Commentary

Like looking in the mirror (sort of)

Cutler like Roethlisberger with a couple of key differences

Originally Published: September 17, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

"Behavior is the mirror in which everyone shows their image."
-- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Poise counts!"
-- Cosmo Kramer

CHICAGO -- Why don't you like Jay Cutler?

Is it the look in his eyes? The cut of his jib? The pout on his face? The four interceptions?

We don't know the real Jay Cutler yet, or even the Jay Cutler he lets free for public consumption and debate. Is he the moody malcontent who whined his way out of Denver? Is he the strong-armed quarterback who could be the first Bears quarterback since Jim McMahon who doesn't make you want to jump into Lake Michigan … in December?

After his unbelievably bad debut, fans are antsy. Reporters are antsy. Heck, even if it's not showing it, I bet the front office is antsy. And Cutler's body language on national TV seemed to peeve people. I was at the game, and the only thing I worried about was how he looked on the field -- disheveled and flustered. Not like a four-year veteran expected to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

The cure for his malaise isn't therapy or lessons from Miss Manners. Cutler just needs to win a game. If he does, people will love him and cameras will stop focusing on every glower and roll of his eyes. He makes his first home start this Sunday (3:15 p.m., CBS) against the reigning Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers and a quarterback who is, in many ways, Cutler's mirror image.

Both quarterbacks were the 11th pick of their respective drafts, Ben Roethlisberger in 2004 and Cutler in 2006. Both are Midwestern natives, but neither was a big target for Big Ten schools. Roethlisberger ended up at Miami University in Ohio, the Cradle of Coaches, and Cutler at SEC doormat Vanderbilt, the Cradle of Jerry Angelo players. Both are strapping -- not svelte -- young men with big arms. But, aside from a shared proclivity for getting their pictures taken in bars, that's where the similarities end.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
Jason Miller/US PresswireBen Roethlisberger manages to make positive plays when it matters most.

Roethlisberger wound up on a veteran Steelers team that didn't need him to be the next Terry Bradshaw. He has played with some of the best defenses in the NFL, and at times, some of its best running backs. Despite numerous setbacks, on and off the field, Roethlisberger has persevered. His game-winning throw in last season's Super Bowl win over Arizona will go down in history as one of the game's finest moments. He is 51-20 as a starter, 8-2 in the playoffs, and is responsible for 15 fourth-quarter comeback victories, according to profootballreference.com. He will play for the Steelers until they deem he can't play anymore.

Cutler wound up in Denver with the impossible job of being the next John Elway, and with a defense that would make Tom Jackson cry. The team benched popular quarterback Jake Plummer in the middle of a winning season to start Cutler as a rookie. He went 17-20 in two-plus seasons in Denver, with five comeback wins, and forced a trade to Chicago when new management deemed him replaceable. It wasn't the best situation, and Cutler didn't do much to make it better.

You could make a parallel to the old feature in Highlights Magazine, Goofus and Gallant, except Gallant never busted his head in a motorcycle accident, had to dispute a sexual assault accusation, and as far as Highlights' censors allowed, was never photographed wearing a "Drink Like a Champion" T-shirt.

But in terms of NFL experience and respect, Roethlisberger is the poster boy for success, even when it's not pretty.

Roethlisberger may be a wild card when he's scrambling, but he possesses an innate ability to make positive plays when it matters most. He is always into the game, talking, cajoling, and his teammates trust him, and seem to like him completely. And if you think that isn't the reason he can lead comebacks when the clock is ticking, like in the Super Bowl for instance, you haven't been on a team in a while.

"Some people thrive on those moments and others don't," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "Ben is a guy that thrives on those moments. He's at his best sometimes in the face of adversity. He sees those moments in great clarity. He puts himself in position to make plays. I believe the guys who play with him feed off that. So it lends itself to those crucial situations. And let's face it, that's a big benefit to us."

When I asked Roethlisberger if he had any advice for Cutler about being a true superstar quarterback, Big Ben laughed and said, "Shoot, he was the Pro Bowler last year, maybe he should give me advice." That Cutler had a better regular season than the Super Bowl champ is true. Cutler was seventh in the Football Outsiders' stat that measures players' value, DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), while Roethlisberger was 27th. The previous year, Cutler was 11th and Roethlisberger 13th. Of course, Roethlisberger went to the playoffs in 2007 and won the Super Bowl last February, which tends to weigh heavier on your reputation than throwing for 4,500 yards.

Like most quarterbacks, Roethlisberger would tell you he cares only about winning. If you've watched him play, you know he might actually mean it. Being a leader, a real captain, is something he cherishes. Being calm on the sidelines goes along with the responsibility of being the public face of an organization.

