In one respect, Jay Cutler’s insertion into the starting lineup didn’t make a difference in the way the Broncos performed as a collective. They were 2-3 in the five games before the rookie made his first start on Dec. 3 against Seattle; they went 2-3 during the five games that followed.
But for the offense itself, Cutler’s impact was profound. An offense that had accounted for 16.9 points per game in the season’s first 11 games averaged 23.4 in the last five. The offense’s touchdown output increased from 1.8 per game to 2.4 and its passing touchdown production nearly doubled from 1.0 to 1.8 per game.
Those numbers reminded Head Coach Mike Shanahan that he’d made the right choice when he made the switch following the Thanksgiving loss at Kansas City.
“You’re not going anywhere in the playoffs averaging 17 points a game,” he said. “We put Jay in there, and we are averaging 25 points a game (an average that includes Champ Bailey’s touchdown return in Week 17). You’ve got a chance to do something in the playoffs if you are averaging 25 points a game.”
But Shanahan took a broader view in his assessment of Cutler than just the five weeks in December.
“It’s not just the last five games that was some good experience for him. It’s what he’s done since he’s been here,” Shanahan said. “(It’s) how excited he is about football. He’s a guy who loves it. He breathes it. He wants to be here. You see him here working out in the offseason. He’s a young guy who is excited about his future. That’s what separates the good ones from the great ones, guys that have a passion for what they do. They’d play the game even if they weren’t getting the type of money that they get. They enjoy it. That’s the way I felt about John Elway and Steve Young. They would have played the game because they are so competitive. They love to win.
“You’ve got to have guys that it’s part of their life, (to whom) not winning the Super Bowl is unacceptable to him. With that type of mindset, you’ve got a guy that’ll get those other guys to do the little things that they should do and can get over the hump.”
And Shanahan heads into the offseason believing that Cutler can be such a player.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Became the first rookie in NFL history with multiple touchdown passes in each of his first four games … Had the fifth-highest passer rating of quarterbacks who had at least 125 passes (25.0 per game) from Dec. 1 onward; his 88.5 rating was behind only Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning (102.6), St. Louis’ Marc Bulger (93.4), New Orleans’ Drew Brees (91.8) and New England’s Tom Brady (90.1) … Cutler’s nine touchdown passes in December were third in the league behind Bulger and Manning, who each fired 10; his touchdown percentage (6.6 percent) was second in the league among quarterbacks to start all five games in December, behind only Atlanta’s Michael Vick … His completion percentage (59.1), touchdown percentage and passer rating rank first all-time among Broncos rookies; his yardage per attempt places him second in team rookie annals.
NEXT: Defensive end Elvis Dumervil.