Learning Curve
 
 
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan traded up four spots to draft Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2006 draft. A little over three months later, Cutler made him look smart.

In the preseason opener against Detroit, Cutler completed 16 of 22 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown. In a little over a quarter. It was, by wide consensus, the best performance of any player in the first exhibition game.

And while Cutler was playing with backups and the Lions' defense showed him only two or three coverages, it was the best effort in a preseason opener by any Denver passer under Shanahan and the most yards by a Bronco in a preseason opener since 1975. The local coverage approached hysterical and the name of a certain Hall of Famer was invoked repeatedly.

John Elway.

"They need to slow down a little bit," said Cutler, smiling a few days later at the team's facility in Englewood, Colo. "I knew going into it, it wasn't the real deal. Before the snap I knew exactly where to go with the ball, exactly what was going to happen. It was like a little warm-up lap."

Let the record show that Elway's preseason debut with the Broncos in 1983 was only a modest success. He completed 10 of 15 passes for 89 yards, with one interception, and a long of 38 yards. He also rushed twice for 10 yards, including a 13-yard run. History, of course, tells us that Elway would throw for more than 50,000 yards and 300 touchdowns and lead the Broncos to two Super Bowls.

Shanahan loves this kid and predicts great things for him. Although Cutler came into what was probably the most stable offense among the three first-round draft choices, his opportunity may come sooner rather than later. Starter Jake Plummer had four turnovers in the opening loss to St. Louis and was largely mediocre in Sunday's 9-6 overtime win against Kansas City. Plummer drove the Broncos into position for Jason Elam's third field goal but completed only 16 of 30 passes for 173 yards and an interception.

The Learning Curve
• Garber: QB learning curve
The volume of information for a rookie QB to learn can be staggering. Greg Garber visited with three first-round rookies to explore the learning curve for rookie QBs.

• Learning curve: Jay Cutler
The comparisons to John Elway started early for Jay Cutler in Denver. But the rookie QB knows he still has a lot to learn.

• Learning curve: Matt Leinart
Matt Leinart was a star on the big stage at USC. Now he's just a rookie trying to learn the playbook in Arizona.

• Learning curve: Vince Young
The Titans have already given Vince Young some game action. The question now is will they continue to ease him in and let him learn or decide that he needs to play now?

When the chance comes, Cutler will be ready. He started all 45 games in his four years at Vanderbilt -- more than either Vince Young or Matt Leinart, his fellow first-round quarterbacks. And although the Commodores won only 11 of those games, the experience clearly accelerated Cutler's learning curve.

"Having to play against the Floridas and the Tennessees and the Georgias and the LSUs, it made me tough," Cutler explained. "It made me have to learn what defenses are doing and how to attack them."

Said Shanahan, "Coming in he knew the secondary coverages [and] he knew the strengths and weaknesses better than most of the quarterbacks I have ever been with."

Elevating Cutler almost immediately to No. 2 quarterback, ahead of Bradlee Van Pelt, guaranteed Cutler practice time against the No. 1 defense.

"When I am able to go against those guys -- Al Wilson, John Lynch, Champ Bailey -- it gives me a different outlook on everything," Cutler said. "

During a morning practice in August, it was obvious that Cutler wasn't quite ready for prime time; on several occasions, safety John Lynch sneaked in from the blind side and could have unloaded on Cutler. Still, for every misread and bad decision, Cutler would maneuver his 6-foot-3, 226-pound body away from the pressure and, almost effortlessly, flip the ball downfield to Javon Walker or Rod Smith.

"In my days at Vandy, things broke down from time to time," Cutler said. "They counted on me to deliver the ball, and most times I did."

"The quarterbacks that separate themselves are the ones that can get off balance and, all of a sudden, throw a 25-yard comeback," Shanahan explained. "You're rolling to the right and it gets there in a second. You know, not many people can do that, and that's what he's shown -- an unbelievable ability to make some throws that most human beings can't make."

Because of his vast and varied college experience and the passer-friendly Denver offense that complements a mobile quarterback, Cutler is viewed by many NFL personnel men as the one who will probably go the farthest. Just don't reference the E-word.

"I don't care if you're John Elway, John Elway needed a supporting cast to win Super Bowls," Shanahan said. "Jay is doing a good job, but he's only doing what he's supposed to do. If you don't have all the components, a quarterback can look very average, even though he has a lot of skill."

And if the components are all there and the quarterback still looks average?

Jay Cutler's time may be nearer than some people think.

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

(Photos: 1. AP Photo/David Zalubowski; 2. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey; 3. AP Photo/Jack Dempsey; 4. Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

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Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler

Jay Cutler