The biggest trade mistake in Denver Broncos history

Feb 5, 2009; Kapolei, HI, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (6) throws a pass at the AFC practice at Kapolei High in preparation for the 2009 Pro Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports
Feb 5, 2009; Kapolei, HI, USA; Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler (6) throws a pass at the AFC practice at Kapolei High in preparation for the 2009 Pro Bowl. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports /

The Denver Broncos haven’t made many trades that could be considered regrettable throughout the team’s history, but one certainly stands out.

Looking across the span of Denver Broncos history, there really aren’t that many trades the team should regret.

As a matter of fact, this team has made some of the best trades in NFL history, including the trade with the Baltimore Colts once upon a time for the draft rights to quarterback John Elway, and the blockbuster trade with Washington involving cornerback Champ Bailey (and a second-round pick) for Clinton Portis.

But there is one trade that, when you look back on, still doesn’t make any sense at all.

I think we all know.

Back in the Spring of 2009, not long after the Broncos had hired former New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels as their head coach to replace Mike Shanahan, rumors began to emerge of significant friction between McDaniels and the team’s Pro Bowl quarterback — Jay Cutler.

Cutler was the Denver Broncos’ most substantial quarterback investment of the post-John Elway era.

Although the team brought in Jake Plummer as a free agent earlier in the decade, Cutler was the only first-round pick at the quarterback position in the Mike Shanahan era and one of only two first-round QBs in Denver Broncos history at the time.

Bonus points for anyone who knew Tommy Maddox was the other.

Things weren’t exactly “great” with Jay Cutler at the quarterback position, to be fair.

The Broncos had a promising young offensive core and a number of players from the team’s 2006 NFL Draft class were becoming NFL stars, including Cutler, wide receiver Brandon Marshall, tight end Tony Scheffler, offensive guard Chris Kuper, and pass rusher Elvis Dumervil.

It felt like McDaniels and his offensive genius could come into Denver and really get the best out of that group. At least, that was the idea on paper.

In hindsight, it’s kind of crazy that owner Pat Bowlen didn’t step in and intervene with everything going on. It made no sense for this hotshot head coach to come in and dismantle what good the Broncos actually had on the roster and trade it away, but McDaniels must have been convincing that he was the one the Broncos needed, not Jay Cutler.

In April of 2009, the deal happened. The Broncos sent Cutler to the Chicago Bears for a pair of first-round picks, Kyle Orton, and some additional draft capital.

It was a no-brainer trade for the Bears, at the time, because players like Cutler — young Pro Bowl quarterbacks — simply didn’t just become available in trades.

And they still don’t.

It’s easy to look at this deal in hindsight and be grateful.

The trade of Jay Cutler set off a chain of events that brought us:

  • The Tim Tebow 2011 season
  • Peyton Manning in 2012
  • Super Bowl 50
  • Russell Wilson

This is the timeline we are living in, but you can’t help but wonder how different things could have been if McDaniels had simply kept Cutler around and tried to build around him like he’s now apparently doing in Las Vegas with Derek Carr.

Did Jay Cutler have an attitude that probably rubbed McDaniels the wrong way? Especially in his first stint as an NFL head coach, in his hubris, McDaniels seemingly thought he was Bill Belichick.

He could have found a way to get along with Cutler and have a great working relationship, and Cutler also could have found a way to make that happen as well.

Unfortunately, the 2008 Pro Bowl was the last time we would see Jay Cutler wear a Denver Broncos helmet.

All of those great moments from 2006-08 of Cutler’s development and progress were thrown away in one fell swoop.

The trade and fallout were so bad, people legitimately thought that Josh McDaniels simply came to Denver in the first place just to sabotage the organization.

Of course, that wasn’t the case — McDaniels was just that arrogant that he felt he would be able to do exactly what they did in New England with guys like Matt Cassel — win anyway.

He thought it was just his system, talent evaluating skills, and style of coaching (and sometimes cheating) that would make him successful over the long-term in the NFL, and that has really only proven to be the case in New England.

To his credit, McDaniels did bring some talented players to the Mile High City, including one of the best wide receivers in team history — Demaryius Thomas.

Although it’s impossible to complain about the way things have turned out for the Denver Broncos, there’s no question that the trade of Jay Cutler and the events leading up to it are, at best, incredibly embarrassing.

The Chicago Bears didn’t exactly go on to have loads of team success with Cutler but he was a good quarterback in the NFL for a long time. I think he would have been great with Mike Shanahan, and I also think he would have been great if he and McDaniels hadn’t had a big fight in the first place.

Unfortunately, we’ll never know.