It’s going to go one of two ways for Jay Cutler as the Dolphins quarterback: He’s either going to become Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now.
Cutler, you’ll recall, signed with the Dolphins on Aug. 6 to replace injured Ryan Tannehill as the starting quarterback for 2017. It was a one-year contract. It was a contract meant to salvage this season because the Tannehill injury threatened to crash it before it even began.
But now, hours before that season actually begins with the first game against the Los Angeles Chargers, it’s increasingly clear Cutler might be around longer than anyone expected if the right scenario plays out.
Cutler, who was cut by the Chicago Bears and not signed by any other team during free agency, this season could show us the reasons no one but the desperate Dolphins wanted him. He could be the same frustrating guy he has been throughout his previous 11 NFL seasons — up one week, down the next, never winning a championship and never winning with consistency.
Or Cutler, 34, could become a latter day Jim Plunkett, who was discarded by multiple teams before winning two Super Bowls with the Raiders. Already Cutler is the best natural and instinctive quarterback the Dolphins have had since Dan Marino (and that includes Tannehill).
If Cutler plays well and keeps the Dolphins on course to make the playoffs for the second consecutive year, maybe if he helps the team win a playoff game for the first time since Jan. 2000, then things will change.
If Cutler gets close to that kind of success the Dolphins will definitely try to keep him beyond this year.
No one is saying that publicly. Why raise eyebrows?
But Cutler’s demeanor and work ethic inside the building have impressed the Dolphins so far, according to sources. And multiple people within the organization have told me they cannot say definitively Tannehill will be back next year and Cutler will be gone because, obviously, they want to see how it plays out.
This is not a knock on Tannehill. The Dolphins love Tannehill. They’re committed to Tannehill.
But NFL love and commitment are impermanent.
So if Cutler throws, say, 30 to 32 touchdown passes this season, the offense scores a lot of points, and the team wins, there is absolutely no way the Dolphins are going to let him simply walk away.
The more likely scenario will be Cutler is signed to a multiyear contract and Tannehill is traded.
Trading Tannehill would save the team over $15 million in salary-cap space next year alone and return a first- or second-round draft pick in exchange.
If Cutler fails, on the other hand, then Tannehill returns next year after he’s fully recovered from his second ACL injury in two years and Cutler, a free agent, goes to another team or retires.
Those are the stakes for Cutler. But stakes and what he’s going to do next year and legacy are apparently not things Cutler thinks about right now.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to talk about legacy,” coach Adam Gase said. “I think he’s looking to play well one week at a time right now.”
It’s unclear what Cutler is thinking long term or whether he’s even thinking long term. He simply wants to succeed right now, Sunday against the Chargers. And he cannot guarantee he’ll be great or the Dolphins offense will click immediately or play well throughout the season.
“We might not. I mean we don’t know how it’s going to go,” Cutler said. “We’re going to practice as hard as we can. We’re going to prepare as much as we can; but like any game, like any NFL season, there’s going to be some ups and downs out there and these guys … It’s a resilient group, so we’ll just battle through them.”
The result of those battles will determine whether Jay Cutler remains with the team beyond this season or whether the Dolphins hand the quarterback job back to Ryan Tannehill.
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero