- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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Two words I thought I'd never type after Jay Cutler's name: sympathetic figure.
But in four bizarre days, Cutler has gone from aloof, underachieving quarterback to accused quitter to owner of a partially torn MCL to -- wait for it -- heroic victim of a post-NFC Championship Game smear campaign.
And all because he hurt his knee.
In the weirdest of ways, Cutler and his Chicago Bears reputation are getting a free perception face-lift. He was a supposed wuss Sunday; but after a nip here and a tuck there, No. 6 is suddenly beloved?
OK, that's a stretch, which, by the way, is also what happened to the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the loss to the Green Bay Packers. But because of that sprained knee -- and the national fallout surrounding the injury -- Cutler's image is undergoing an unexpected transformation.
I'm not even sure Brian Urlacher and Cutler are buds, but the Bears' star linebacker defended his quarterback like a high-priced attorney. Urlacher had Cutler's back, his front and his sides. I don't know whether Cutler would have done the same, but that's the eternal mystery of the guy -- nobody knows.
Bears GM Jerry Angelo rode to the rescue, too, calling the criticism of Cutler "crap." That makes sense, given that Angelo is the guy who engineered the career-defining trade that brought Cutler from Denver to Chicago. But given Angelo's history, he probably would have done the same for any of the players on his roster.
Even Bears coach Lovie Smith, who I wasn't sure had more than one facial expression (stoic), dared anyone to rip his quarterback. Said Smith, his deflector shields fully powered up, "If you're going to attack somebody, you should be attacking me."
Urlacher. Angelo. Smith. Bears teammates. You expected defiant, angry responses from them. But it hasn't stopped there.
Charles Barkley has jumped onto the leaf pile of Cutler defenders. Sports writers, including those (hello) who think Cutler needs to go to smirk rehab, argue that No. 6 absolutely deserves the benefit of the doubt. You can't swing a chin strap without hitting a new member of the Jay's OK Club.
Of course, the outpouring of Cutler-related love isn't universal. There remain plenty of Bears fans and NFL players, past and present, who think Cutler should have introduced his left knee to a hypodermic needle and become best friends with Dr. Painkiller at halftime of the NFC Championship Game. Strap a brace on the boo-boo and get out there for da Bears, right?
Easy for them to say. It wasn't their knee. And who knows -- maybe he did take a painkilling shot. (A Bears spokesperson said he wasn't aware whether such a shot was given.)
By accident -- and injury -- Cutler has been humanized by the controversy. He is no longer just that guy who throws too many interceptions, who has either a smirk or a scowl on his face, who generally acts as if an interview session is the same as getting waterboarded.
Instead, he's tough-guy Jay. Survivor of sacks, of diabetes, of a city and media that demand a return to 1985 and Super Bowl shuffles.
Cutler himself hasn't had much to do with the recent groundswell of support. He spoke briefly with reporters at his Soldier Field locker after the Bears' loss, then with a local radio sideline reporter. And that's the last we've heard from him.
There was no impassioned speech. No Dennis Green-like rant. He was there. And then he was gone.
But, as strange as it sounds, that sprained MCL might be a turning point for Cutler. Like a razor dragged across a 5 o'clock shadow, the knee injury shaved away some of the hard edges on Cutler's persona. If nothing else, the backlash he has endured makes him seem less ice-prince-ish.
In practical terms, the injury gave Cutler an out -- not that he wanted one, necessarily, but it did. The Bears' medical staff said he was done, which is why Cutler made only a cameo appearance to start the third quarter.
Of course, there are those who will forever question Cutler and his toughness. But it appears there are just as many, if not more, who have a renewed or newfound respect for him. Or maybe a newfound sympathy and empathy.
Whatever it is, Cutler has been given a rare opportunity. Had he not been injured and instead played the second half as miserably as he did the first, he would be as popular in Chicago as a salt truck strike.
But the football gods intervened. He hurt his knee. He tried coming back, but no go. Then an injury issue became a human decency issue.
It isn't often that you can emerge from an NFC Championship Game defeat, especially one to the rival Packers, as anything more than a loser. But with the help of his teammates, his coach, his GM and even some of his most frequent critics, Cutler has become an accidental hero. Go figure.
When Cutler finally addresses the topic, it will be interesting to see how he handles his new status. Will he embrace the support he received? Or will the smirk return?
Bears followers are looking for reasons to trust Cutler. In the aftermath of MCL Sunday, what he says and does next could be one of those reasons.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
2dKevin Van Valkenburg