"For me, it's very important," he said. "Being the leader, everyone kind of watching you, and looking at you, and seeing how you react. I try to stay calm, even if my heart's racing, and I'm going crazy. I try to look even-keeled on the outside, just so the other guys see that and hopefully be the same."

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIf Jay Cutler wins, whatever he looks like on the sidelines will be fine by Bears fans.

There is a school of thought that you don't have to be liked as long as you win. (It's called the Jim McMahon School of Quarterbackery.) But maybe, as an NFL quarterback, being a great guy inspires others to be better than they can be.

There is no proof that Cutler isn't that guy, that he can't become that guy. Receiver Rashied Davis said Cutler's been great teammate -- though he also said he wouldn't tell me if any teammate was a jerk, which makes perfect sense -- and Greg Olsen, Cutler's buddy, said the same thing.

Stefan Fatsis isn't so sure.

Fatsis, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of several books, spent the summer of 2006 with the Denver Broncos as he researched his book, "A Few Seconds of Panic," an astute update to George Plimpton's classic piece of experiential journalism, "Paper Lion." Fatsis wanted to experience the NFL from the inside and participated with the Broncos during two minicamps and the preseason as a last-string kicker.

Because he wasn't a reporter, per se, and he did the same work as the players, more or less, the walls between player and writer came down, and he got to live the NFL experience as a real insider, with the only difference being his journalistic perspective, and of course, that he had nothing on the line but a book advance. That was Cutler's first preseason as a professional, and Fatsis said he learned one important lesson that relates to Cutler's future.

"I left that summer more convinced than ever that things the media tends to exaggerate, like character and intangibles, actually have meaning," he said. "Players respond to players they like, players that dictate the qualities of leadership. They respond to who they like and who they feel can lead them."

Is Cutler a leader in the making? He has all the physical attributes of a quarterback, but in the NFL, that's not all it takes. Ask former Bears about Cade McNown. Kyle Orton was loved as a leader, but his physical skills pale in comparison with Cutler's. It takes a perfect blend, like Roethlisberger, to win consistently.

"[Former Broncos coach] Mike [Shanahan] raved about Jay. He loved Jay as his quarterback," Fatsis said. "I do think, even at first, people in the organization wondered about his maturity, and his personality, and whether those things affected his ability to be a successful leader in the long term in the NFL."

Fatsis and Cutler weren't fast friends during the writer's stay in Denver, but they hung out a few times with a mutual friend. Fatsis said he saw two sides to Cutler, and he wasn't the only one who felt that way.

"The times we went out, a couple of nights, it was just the three of us, and Jay was perfectly sociable and very reasonable," he said. "There were a lot of times he was dismissive, with the eye-rolling, and him making fun of me."

[+] EnlargeMike Shanahan
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesFormer Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said he was a big Jay Cutler fan.

You won't find that anecdote in Fatsis' book, though it's obvious what Fatsis thought of Cutler personally, and today, he said he has no ax to grind with Cutler. He hopes he does well, but acknowledges he doesn't know how much he would like rooting for him as a fan.

Fatsis keeps in touch with Broncos players from that team, and during the past few seasons, with management and coaches. Most of those people are gone now, excised by the new regime. Cutler worked hard on the field and was a star pupil in meetings, by all accounts, but he never quite clicked with his teammates. Maybe it was their fault, maybe it was his.

"From what I heard in Denver, and this is my own interpretation, I don't think he had the undying support and loyalty of the rest of the offense," Fatsis said. "People were tired of his laconic demeanor, his unfriendly behavior. You want the guy who leads your team to have a dynamic personality. But that stuff is hard to parse. It all goes out the window if he goes out and throws six touchdowns and beats the Steelers, and is looked at as the second coming. And he has the ability to do that."

It sounds hypocritical to say this, in an article critiquing him, but maybe Cutler just needs room to breathe in Chicago. After one game, the city's panic alert is at "Grossman." Not that he's noticed, outside of a few more questions about why he makes faces on the sideline. Cutler doesn't seem to be the kind of guy who cares if he's liked or not. He's not going to buddy up to reporters. He's not going to throw on a fake smile and preen for the cameras.

But if he wants to, if he needs inspiration, Cutler should look to Roethlisberger, a guy who has won big games and presents himself, on the field, as a winner. Maybe that's why his teammates love him. Or maybe it's the other way around. Being liked, acting like a leader and being successful aren't always mutually exclusive.

And poise counts in more than beauty pageants.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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