Miami Dolphins

What to watch for as Jay Cutler makes Dolphins debut Thursday

The baton — or in this case, medicine ball — will be passed from Matt Moore to Jay Cutler Thursday.
The baton — or in this case, medicine ball — will be passed from Matt Moore to Jay Cutler Thursday. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

NFL skill position players, to use a popular saying, want to eat.

In other words, they love to have the ball in their hand and produce.

But before you can eat, you need to eat.

As in literally, put food in your mouth, chew and swallow. A body needs fuel.

Jay Cutler seems to understand that.

There was a photo circulating on social media late last week of Cutler sitting down at a local restaurant with receivers Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker, Kenny Stills and others.

It was a small gesture, for sure. But it was also an important one.

The supper summit signaled that Cutler, for all the negative stories out there about him, knows what it means to be the leader of a team.

And that’s what he’ll be, starting officially Thursday in Miami’s preseason game against the Ravens. Cutler, who was retired just two weeks ago, will make his first start for the team that lured him back.

Expect some rough moments. Cutler was a stranger to most the offense before signing with the team.

“It’s my first time actually meeting him,” said Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi a few days back. “I wasn’t familiar with him before. He’s a great guy, [he’s got] a really cool demeanor about him. You can tell he’s a natural quarterback and it’s been really good to build our relationship, build that chemistry on the practice field.”

Chemistry — and Cutler’s need to develop it, stat — is the offense’s No. 1 goal, not just Thursday night, but up to (and through) the team’s regular season opener against the Buccaneers on Sept. 10.

“That’s going to be something that we’re going to have to try and get a lot of reps at, so we can make up for that lack of time working with Jay,” said tight end Julius Thomas.

Thomas was just starting to sync up with Ryan Tannehill when the Dolphins quarterback went down with his second knee injury in as many seasons. And that was after Tannehill spent untold offseason hours working on timing with his receivers since the late winter.

Plus, his understanding of Adam Gase’s offense was far ahead of where it was at this point in 2016.

Now, Cutler is basically starting from scratch. Yes, he knows the system, having played in it the last two years. But like Ajayi, Kenny Stills — Miami’s top deep threat — had never even shaken Cutler’s hand before last Monday.

“It could be three weeks, it could be three days,” Cutler said of his adjustment period. “I don’t know. It’s just kind of when it clicks, it clicks. It’s like whenever you meet somebody new, right off the bat there’s a spark or sometimes it might take a little bit longer or it just doesn’t happen; but with these guys, it’s going to happen. These guys are good football players, they’re fun to be around. It’s an enjoyable process.”

He’s already shown improvement. After throwing two red-zone interceptions on Saturday, Cutler said the game “slowed down” for him Sunday.

If history is any guide, there is reason to believe he will play well Thursday. In the first preseason start of his career — way back on Aug. 11, 2006 — Cutler completed 16 of 22 passes for 192 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions.

But the script was flipped three years later, in his first exhibition game in a Bears uniform (5 of 10, 64 yards, 0 touchdowns, 1 interception).

A more realistic scenario: his first preseason game with Gase as his offensive coordinator, two years ago. Cutler went 4 of 7 for 42 yards in limited action.

Yes, Cutler will be limited this Thursday. Next week against the Eagles will probably be when we get a true feel for his game.

“He’s pretty much got the offense down; it’s just more about timing,” Gase said.” It’s more mental, just kind of that feel of when to turn the ball loose, getting used to the receivers, the D-line rushing. ... It’s happening fast, so it’s probably going to be good for him at the end of the day when we start playing some other teams.”

That will come Thursday night at Hard Rock Stadium.

Who’s hungry?

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley

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