that offseason.

“We said no to Cassel,” noted a member of the Bears front office at the time. “We'd rather have Kyle Orton.” Orton, of course, ultimately ended up in Denver as part of the Cutler trade.

When Cutler found out about the exploratory trade talks, shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine in February, he made his first trade request, sources said, and the Redskins made their interest known right away. The team would continue their efforts, working on Broncos officials throughout the NFL's annual league meeting that March and into April.

'We'll give you two ones for Cutler'

The Redskins and Broncos had executed several significant deals already (notable Champ Bailey for Clinton Portis), with Snyder getting to know Bowlen well, so there was familiarity at the top and a sense that they could be trade partners again in a deal for Cutler. As Cerrato put it, “the whispers were out there,” early on about Cutler's unrest, and he and Snyder were sold on Cutler's ability. “Jay was a franchise-type quarterback at 25-years old. So yeah, we were definitely interested.” Zorn, further foretelling his demise and Shanahan's resurfacing in Washington, was not really a part of the evaluation, Cerrato said.

Washington went hard with its initial push that March at the owners meeting.

“When we went out to the owners meeting, I sat next to Xanders,” Cerrato said, “and I said, ‘Look, are you going to do anything?' And he was so nervous, like scared to death to talk, so I would talk to Josh. And Josh tried to be like Belichick and kind of goes, ‘We're not doing anything.' So we're at the owners meeting and Dan was working Bowlen and Dan had a piece of paper and said, ‘We'll give you two ones for Cutler.' So they knew of our interest and they knew that if anything happened, we would be a player.”

As April approached on the calendar, and the draft grew near, the talks took on a new urgency. After all, Denver would want to start reaping this draft pick compensation as soon as possible, so there was in essence a deadline in place. At one point in March, the Broncos thought they were going to work out a deal with Cutler, sources said, but they could not come to terms with agent Bus Cook. Cutler still wasn't comfortable staying in Denver with Shanahan gone, and his time with McDaniels was getting off to a difficult start. So on March 31, Bowlen announced the Broncos were going to honor Cutler's request to deal him.

The hunt was on.

The admittance to get in this dance began with the offer Snyder scribbled down for Bowlen at the owner's meeting -- two first-round picks -- as well as a veteran quarterback who could be a caretaker until the Broncos developed a draft pick. McDaniels would go on to select Tim Tebow, as you may recall.

Denver's dilemma: Kyle Orton vs. Jason Campbell

Including a veteran quarterback in the deal wasn't a problem for Chicago or Washington. Cerrato recalls getting phoned by McDaniels late one night with Denver's coach stipulating it would take multiple top picks, plus Campbell, to get the deal done. “Do you want to do this?” McDaniels asked Cerrato. Excited, Cerrato called his owner. “I said, ‘Dan, game on.'”

At the same time, DePaul was on a family vacation in Florida, selling Xanders on the virtues of Orton, sources said. The Bears stressed Orton's sterling 14-2 record at home and how much his teammates rallied behind him. They noted what a natural fit he would be in McDaniels' offense, and Xanders agreed he would do a full evaluation on the quarterback, as would the coaching staff. “We like Kyle Orton,” a Bears official told Xanders, “and we think you're going to like this kid.”

Orton was indeed much more of a natural fit in McDaniels system than, say, Campbell, and in the end, it was the Broncos' superior comfort in his ability to step in and run their offense that swayed things in Chicago's favor. Cerrato, in the meantime, was trying to push Campbell as the short-term answer to Denver's passing needs.

Throughout the pursuit, the Redskins were unsure with which team they were competing, though few days before the deal ended up being completed, the Broncos told them there was another finalist and the deal could go either way.

And it went down to the very end.

Cerrato: "Josh called me and said, 'I like Orton better than Campbell,' and I said, 'I can't change Jason Campbell from Kyle Orton.' So then Xanders calls me and says, 'We're going to do this deal (with Chicago)."

A Bears source with knowledge of the inner-workings of the trade: “There was a period there where I actually didn't think we'd get him -- that the Redskins were going to get him … and our biggest concern was just keeping everything quiet.”

Cerrato: "And then [Xanders] called me back an hour later and says, ‘We're having trouble with the deal, it might fall through, and if it does, we'll do your deal.' So then I told Dan and he gets all excited.”

Then, another call came from the Broncos to the Redskins -- this one with bad news.

“They said, ‘No we're going to do the deal with Chicago,'” Cerrato said. “I didn't know if they sweetened the pot or did something, but they ended up getting the deal done. It was quite a long process and a lot of stuff that went into it.”

Finally, on the evening of April 2, the Bears acquired Cutler and a 2009 fifth-round pick in exchange for Orton and the Bears' first-round picks in 2009 and 2010, plus a third-round pick in 2009.

