The Cutler debate: perception vs. reality
Popular opinion isn't on Jay Cutler's side, but it should be
Perception: Jay Cutler went out like a sucka. Bailed out. Tapped out. Sold and souled out. Like a man who didn't care about the game, his rep or his team.
Reality: Jay Cutler went out like a man with a game-ending injury, and didn't give a damn about what it looked like to the outside world.
Reality: He tried to talk his way back on to the field. Once he was told he couldn't, he shut down. His attempt to convince the medical staff that he could go back out there -- even if it meant he couldn't plant his leg without pain -- was his way of "gutting it out." Unfortunately, it wasn't enough.
Perception: His pompous, arrogant, Simon Cowell-like attitude that has been called his character is what made it so easy to believe that he quit on the team. He brought all of this drama on himself.
Reality: All of the above might be real, but the fact that fans (and some players apparently) think Cutler is a jerk shouldn't have led to instant speculation about the extent and legitimacy of his injury before the facts were in.
Perception: Cutler is the reason the Bears aren't playing in Super Bowl XLV. Had he played in the second half of the game -- even with a 31.8 QB rating in the first half and three snaps in the third quarter -- the Bears had a legitimate chance at winning.
Reality: (1) The minute Sports Illustrated put Cutler on its cover last week, the game was decided. Trust me, the cover jinx is no joke. (2) If you don't buy No. 1, then the minute the Bears deferred possession to the Packers to open the game after winning the coin toss, which consequently never made Aaron Rogers have to play from behind, their fate was sealed. (3) The Packers were favored by 3.5 points going into the game. The Bears were simply beaten by a better team.
Perception: Cutler's toughness was what was being questioned. All of the tweets and criticism stemmed from a belief that, as Arizona Cardinals lineman Darnell Dockett tweeted, "If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait for me and the team to shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room."
Reality: Cutler's toughness is not at the root of this. The magnitude and importance of the game is. The fact that it was the NFC Championship Game is what drove the negative viral reaction. Had Cutler left that meaningless (to the Bears) game against the Packers in Week 17, it would have never been the main topic on "OTL" or made Deion Sanders open up on Cutler the way he did on "Game Night Final."
Reality:This will eventually end up being the best thing to ever happen to Cutler. Just as the public "flipping" on LeBron James has been the best thing that happened to him. Now Cutler has a reason to have a chip on his shoulder. Now he has something to be mad about and people to be angry at. He never really had that before. This incident could be the incentive that pushes him to reach the greatness experts keep saying he has in him. If he's at all affected by this, it could be all he needs to shut everyone up over the next couple of years.
Perception: If Philip Rivers could play with a torn ACL, Cutler could have played with a sprained MCL.
Reality: Rivers' injury happened in the game before he played on it. Rivers sat out the fourth quarter of the game in which the injury happened (in the 2007 AFC divisional round). Everyone seems to want to use this as a reference point to gauge Cutler's manhood, but it isn't a good or fair comparison. They are totally different scenarios.
Perception: When the news broke that Cutler actually has a Grade II tear of his MCL, the people who ripped him would apologize.
Reality: Although some players have already begun back-pedaling from their initial comments and tweets, overall nothing will change. This is more about Cutler and how people don't like him than it us about his injury.
Perception: This has made Cutler the new Steve Bartman in Chicago sports.
Reality: It will merely be Cutler's own Scottie Pippen-1.8-seconds-left/migrane-headache moment. If he is the QB when the Bears win another Super Bowl, the entire episode becomes a footnote on his Wikipedia page, only to be bought up by those who never liked him from Day 2.
Perception: Once the truths in "Cutler Gate" are known, they will erase all of the perceptions that for 48 hours made this a more important story than the two teams that made it to the Super Bowl. The truth that Jay Cutler really was hurt will exonerate him.
Reality: Perception will always be stronger than reality. Always.
Scoop Jackson is a columnist for ESPN.com.