Reporting David Elfin
One wasn’t supposed to be chosen so high in the NFL draft by the team that picked him. The other knew for more than a month where he was going as the No. 2 overall selection. The former never had a winning record for a long-downtrodden college program. The latter helped turn around a similar situation, capping his three seasons with a bowl victory.
Vanderbilt product Jay Cutler and Baylor graduate Robert Griffin III might not have had that much in common upon coming to the NFL, but they should have plenty to talk about before and after Griffin and Washington meet Cutler and Chicago in Saturday’s preseason game at Soldier Field.
After all, Cutler and Griffin are the two active starting quarterbacks who have been molded by Mike Shanahan.
Denver moved up four spots in the 2006 draft to choose Cutler 11th overall although Jake Plummer had led Shanahan and the Broncos past two-time defending Super Bowl champion New England in the 2005 playoffs before an AFC Championship Game loss to eventual Super Bowl winner Pittsburgh. By Week 12 of 2006, Cutler had replaced Plummer. Four weeks later the rookie had joined the peerless Dan Marino as the only post-merger quarterbacks to throw at least two touchdown passes in each of their first four starts.
Shanahan would be thrilled if Griffin, whom he moved up four spots to draft second overall for the Redskins in April, opens his NFL career next month by throwing two touchdown passes in each of his first four starts.
“We had an opportunity to get a quarterback that I thought was a difference-maker,” Shanahan explained about drafting Cutler although the then-31-year-old Plummer was seemingly entrenched as Denver’s starter. “You don’t move up in the draft to the 11th position to bring a guy to back up too long. When (Jay) did take control, you could see that he was a natural.”
Cutler had a solid first full season as a starter in 2007 although the Broncos slid to 7-9. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl in 2008 as Denver went 8-8, a third-straight non-playoff finish that prompted owner Pat Bowlen to dismiss Shanahan after 14 seasons.
After Shanahan was fired and replaced by Josh McDaniels, Cutler wanted out of Denver. The Redskins, among other teams, talked to the Broncos about Cutler, but ultimately he was traded to the Bears. So Jason Campbell remained Washington’s starter in 2009. But in April 2010, new Redskins coach Shanahan traded with Philadelphia for Donovan McNabb and soon dealt the demoted Campbell to Oakland. Ironically, Campbell is now Cutler’s backup in Chicago so Saturday’s game will be his first against Washington since the trade.
“If it was a regular season game and I was starting and going back to Washington for the first time, it would probably be different,” Campbell said in an email.
It won’t be the first Cutler-Shanahan reunion, however. Coach and quarterback still knew each other so well that it was probably no accident that Cutler’s worst game (a goal-line fumble and four interceptions) came against Washington in Week 7 of 2010. That improved the Redskins’ record under Shanahan to 4-3. They’re 7-18 since, easily the worst stretch of his career, one that convinced him to surrender three first-round picks and a second-rounder for Griffin.
After Cutler’s preseason debut at Detroit in 2006, Shanahan said, “He played well, executed the offense. I thought he showed a lot of poise.”
After Griffin led the Redskins past Buffalo last Thursday, Shanahan said, “He was cool, calm and collected. You’re hoping your quarterback does play like that his first game. Hopefully, we can keep on growing.”
Saturday, the favorite quarterbacks that Shanahan has worked with other than Hall of Famers John Elway and Steve Young meet for the first time. It’s only a preseason game, but it will be fun for the coach, who has remained close to Cutler as he tries to help make Griffin as special an NFL player as the Heisman Trophy winner was in college.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin