Time for a Jay Cutler makeover
Bears quarterback should spend offseason learning how to smile and use the media
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- If life were fair, the Chicago Bears wouldn't have had to spend the past two days defending Jay Cutler's character or his toughness, or criticizing the fast-twitch criticism of their NFL peers.
If life were fair, they could have just packed up, and simply stammered and generalized about how Cutler didn't play well in the first half, how the team didn't play well, I mean, and how one terrible possession defensively forced the Bears into playing catch-up after the first drive in a game in which points would come at a premium.
But Cutler was the easy story, the sexy story. The criticism over his injury hopefully is dying down, and hopefully the criticism over the criticism of his injury will die down soon.
While some bemoan Cutler as some kind of martyr for the information age, I think it's more depressing that Cutler, a talented quarterback but not a true "Super Bowl" quarterback in the colloquial sense, is getting more pub than Aaron Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger, who will meet in what should be a very entertaining Super Bowl.
Heck, the car salesman who got fired for wearing a Packers tie is getting more pub than those two.
The only reason Cutler's toughness was called into question was the player reaction via Twitter. Local reporters know the guy is tough above all else. He got sacked 52 times this season and missed one game with a concussion.
And unlike Roethlisberger, whom I love as a longtime Steelers fan, Cutler doesn't advertise every ache and pain to the cameras.
The outsized display of disrespect to Cutler is rare but powerful. And it illustrates how unliked Cutler (or perhaps the popular image of Cutler) is among his peers, especially, as Greg Olsen noted, among players who have never met him. If Cutler is smart, he'll spend the offseason working on his mechanics, and practicing how to smile and fool the media into crafting stories about how he's "trying to change."
I'm not here to castigate NFL players for ripping Cutler. Just because one can play in the league doesn't make him an expert on football, personality, and certainly not how to deliver a newsy opinion quickly and concisely. Is it the players' fault they don't like the guy?
If anything, this story illustrates how players are just like average fans, beholden to TV images and quick fits of pique.
Irritated general manager Jerry Angelo called the Twitter criticism "crap," bizarrely bringing the union into the argument with the collective bargaining agreement soon to expire.
"I thought they were a union," he told reporters at Halas Hall. "If that's the way they unionize, they've got bigger issues than the ones they have with the owners."
Right. Criticizing Cutler is a bigger issue than the owners demanding a bigger slice of the financial pie from the guys risking their health. That kind of nonsensical thinking is to be expected. Angelo is to extemporaneous public speaking as Cutler is to throwing off his back foot.
While Olsen called the criticism of Cutler's toughness "insane" in a long diatribe prompted by reporters, defensive tackle Tommie Harris had no problem with people spouting off.
"It serves its purpose," Harris said of Twitter. "That's what its purpose is, freedom of speech. Guys are able to say whatever they want to say."
It's amusing that media members and now some fans are defending Cutler while players criticize him, and that says a lot about the state of professional and amateur criticism in today's society, in which everyone tries to be first, and if not first, contrarian.
"Certain people have an aura about them, right, wrong or indifferent," Angelo said. "We're in the perception business. I don't create perceptions. You create perceptions."
True, but a lot of those perceptions come from the televised shots of him with his poor body language and sideline grimaces while he stands alone.
Football players might know more about life behind the scenes in the NFL, but they take in visual information just like Joe from Gurnee, who's waiting patiently on hold to give his two cents.
The diagnosis of a Grade II sprain, or possible tear, of Cutler's medial collateral ligament cleared up the injury mystery, but some players, especially behind the scenes, will still critique the quarterback for not playing in pain, even though coach Lovie Smith stated firmly: "If you're going to attack someone, you should be attacking me" for benching Cutler.
While publicly everyone said the right thing Monday, I can guarantee you some Bears will debate the whole ordeal as well, because a lot of guys play with injuries that should sideline them. This was what Charles Tillman had to say Monday, before Smith announced Cutler's diagnosis as an "MCL sprain."
"I don't know the extent of Jay's injury," he said. "Only he knows how much pain he was in. Some people's pain threshhold is higher than others. Do you fault him for not going back into the game? I don't fault him. I'm sure if he could've played, he would have. I think he went out there, tried and didn't come out. I'd rather a player come out of the game if he can't perform at the level he's capable of.
"We are human," Tillman continued. "A lot of guys play with pain. A lot of guys play with pain all season. If the guy could've played, I'm sure he would've went. It's the NFC championship."
But all this pointless debate just obscures the real reason Bears fans should be upset -- another poor outing by the Bears' offense led to the defeat. It's not fair to say Cutler wouldn't have led a second-half comeback from being down 14-0, but his numbers suggest otherwise.
In the second half this season, Cutler was 120-for-204 for 1,428 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions. In the first half, he was 141-for-228 for 1,846 yards, 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions, with numbers heavily weighted toward the second quarter.
While typically the second quarter is his best, Cutler was unable to finish his chances Sunday before suffering his knee injury, which likely came on Sam Shields' blitz on the team's penultimate possession of the half. Cutler was dragged down in traffic and hopped off the field with a twinge.
While the playsheet said Cutler was injured on the final play of the half, center Olin Kreutz said Cutler entered a huddle after the injury in the first half, which makes me believe it was that play.
It was that possession that was the worst.
On the first play, starting at the Bears' 11, he backpedaled off the snap and threw off his back foot to Matt Forte running a deep route. The ball should have been picked. It was the exact kind of throw that drives coaches and analysts crazy. That's why Mike Martz said he has two 20-minute footwork sessions with Cutler every week. Martz said Cutler has a lifetime of bad habits to fix.
On the next play, Cutler overthrew Olsen running an out route but was bailed out on a defensive holding call against another receiver.
Cutler was nearly picked off again on the next pass, throwing to Olsen, who was double-covered. Cutler was hit in the elbow by a charging B.J. Raji as he threw, and the resulting flutter allowed Olsen to bat the ball down.
Forte had a 14-yard run and then got the ball twice more for short gains before Cutler was sacked by Shields. He fumbled, but Forte recovered.
Cutler got one more chance, bad knee and all, and tried to get Johnny Knox on a deep route, but he underthrew him and Shields picked him off. Cutler's throw was high-arcing and powerful. If his knee ligament was already sprained, you couldn't tell on that play.
Really, the NFL community should have been tweeting that Cutler played poorly in the NFC championship, because that's the truth.
''Our performance, Jay, the rest of our football team, the performance wasn't good enough," Smith said Monday. "At home, the biggest game we've played in a long time, that's not the start we wanted. Jay didn't play as well as I thought he would have played finishing up, once we got momentum. Again, it was me all the way down -- we didn't perform the way we needed to early on."
But now that the Cutler saga is dying down, can we move on to the next crisis?
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.