“We started at two number ones and basically exchanged a three and a five and we threw the quarterback in and they threw a quarterback in,” the Bears source said. “That's what it came down to. They were more comfortable with Orton than Campbell, and Kyle did some pretty good things for them, and we told them about how much Kyle liked Brandon Lloyd, who we had let go, and they signed him and he had a helluva year for them. So it was kind of like they got Lloyd in the deal too.

“One thing about our business is there is a professional trust between people, and that's why this was able to happen, in my opinion. That's why this all happened. There was a professional trust level and it was handled first-class by Brian and that's why we were able to do it.”

Elation and frustration

The relief for the Bears was palpable with their city so long without a quality quarterback. For the first time Chicago, almost for the duration of the franchise's deep history, now had a player to rally around. Their front office had become sick and tired of hearing how starved the franchise had been for a quarterback since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman, who retired in 1950, was in his prime.

It was a football trade, but it was more than that, too, and it had far-reaching implications. Landing Cutler ignited the marketing department and was good for business. Calls came in immediately about what number Cutler would be wearing and there was a rush to get jerseys printed. At the height of the country's economic crisis, which hit middle America especially hard, the Bears had a renewed flicker.

In Washington, the reception was not as jovial. Not even close. According to numerous Redskins sources, Snyder was irate after learning, finally, he had lost out on Cutler (and, at the time, perhaps fearing this had put a dent in his chances of landing Shanahan). His voice could be heard reverberating throughout Redskins Park. Even Zorn, kept in the dark about much of the process but a favorite Snyder whipping post by that time, caught some of the brunt of it.

Jay Cutler vs. Redskins QBs (Cutler photo: Getty Images)
Jay Cutler vs. Redskins QBs
2009Jay Cutler3,666272676.8
Jason Campbell3,618201586.4
2010Jay Cutler3,274231686.3
Donovan McNabb3,377141577.1
2011Jay Cutler2,31913785.7
Rex Grossman3,151162072.4
2012Jay Cutler3,033191481.3
Robert Griffin III3,200205102.4
2013Jay Cutler2,621191289.2
Robert Griffin III3,203161282.2

Cerrato declined to get too specific about the owner's reaction, other than to say: “I was at the facility and I was in the weight room and I think he told me to get Zorn and he just vented his frustration, which I can understand. And I was as bummed out. It was like you lost a game, because it was such a long process and we thought we were going to get him and then we didn't think we were going to get him, and then there was hope again, and you lost out. So you're in the tank anyhow. He was frustrated, and with Zorn, the whole thing, you know, it was just a lot of frustration coming out at the time.”

Orton went on to throw for nearly 4,000 yards in his first season with McDaniels in 2009, and Lloyd played at an All-Pro level in 2010 with nearly 1,500 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. But all was not well in Denver. After a 6-0 start under McDaniels, the Broncos fizzled in 2009, and McDaniels was let go 12 games into the 2010 season.

It should be noted that McDaniels remains a very coveted head coaching candidate who many believe has a bright future ahead of him in that regard, while Orton was thought highly enough that, after threatening the Cowboys with retirement and getting his release, the Bills promptly signed him to a lucrative contract as insurance should EJ Manuel falter this season.

Campbell, besieged by bad luck, constantly changing systems and untimely injuries, became a journeyman backup (he's currently with the Bengals), and the picks the Broncos received from Chicago ended up being used as parts of several other trade packages. They used the 2009 first-round pick from the Bears on Robert Ayers (bust), flipped some of Chicago's other picks in deals that ended up netting them star receiver Demaryius Thomas, and, well, Tim Tebow.

Had the Redskins landed Cutler, numerous league sources believe Shanahan would have been easily coerced into taking Washington's head coaching job that spring, but he ended up spending that 2009 season studying the league, enjoying some downtime and preparing for his next job. The Redskins, with Zorn and Campbell on edge, imploded. Zorn was eventually stripped of his playcalling duties and all but dared to quit. He refused, and Snyder ended up firing him right after the season.

(Credit: Ryan Wilson)

According to numerous league sources, Snyder recruited Shanahan throughout that season, eventually holding at least one extended private meeting with him aimed at getting him to take over the team in real time. He even sent his private plane out to the coach's oasis in Mexico, to no avail. The Redskins finished 4-12 that season.

Shanahan came in swiftly after the season and would go on to struggle mightily, compiling just a 24-41 record in Washington while only reaching the playoffs once -- in Griffin's electrifying rookie season -- as he tarnished what some had considered Hall of Fame credentials.

He was perpetually searching for a quarterback early in the process, with the second quarterback he selected in 2012, Kirk Cousins, perhaps now poised to finally bring success and calm to the swirling storm of quarterbacks under Snyder.

It was an NFL transaction that seemingly had new possible outcomes at every turn. The behind-the-scenes machinations were diverse and multiple, and the fallout of the transaction continues to resonate not only within the three organizations directly involved, but around the league.

“I think that's about it,” Cerrato said, chuckling as he wrapped up his account of the quarterback who got away, "without getting anybody else in a lot of trouble.”

The Redskins host the Giants Thursday night on CBS