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Time is now for Tampa Bay Buccaneers to decide whether Jay Cutler is a franchise QB

TAMPA — If you are Mark Dominik or Raheem Morris, you do not debate the price.

You do not weigh the cost of losing draft picks or the possibility of giving up another player. You do not concern yourself with questions that are superfluous to this conversation.

If you are the men in charge of the direction of the Buccaneers, you ask only one question:

Is Jay Cutler a legitimate franchise quarterback?

And if the answer is yes, then you pay whatever it takes to get him.

Seems simple, except you have to answer that first question correctly. Because, if you don't, then you give up a first-round pick in 1984 for a quarterback (Jack Thompson) who will win three games in Tampa Bay. Or you give up a first-round pick in 1992 for a quarterback (Chris Chandler) who will never win a game as a starter in a Bucs uniform.

Think those are isolated examples of foolish trades?

Then you may not recall that the Rams gave up two first-round picks, a fifth-rounder and two players to get a quarterback (Jim Everett) who went 46-59 the next eight seasons.

And you might have forgotten that the Falcons gave up two No. 1s and a No. 3 for a guy (Jeff George) who lasted about as long as a daffodil. And you may have purged any thoughts of the Giants trading two No. 1s and two No. 2s for a Hall of Famer (Fran Tarkenton) who failed to reach the playoffs in his five seasons in New York.

"Just look through the history of franchise quarterbacks in the NFL. You can probably name most of them off the top of your head," Morris said. "Franchise guys, they don't come along much; they don't come along often."

Which is why the Bucs need to seriously consider mortgaging the future for Cutler.

Because a true franchise quarterback is the one player who can actually turn a team's fortunes. Denver acquired John Elway and rewrote history. Green Bay acquired Brett Favre and recaptured glory.

Franchise quarterbacks are rare, and available franchise quarterbacks are rarer still.

Sometimes you find one with a high draft pick, but you can never be certain whether you are getting Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf. And every so often you hit the lottery and find one where no one else is looking, but that's usually wishful thinking.

The reality is, at any given time, 25 or more teams are trolling for the next one.

Which brings us back to Cutler.

Most everyone agrees he has the look of a franchise quarterback. He is big, he is tough, he has a wicked arm and a big-time swagger. His stats the past two seasons certainly have the look of a rising star's.

But a franchise quarterback has to be more. He has to be a leader. He has to put the team ahead of his ego. He has to care far more about impacting the standings than tasting the nightlife, and he has to show the maturity and responsibility of a man willing to carry a heavy burden.

In Cutler's case, these issues are in doubt. Maybe unfairly, maybe not. But it is up to Morris and Dominik to figure out whether the whispers around Cutler are misperceptions or warning signs.

And if they decide he is the real deal, they need to go after him with single-minded purpose. If that means trading their Nos. 1 and 3 picks in this draft, then do it. If that means the No. 1 pick and any one of about 40 guys on the roster, then do it. If that means a No. 1 pick this year, and another No. 1 in 2010, then swallow hard and do it.

Because here's the thing:

You can find other players elsewhere. The Bucs need a star on the defensive line, but a few of those guys come available every year in free agency. The Bucs could use more talent at linebacker, but that's not a difficult position to fill. If the Glazers are as committed as they say — and that's a mighty big "if" — the Bucs have space under the salary cap to get practically any player they need for next season.

But the one player you almost never find on the free agent market is a franchise quarterback.

So we have given them February to learn the ropes. And we have given them March to feel comfortable. Now all we ask of the new general manager and the new head coach is that they decide the future of this team in the next few weeks.

One way or another, we will look back to this month as a pivotal time in Buccaneers history. And it can play out any number of ways. Is Cutler a star or a chump? Did he come here or did he go elsewhere? Did Dominik and Morris read the situation correctly, or did they horribly misjudge Cutler's potential?

The clock is ticking, and their legacies are waiting to be written.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Time is now for Tampa Bay Buccaneers to decide whether Jay Cutler is a franchise QB 04/01/09 [Last modified: Thursday, April 2, 2009 6:34am]
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