Like it or not
Jay Cutler's problem is he's not liked, and the only way he can change that is to win
LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The tweet abuse doled out by former and current NFL players toward Jay Cutler, as well as the criticism of the Bears' starting quarterback by media and fans, had little to do with Cutler's toughness or his play or his sideline behavior Sunday.
When it comes down to it, Cutler is picked on because he is not well-liked.
If that sounds like junior high, well, welcome to American society.
If it sounds harmless, well, not so fast.
We have seen the repercussions heaped upon a high-profile and unpopular NFL quarterback, and it is not only not pretty, but it is potentially harmful to his development.
This is not an established star or a budding Hall of Famer we're talking about. And this is not isolated dislike.
Consider that former and current players stepped over a line not normally crossed to rip Cutler on Sunday for not returning to the NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers because of a knee injury. That the injury turned out to be legitimate -- a sprain of his left medial collateral ligament -- might have provided some level of satisfaction to Cutler's friends and family Monday, but it is not germane at this point.
Players talk. They talk to their wives and their friends and sometimes their opponents. Random players across the league have heard unflattering things about Cutler. And like anyone who has ever watched Cutler on the sideline or behind a podium, players also can observe for themselves a certain attitude that is a turnoff.
The most impassioned defense of Cutler on Monday came from Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who called the players' negative tweets "crap" and snapped off a public shot at the NFL Players Association.
"I thought they were a union," Angelo said. "If that's the way they unionize themselves, they have bigger issues than the ones they have with the owners. I'm very disappointed with that."
Angelo did not debate Cutler's likeability.
"Certain people have an aura about them, right, wrong or indifferent," he told the media Monday. "We're in the perception business. I don't create perceptions; you create perceptions."
Actually, it is Cutler who has created this one. And right, wrong or indifferent, it is a major issue that dominated discussion hours after the game and the following day, and no doubt will continue to rear its head during the offseason and into next season.
Is it simply Chicago, a city accused of tearing down former Bears quarterback Rex Grossman and as discerning a sports town as any?
"I've always said this town's tough on quarterbacks," Angelo said. "That's one of the prerequisites of playing quarterback [here]. If you don't have thick skin, this is not the town to be in. ... In part, that's why I wanted to trade for a veteran quarterback, somebody who earned his stripes in the league who's used to what comes into the fish bowl at that quarterback position. And I think Jay deals with what comes with the territory very well.
"Again, I'm not making any excuses for anybody; it just comes with the territory. He's paid well and he's paid to win, and that comes with the game."
But to blame Chicago is naive. Yes, we're demanding of our athletes. But they don't have to be veterans. And they don't have to be superstars. However, to quote John F. Kennedy and Uncle Ben in Spiderman, "To whom much is given, much is expected."
So yes, those who are drafted highest, paid the most and traded for multiple draft choices, we expect something in return.
Those of us who have even a small grip on reality do not expect a player who cannot perform due to injury to somehow do it anyway. But we do ask that an athlete in a position of leadership demonstrate that in a way we can recognize, such as not glaring at teammates who drop balls, not sulking on the sidelines and not acting as if answering questions from the media -- the direct conduit to fans -- is the most demeaning exercise imaginable.
The problem is that even if Cutler somehow sees his image as a problem to be fixed, it's not a given he can fix it. At nearly 28 years old, with seemingly no interest in engaging those who judge him and even many of those who don't, he just isn't likely to change.
His teammates and coaches say publicly that he does not need to change. On Monday, they defended Cutler, mostly by strongly supporting the notion that he is physically tough (and surely we have seen this through 56 sacks and one concussion this season) and that everyone who questions that notion needs to have his own head examined.
"It's jealousy and just hatred," said receiver and former college teammate Earl Bennett. "Some people just hate that Jay is a great quarterback and that he's on the Chicago Bears. A lot of people are scared to play against him."
Cornerback Charles Tillman also used the word "hate."
"Right now, Jay is the scapegoat for how we play here, which is totally not fair," Tillman said. "When he's doing good, everyone loves him. When he's not, everyone hates him.
"People love to hate him. The more people that hate on you, you're probably doing something good. I love the haters. Keep hating."
Hate is a scary word considering so many other news stories in this country, even scarier that it is tossed around so loosely when we're talking about sports. And athletes have overcome far worse transgressions than Cutler's image problem by simply performing well and winning.
Angelo gets that.
"You get respect by one thing in this league, and that's winning," he said. "It's not about whether I like him or I don't like him, if he'd be a good neighbor or not a good neighbor."
Scottie Pippen, even without social media, had a hard time overcoming the migraine that kept him out of the Game 7 loss against the Pistons in the 1990 Eastern Conference finals. That was before the Bulls' first NBA championship. When he sat out the infamous 1.8 seconds in Game 3 of the '94 conference finals, it was after three NBA titles.
After three more titles and a Hall of Fame induction, Pippen's indiscretions are, if not forgotten, forgiven, and he is a bonafide hometown hero. All about winning? Unfortunately, yes.
That's it. If Cutler had played well in the first half, he would have been given more slack on the injury front. If he had won the game and reached the Super Bowl, he could have gone through the offseason largely unscathed. And if he had led the Bears to a Super Bowl win, well, he could sneer through free drinks for a long time.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.