- Michael C. Wright, ESPN Staff Writer
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The former head coach at Denver, Shanahan played a role in the Broncos drafting Cutler 11th overall in 2006, as well as Brandon Marshall in the fourth round. Shanahan named Cutler the starter with five games remaining in his rookie season, and said the quarterback and Marshall established uncanny chemistry almost immediately.
“Well, it was a decision that you make,” Shanahan recalled of making Cutler the starter in Denver. “We made that decision because we went to the AFC Championship Game the year before, and I really felt at that time that was as far as [former starter] Jake [Plummer] was going to take us. I thought Jay Cutler had the intangibles and the skills to possibly take us to the next level. I thought he was experienced enough to go in that direction. That’s why I made the change.”
Seven years later, Shanahan doesn’t see much of a difference between the Cutler he worked with in Denver and the one currently on pace to hit a career high and franchise mark in completion percentage. Cutler has completed 65.9 percent of his passes thus far, which ties him for sixth in the league.
Prior to the Monday night game between Indianapolis and San Diego, Cutler ranked in the top 10 in five major passing categories (passer rating, completions, completion percentage, yards and touchdowns).
“Well, that’s the way he played for me. He played at a Pro Bowl level his [second] year as a starter, his [third] year in the NFL,” Shanahan said. “I think he had well over 600 throws, and I don’t remember exactly what his sack amount was, but I think he had like 11, 12 sacks in all those throws. So he got rid of the ball very quickly and distributed the ball well, and I really like what I saw.”
Cutler didn’t experience that same success initially in Chicago, which acquired the quarterback in 2009 for a pair of first-round picks. Cutler lacked weapons on the outside, sufficient protection and a system he believed in. General manager Phil Emery gradually changed that by hiring head coach Marc Trestman, in addition to bolstering the offensive line through free agency and the draft, adding a tight end, and trading with Miami for Marshall, who was drafted in Denver the same year as Cutler, and played with him from 2006-08.
When asked what he sees as the biggest difference between Cutler now, and from when he first joined the Bears, Shanahan didn’t hesitate to give his take.
“Supporting cast,” he said. “I think you have to have a system that you believe in, and Jay picks up any system very quickly. A better supporting cast is you’re trying to get the best supporting cast to give you quarterback a chance to be successful, and that’s what I see that they’ve done to give him a chance to utilize his talents. That’s part of building a team around a quarterback. It doesn’t happen overnight, and one of the reasons why you go after a quarterback is you have to have one to give yourself a chance to win, and you try to put a supporting cast around him so he has a chance to be successful.”
Shanahan spoke with Trestman at the NFL combine about Cutler back in February, and the newly hired head coach asked about the quarterback he had inherited.
“He asked me about Jay and my experience with him, and I shared exactly what I thought of him,” Shanahan said. “There was nothing but positive. I’m a big fan of Jay Cutler’s.”
Shanahan holds similar feelings toward Marshall, who was drafted in the fourth round in 2006, but didn’t become a starter until his second year in the NFL. After Marshall’s first practice with the Broncos, future Hall of Fame cornerback Champ Bailey approached Shanahan befuddled.
He asked the coach, "How did we ever get this guy in the fourth round?"
“So you get a Pro Bowl player that realizes the talent of a guy like Brandon Marshall right away, the upside Brandon brings to a team,” Shanahan said. “He’s a difference-maker.”
That’s why Cutler gravitated toward Marshall almost instantly, Shanahan said.
“He’s very physical. He’s gonna beat bump coverage,” the coach said. “He’s going to go up for the ball and make big plays and right from the beginning. He had 18 catches or something against San Diego [in Marshall’s third year]. Right from that time you knew they were going to have some great chemistry together.”
Marshall praised Shanahan for the opportunity in Denver, and said his career likely wouldn't have been as successful had another team drafted him. Some players lament not going higher in the draft, but Marshall said he was perfectly fine with being a fourth-round pick because of all he learned from Shanahan.
"He gave me chance after chance," Marshall said. "When I’m in Denver, sometimes I may even run into him at his restaurants and we get a chance to talk. So he’s definitely someone I think would be a friend, a mentor, a coach for the rest of my life. He definitely laid the foundation. The way he taught us the game and broke things down, but also it set the bar really high. There were high expectations around there, especially on the offensive side. We dealt with Coach Shanahan every single day."