March 19, 2009 at 8:37 pm

John Niyo

Lions should pass on Cutler

Jay Cutler hasn't won in Denver, and his trade demand brings questions about his attitude. (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

ALLEN PARK -- Right player, right price.

That's the front-office motto at Lions headquarters. Add a question mark and it's also what Martin Mayhew & Co. might be asking themselves as they contemplate a bid for one of the NFL's top young quarterbacks, Jay Cutler, who has formally requested a trade from Denver.

The Broncos, for what it's worth, are telling teams their Pro Bowl problem child isn't for sale. And I'm clearly in the dwindling minority in thinking there's a decent chance Cutler stays put, perhaps with a generous raise.

But what if Cutler and his agent, Bus Cook, who has had a hand in steering this relationship over the cliff with rookie coach Josh McDaniels, get their way?

Do the Lions jump right in and help break Cutler's fall?

The fans say, unequivocally, yes. I say, buyer beware, and not just for the obvious reasons.

It's not the public pouting that commenced once word leaked McDaniels was entertaining trade offers to snag Matt Cassel, his quarterback in New England. It's not even necessarily Cutler's 17-20 record as a starter, capped by last season's December collapse, though I do think that's a red flag.

I'm also willing to ignore the petulance of the last few weeks -- not returning his owner's calls, skipping the start of offseason workouts -- because I don't buy it. I think it's simply an agent-fueled means to an end for Cutler, forcing his way out of a situation he decided he no longer wanted to be a part of, right or wrong.

And given Cook's track record -- Brett Favre's offseason angst is only the most recent example -- I think Cutler knows where he'd like to end up. The New York Jets? Tampa Bay? Just a guess, but Detroit's probably not at the top of the list, even though one of Cook's other high-profile clients just happens to be Calvin Johnson.

Cutler will want contract

Asked Wednesday whose passes he wanted to catch in the fall, Johnson started laughing.

"You guys are a trip, man," he said. "Daunte (Culpepper) is our starter right now and we're working with Daunte and we're going 110 percent every day."

Another minority opinion: This Culpepper reclamation project isn't a complete waste of time. He's only 32, finally in shape, motivated, a leader and comfortable in offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's system. The knocks on him are valid -- he's four years removed from any real success in the NFL, and he's not exactly a whiz at reading defenses. But neither is Cutler, from what I can see, nor Matthew Stafford, whom I don't think the Lions will draft No. 1 overall. (Right now, it's looking more like Baylor offensive tackle Jason Smith.)

But here's the thing: Culpepper's not getting paid like Cutler or Stafford would be in Detroit. And if you don't think Cutler's going to get a new contract in the end, you're ignoring the past.

And that's my point: The Lions should tread lightly here, so as to avoid their own past.

Stick to the plan

Cutler in a Lions uniform next fall, new logo and all? It's tempting. But the Lions have given in to temptation before, routinely veering off course at great cost. And if there's one promise they'd better keep, it's this one.

"Where teams get in trouble and where organizations get in trouble," team president Tom Lewand said in late December, "is where they deviate from their core principles and their core philosophy."

So if the plan is to build through the draft -- and build in the trenches, where I can count on two or three fingers the number of starters under the age of 30 -- they'd better stick to it.

And if it's really going to take a package of draft choices, like the 20th and 33rd next month -- remember, the No. 1 pick is more poison pill than carrot -- plus another pick next year in lieu of a starting-caliber player, then I think the Lions should pass.

At that price -- essentially trading three starters for one on a roster starving for more -- why not just draft Stafford and start grooming? He has the same arm, many of the same flaws, and he just might have more intangibles.

Now then, if the price isn't that high -- and we might get a better sense when the NFL owners meetings begin Sunday in Dana Point, Calif. -- it's obviously worth a shot. And if we've learned anything in Mayhew's short tenure as general manager, it's that he's not shy about talking trade.

But talk is cheap, and mistakes aren't in the NFL. The Lions should understand that better than most.

You can reach John Niyo at (313) 982-3810 or john.niyo@detnews.com">john.niyo@detnews.com.