- Seth Wickersham, ESPN Senior Writer
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Yeah, you probably could call it a man-crush.
Mike Shanahan has been so effusive in his praise for Tom Brady and Peyton Manning over the years that it's borderline affectionate. And, although the Denver Broncos' coach might never admit it, there's probably some jealousy, too. You wonder whether -- while those two passers put up huge numbers and their coaches were awarded credit as offensive innovators -- Shanahan ever sat back in his Dove Valley office overlooking the Broncos' practice fields, on a break from figuring out how to win a Super Bowl with Jake Plummer while tossing aside all the plays Plummer couldn't run, and thought, "Man, if only I had a quarterback like those guys."
Jay Cutler isn't that quarterback, not yet, at least -- although he's inching closer to that A-list realm every week. And Shanahan is going to give him every chance to be great. Aside from the least clutch play of this young season -- his fumble err, incomplete pass in the final moments of the Broncos' 39-38 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday -- Cutler has been the league's best player so far. The third-year pro's play is more than his 70.3 percent completion rate and his 8.78 yards-per-attempt average and his 6-1 touchdown-interception ratio. If the 2008 season ends up being remembered as Shanahan's rebirth as the NFL's premier offensive mind, Cutler is the weapon who will have enabled it.
Since John Elway retired 10 years ago, the league's Reigning Offensive Genius title has been yanked from Shanahan and awarded to Mike Martz, then Charlie Weis, then Andy Reid, then Jon Gruden, then Al Saunders, then Tom Moore, then Josh McDaniels. But let's face it: The best quarterbacks make the best coaches look good. And the best quarterbacks are hard to come by.
Shanahan invested millions in Pro Bowl quarterbacks Brian Griese and Plummer. In the end, they were good but only serviceable. Shanahan performed a miracle with Plummer, transforming the career of "The Mistake" and reaching the AFC Championship in 2006. But in that game, Plummer tossed two picks against the Pittsburgh Steelers and reminded everyone that despite a lot of regular-season victories, Denver wasn't going to win a Super Bowl with him calling signals.
Cutler is the first quarterback in a decade whom Shanahan can trust. Cutler is someone who can be an extension of the coach on the field, who can be turned loose. Every pent-up play call from the past few seasons can be released. Shanahan might have appeared to impulsively bet the game on a two-point conversion against the reigning division champs this past weekend, but the fact is that the decision wasn't made quickly. It was calculated. It was how Shanahan wanted the game to be decided: by his call and his quarterback's execution. If Shanahan is The Mastermind, Cutler is the Master's Mind.
Smart teams pass early in games to get the lead and force their opponents' hands -- smart teams that have good quarterbacks, that is. The Broncos lead the NFL in first-half passes with 48 and have outscored their opponents 41-17 in the first half this season. For the first time in Shanahan's era in Denver, the Broncos are not a run-dominated team. That is because of who's at quarterback. Cutler "has given himself a chance to improve, get better," Shanahan said this week. "He has a lot of confidence, which goes hand in hand with a lot of work."
In the offseason, Cutler broke down film of the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Chargers, Cowboys and Saints -- this Sunday's opponent at Invesco Field. That's another thing Shanahan and quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates love about Cutler: He's a football nut, like Brady and Manning. Cutler realizes the standard for greatness and is unafraid to achieve it.
"Quarterbacks are getting better," Cutler said this week. "I think Brady raised the bar last year; him and Peyton have kind of been fighting it out. You have to get better if you want to keep playing."
Cutler is not great yet. But the signs are there. As bad as his fourth-quarter red-zone interception and "incomplete pass" against the Chargers were, neither affected his mindset. Neither miscue affected his play.
Elway, during the course of his career, had plenty of lousy fourth quarters before pulling the game out in the final minutes. And now there's a grittiness the Broncos' offense has lacked since Elway retired. And a cockiness. "We have a chance to be as good as anybody," Shanahan said. "We have a chance to be the best in the league."
The same can be said for Cutler, who's quickly becoming one of those guys.
Seth Wickersham is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com