Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Three Little Words: Shanahan Figures It Out

A couple of weeks ago, a firestorm started in the Colorado sports arena.

The 7-4 Denver Broncos, in the middle of a playoff chase, made a controversial decision: veteran Jake Plummer, the leader of a 26th-ranked passing attack, was benched for an unproven rookie named Jay Cutler.

Shanahan praised Cutler, saying he had shown poise and handled himself with maturity from training camp on, declaring he was ready. However, Shanahan acknowledged that the decision was “very difficult”, and that the always-inconsistent Plummer handled the decision “like a pro”.

Naturally, this story has been heated conversation in Denver, and the fact that the Broncos have gone 0-2 since that time hasn’t made the decision any easier. The Broncos, at the time of the switch, held a wild card spot. Now, they are on the outside looking in with three games to play at 7-6.

Cutler, however, hasn’t been a complete failure. Only throwing 25 times a game, he’s begun to show some life. He has an 83.0 passing rating, though he’s been a fumbler. While you can’t say the two game skid has been his fault, it does increase the rabble complaining about the timing of the switch.

So, you might be waiting for my punchline: how does this apply to the Green Bay Packers. Some might be expecting me to say that this is a modern-day allegory on why you should never, ever switch from a veteran quarterback to a rookie, or else you’ll knock yourself out of the playoffs.

No, not my point at all. In fact, I am giving kudos and credit to Mike Shanahan for pulling the plug on a vested veteran quarterback who was having some struggles. But, you see, the secret was three little words that we’ve never really heard with Aaron Rodgers, Craig Nall, or any one else who has been petitioned to start ahead of Brett Favre.

We’ve all heard, ad nauseum, the battle cry that Rodgers should be starting or getting extended time because “he’s the future.” As doubts have come creeping in about his talent and development, the battle cry was slightly altered to “we need to see if he is our future or not, so we know how to draft for next year.” Not exactly what I’d consider a vote of confidence.

No, what Mike Shanahan said was “He’s our future, he’s our present.” Our present. Our “now”. This is your time to seize the day, and win or lose, we’re going with you as our starter. That’s a pretty bold/gutsy/idiotic move to make (depending on your point of view), especially when your team is in the middle of a playoff race. But the point of the matter was that Shanahan felt that Cutler gave them the best chance to win now. And while I’m sure Colorado is polarly divided on whether or not it was the right decision, the decision was made for the right reason.

That’s hard for some folks to comprehend, but every football season has its own carpe diem quality to it. Yes, you build towards the future, and hope that someday your ship will come in. But every coach knows he’s one better guy away from being let go. Every player knows there’s a ton of guys behind him itching to play, and even if they hold them off, they’re one spinal cord injury from never playing again. If you want to be a part of the future, you need to produce today, or you’ll be on the waiver wire.

In the NFL, you don’t experiment just for fun. You experiment to win the games that you’re playing at that time. The Packers, who were at 4-8, an out of the playoff hunt, saw an opportunity to switch some players up, particularly on defense. But they didn’t give more time to Colin Cole, Tyrone Culver, or Patrick Dendy because they wanted to see “what they had in order to determine what their draft strategy should be this offseason”, McCarthy came right out said that these guys had been impressing him in practice. These guys weren’t played to help us win next year. They were played to help us win a game against the 49ers. Period.

Now, let's also be honest. How many Pro Bowl players have ever risen to prominence by being experimented with at the end of a losing season? My guess is that you’ll find very few that meet that criteria, and compared to the list of washouts, would be completely inconsequential. No one is expecting to find our next Reggie White by playing Cullen Jenkins at the end spot.

But three little words by Mike Shanahan gave Jay Cutler all he needed to have the confidence to go out and play his heart out, because he knew that his day wasn’t coming next year. It was right now. It wasn’t being handed to him without merit; it was because Mike Shanahan believed that he was the best chance to win today. And, given Jake Plummer’s performances lately, it’s probably a pretty good assessment.

Mike Shanahan may look back on this decision three years from now and pat himself on the back. He may also have to own up and admit a mistake like he had to recently about Brian Griese. This was a pretty controversial decision to make when you’re in the thick of the playoff hunt, which now look out of reach.

But, right decision or not, it was made for the right reasons. To throw Jay Cutler in now because simply, “He’s the future,” isn’t good enough. Three little words: “He’s the present.”

If there is a lesson to be learned and to apply to the Packers’ situation, let it be that decisions are not and should not be made simply for tomorrow. You have to play for today, and put yourself in the best position to win each and every game.

When the Packers truly have their Jay Cutler, the player they have faith in to win today (not maybe win tomorrow), that's the time to make the move.

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