An inexperienced coach. An immature quarterback. The rocky relationship that sprung out of Josh McDaniels' efforts to trade Pro Bowler Jay Cutler might actually foster growth in both men's careers _ providing this spat doesn't end in an ugly divorce first.

If they agree, even begrudgingly, to work things out, this entire episode will leave the cranky 25-year-old quarterback with a tougher skin. It also will leave the novice 32-year-old head coach with instant "cred" in the locker room and the Denver Broncos with a resulting edge that could speed their return to respectability and the playoffs.

Or ...

Things could go from bad to worse.

Two weeks ago, McDaniels wasn't just thinking about bringing the Patriots' complex offensive style to Denver, but also his protege, Matt Cassel, whom he tutored in New England last season.

Cassel, who hadn't started since high school, led the Patriots to an 11-5 season after Tom Brady hurt his knee in the opener. That made McDaniels a hot coaching commodity, one that Broncos owner Pat Bowlen quickly snatched up after cutting ties with longtime coach Mike Shanahan.

Instead of sending Cassel to Denver, however, the Patriots ignited a firestorm in Denver by trading him to the Broncos' AFC West rival Kansas City Chiefs.

Cutler found out about it and threw a fit, leading to a public relations mess with the new regime of McDaniels and general manager Brian Xanders, another thirtysomething novice only weeks into his new job.

The public sentiment initially favored Cutler because fans tend to relate to their sports stars, not management. When was the last time you saw somebody buying a Bill Belichick hoodie instead of a Brett Favre jersey?

But the temperamental quarterback doesn't have much capital with Broncos fans, whose hearts he has yet to win over. They often site his pouty, petulant persona and his attitude of disinterest at the podium.

So callers and bloggers and readers are equally split in this unpleasant imbroglio.

Both Cutler and McDaniels are digging in their heels, and the big debate in Denver is whether Cutler will show up for a face-to-face meeting to clear the air, and whether he might be a no-show Monday when the team begins its "voluntary" offseason workout program that he was strongly encouraged to attend.

Going AWOL would undermine the new coach and ratchet up this odious offseason quarterback controversy, perhaps leading to Cutler's departure from this football-crazed city where Hall of Famer John Elway still casts a long shadow a decade after his retirement. Showing up for the workouts would keep Cutler in line for a bonus and provide the first steps toward a reconciliation that would serve both men's best interests.

After all, does Cutler really want to force his way out of town if it means a ticket to, say, Detroit?

And does McDaniels really want to chase off his locker room leader and start from scratch with a rookie or a retread under center?

He's got enough on his plate trying to fix a dreadful defense and in dealing with Pro Bowl wide receiver Brandon Marshall, whose latest run-in with the law subjects him to a lengthy suspension next season.

Even after a conference call Monday where both sides laid out their stances and laid bare their feelings, Cutler's discontent persists and McDaniels' defiance perseveres.

The Broncos want Cutler to realize that nobody is untouchable in this brutal business of pro football. And that he must get over his hurt feelings to start learning the intricate Patriots-style offense that is an absolute foreign language compared to the West Coast system he's been running all these years.

A new coach needs his quarterback to buy into the changes so the rest of the team follows. This is of particular importance in Denver given Marshall's troubles.

Having just returned from his first Pro Bowl, Cutler still can't believe the Broncos tried to trade him and he doesn't believe the Broncos' proclamations he's no longer on the block, either.

Cutler understands why McDaniels wanted to bring more than just the Patriots' system from New England, but he wants McDaniels to regain his trust by coming clean about his efforts to deal him.

Did McDaniels initiate the talks? Why did the Buccaneers and Lions both figure Cutler could be dealt? Was he being shopped at the combine? If he did only listen, as he has said, McDaniels certainly didn't hang up right away, and that alone upsets Cutler.

McDaniels has said Cutler is his guy, but other teams who need an established franchise quarterback are keeping a keen eye on this soap opera with the draft coming up in six weeks.

Maybe Cutler wants his new boss to prove his commitment with a long-term contract extension. He has three seasons left on the six-year, $48 million deal he signed in 2006, when he was the 11th player picked in the draft.

Cutler has clearly outplayed the two quarterbacks taken ahead of him, Vince Young and Matt Leinart. Yet, Cutler, known as much for his petulance with teammates and the media _ and by extension the public _ as for his rocket right arm that he so famously compared to Elway's last season, is just 17-20 in his career. He also has no playoff appearances since supplanting Jake Plummer as Broncos starter with five weeks left in the 2006 season.

Some of that has to do with a dreadful defense that hasn't done him any favors. Since Cutler became the starter, only Drew Brees and Peyton Manning have thrown for more yards than Cutler's 9,024.

Shanahan used to proclaim that Cutler was headed for greatness. Failing to live up to that billing right away played a role in Shanahan's dismissal three months ago.

Whether Cutler and McDaniels will work together to make the Broncos relevant again is still unknown. But if they decide to put their differences aside, this spat could very well be the stimulus that ultimately makes their relationship work.

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