To win big, Broncos must add to Cutler supporting cast
Denver must improve Jay Cutler's supporting cast before he takes the next step in his development, Mike Sando writes.
John Elway became the inevitable reference point when the Denver Broncos made Cutler the 11th player chosen in the 2006 draft.
That won't change as long as Cutler remains a Bronco, but the Favre comparisons are relevant again with Green Bay visiting Denver on "Monday Night Football." (ESPN, 8:30 p.m. ET)
Even Cutler is playing along -- to a point. "We both have strong arms and both try to fit [the ball] in some tight spots," Cutler told reporters in Denver recently. "I'm a long way from getting to his status."
How long might depend on the Broncos' efforts to surround their prized quarterback with the right supporting cast. Elway won Super Bowls when he finally had a dominant running game. Favre won it all when the Packers fielded a dominant defense led by Reggie White.
Cutler isn't so fortunate yet. The Broncos are 3-3 and working their way through change.
Coach Mike Shanahan has applied a win-now philosophy to roster management, snapping up free-agent veterans as quickly as owner Pat Bowlen could sign the checks. That approach, coupled with spotty drafting, has left the Broncos with only 15 of their own draft choices to show for Shanahan's 13-year tenure.
Tennessee's Jeff Fisher is the only other NFL head coach in his 13th season with the same organization. The Titans' roster features 30 of their own draft choices from the Fisher era. Eleven head coaches have spent more than four seasons in their current positions. Shanahan, Tampa Bay's Jon Gruden (17) and Cincinnati's Marvin Lewis (19) are the only ones with fewer than 20 of their own draft choices on the roster. Even second-year Packers coach Mike McCarthy, armed with 23 selections across 2006 and 2007, has more of his own draft choices (16) than Shanahan.
Failing to develop and retain large numbers of draft choices isn't fatal if teams maximize their forays into free agency. New England has proven as much.
The Broncos haven't done as well in free agency. What it means, for now, is that Cutler probably won't win big soon. Denver's starting defense averages 29.1 years in age, third oldest in the league. That wouldn't be so bad if the Broncos weren't allowing more rushing yards this season (1,057) than AFC rivals Pittsburgh (453) and Baltimore (503) combined.
Sam Adams and John Lynch are good guys with championship experience, but they're running out of cartilage. Change is on the way. The Broncos selected three defensive linemen in the first four rounds of the most recent draft. They moved rookie fourth-round defensive tackle Marcus Thomas into the lineup recently. Pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil, a fourth-rounder in 2006, is also starting. Two rookie defensive ends, first-rounder Jarvis Moss and second-rounder Tim Crowder, have yet to earn starting jobs.
The defense won't allow 176.2 yards rushing per game forever, particularly if Shanahan keeps adding defensive players early in the draft.
The outlook on offense is mostly positive, thanks to Cutler. He's completing 66.3 percent of his passes with a healthy 7.8-yard average per attempt. He has seven touchdown passes while taking only eight sacks, down from 13 sacks in five starts last season. Although Cutler is showing improved awareness, he has also thrown eight interceptions, including a few head-scratchers.
That's sometimes what you get from strong-armed quarterbacks who don't let bad plays scare them away from taking more chances. Ask the Packers.
"Every time you see [Cutler] it looks like he just woke up," said an opposing defensive coordinator who has come to admire the Broncos' franchise quarterback. "He has that sleepy look, that unflappable look, like a gym rat, a guy who never really looks like he's trying. He's one of those guys where nothing affects him."
Being unflappable doesn't make a guy impervious to talent deficiencies around him. Cutler will experience growing pains as the Broncos' roster evolves.
Adding tight end Daniel Graham in free agency helped, but uncertainties persist.
Knee surgery forced receiver Javon Walker to miss the last three games, and it's unclear when he'll return. Second-year pro Brandon Marshall is leading the team in receptions, but the former fourth-round draft choice has also had off-field problems, most recently a DUI arrest.
Veteran center Tom Nalen went on injured reserve, robbing the line of its identity. Losing Nalen hurt. And yet he was so old by football standards -- 36 -- that the Broncos' starting offense went from the NFL's 19th youngest with Nalen to the seventh youngest without him.
Cutler could lose another offensive starter if the NFL suspends Travis Henry. The veteran running back might not play much against the Packers after suffering injured ribs, but Henry's long-term issues could affect Cutler and the offense more significantly. Henry could face a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy.
Shanahan has drafted 10 running backs and receivers since 2003. Marshall is the only one remaining on the roster.
Finding a franchise quarterback can right a lot of wrongs. But if the Broncos expect to win big, they'll need to find a little more help for the next Brett Favre.
Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.