Commentary

Tough questions still plague Cutler

It's going to be very difficult for the Bears QB to change this dialogue

Updated: January 27, 2011, 9:53 PM ET
By Michael Wilbon | ESPNChicago.com

For Jay Cutler, the Packers and Steelers probably can't get to Dallas quickly enough. He surely can't wait for the Super Bowl XLV teams to start talking and get him off the stage ASAP.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesJay Cutler's sideline demeanor was a hot topic in social media circles.

Until then, the Bears quarterback remains Topic A in football circles. At least the discussion has moved from whether Cutler should have continued playing during the NFC Championship Game, with what we know now is a sprained MCL in his left knee, to whether it's OK for professional football players to publicly criticize members of their own fraternity.

There has never been a situation quite like this: The whole world, including most every professional football player with a Twitter account, reacting in live time to a quarterback suffering an injury.

It's certainly nothing Doug Williams had to deal with in the aftermath of sustaining a hyperextended knee during the first quarter of the Redskins' 42-10 victory over the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII in January 1988. Williams, perhaps more than anybody watching the Bears and Packers last Sunday, knows what it was like to be in the position Cutler was in -- knee hurting, team depending on him, championship at stake.

"I was in tremendous pain," Williams recalled this week. "I had to have surgery the day after the victory parade. I was on crutches that day. After I slipped and hurt my knee [Redskins backup quarterback] Jay Schroeder came in the game for second down and third down. I hated being out of the game for two plays. We punted, and Joe Gibbs came over and asked me, 'Doug, can you go?'

"For me," Williams continued, "there wasn't any tomorrow, and I didn't care about yesterday. When our trainer, Bubba Tyer, was about to put his hand on my knee, I said, 'Don't touch me!' I wanted to see if I could get up. If I could stand up, I felt I could play. Our trainer and doctor said, 'It's unstable.' But I told them, 'I can do this.' I could stand up. I wasn't making enough money to not play … $425,000. They kept telling me it was 'unstable' and I told them they could cut it off tomorrow."

Nothing quite that dramatic was necessary. Williams said he took a shot of cortisone at halftime, but by then he'd already had the greatest quarter in Super Bowl history, maybe the greatest quarter any football player ever had. Four touchdown passes in a 35-point, second-quarter explosion, thus the parade in the U.S. capital that Williams had to attend on crutches.

[+] EnlargeDoug Williams
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesDoug Williams got up from this knee injury and had arguably the best quarter in Super Bowl history.

Williams, in a strange little twist, is a big Jay Cutler fan. There don't seem to be that many among football players, active or retired, but Williams is one. "I've been a Cutler fan since he was at Vanderbilt," Williams said, "I thought he was one tough SOB and that was even before he was diagnosed as being diabetic."

Williams, an executive with the Buccaneers, once made one of his scouts who didn't have a high opinion of Cutler, go back and take a longer look. "He took a beating and kept making plays," Williams recalled. "I do think he's tough, always have thought that."

That debate could go on the entire offseason. What's of greater value in studying Cutler is whether NFL players have the right to pass judgment in real time the way so many did on Cutler, and whether the mere expression of such criticism publicly and willingly suggests players don't respect Cutler as much as other quarterbacks of stature in the NFL.

Of course, you can find as many opinions as there are players on both topics. Personally, some opinions are more valid than others. On the issue of ethics in journalism, I want to hear from journalists. And they don't have to have had an ethical run-in for me to consider their opinions valid. On the subject of a football player's toughness, I want to hear from other football players. I'm glad that I haven't seen many, if any, columnists questioning Cutler's toughness because there's not a single sportswriter I know who has played in a championship game with a hurt knee. But Philip Rivers of the Chargers has. When he says he doesn't question Cutler's courage, but it would have taken a stretcher to get the San Diego quarterback off the field, it resonates with me. Williams knows the situation, too, and when he says he'd gladly have Cutler as his quarterback because he thinks Cutler is a tough guy, that resonates with me, too.

Football players, in my view, have earned the right to wonder about another football player's toughness. Deion Sanders, who tweeted that day, has that right, as does Derrick Brooks, as do the others -- as long as you don't later try to moonwalk out of your position as Maurice Jones-Drew did by claiming he was joking.

We don't have to come to a consensus on everything. The very nature of sports demands usually that we don't. In a conversation Tony Kornheiser and I had with Herschel Walker on Thursday for "Pardon The Interruption," Walker weighed in on the Cutler drama, telling us, "To be honest, I thought it was insulting that players would criticize Cutler. They don't know what he was going through. And what was so strange was they called him a wuss and words like that. … You're sitting on a couch calling him a wuss and he's playing? Maybe if you had played better, you'd be out there playing and we'd be talking about you! I don't think you put down another player who says he's hurt."

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesDespite taking several big hits Sunday, Cutler found his toughness being questioned in a way that franchise quarterbacks rarely encounter.

Walker's opinion, as one of the toughest players to play the game, is valid. But it would be just as valid, to me, if he felt 180 degrees differently.

Williams said, "I don't know his pain. Who am I to judge his level of tolerance? On the other hand, there are certain situations, certain games, if you can walk … But he did try to play after halftime. … There was no Twitter when I played, but I will say, if I hadn't gone back in that [Super Bowl] game, people would have beaten me up. If I hadn't gone back in and they'd won without me people would have said, 'Well, Jay Schroeder should have played anyway.' I think it's a no-win situation for an athlete."

Williams, as a footnote, already had demonstrated a degree of toughness; he'd had a root canal the day before Super Bowl XXII.

What hangs out there unanswered, though, in the curious case of Jay Cutler is why so many active players felt free to rip him on the record. Would that have happened to Tom Brady or Peyton Manning? No chance. Ben Roethlisberger or the aforementioned Rivers? No. Tony Romo or Donovan McNabb? Possible, but very, very doubtful. There's something about Cutler, perhaps the fact that before this season he hadn't had a winning record in the NFL or in college, that many of his peers don't respect. He wasn't given the benefit of the doubt.

TMZ's footage of Cutler walking at a Southern California shopping mall with his girlfriend, Kristin Cavallari, won't help, though I'd need to see tape of Cutler running and cutting before I'd be offended.

Williams, though he clearly likes Cutler, said, "His demeanor might not be pleasant to everybody, but you can't evaluate toughness on his demeanor."

That, however, raises the question of whether a quarterback with Cutler's demeanor (or if we give him the benefit of the doubt here, his perceived demeanor), can be a championship quarterback. Cutler has teammates with the Broncos and Bears who hate what they call his pouting on the bench after something has gone wrong. He's obviously bright and well-spoken yet seemingly goes out of his way to be uncommunicative. Fine for a linebacker or cornerback, but name a big-time successful quarterback who has made that work.

It's not the way any of the championship-caliber quarterbacks of the past 20 years have operated, whether we're talking about Brady, Manning, Roethlisberger, Brees, Eli Manning, Kurt Warner, Brad Johnson and Trent Dilfer, or even those who have come up a touch short, such as McNabb, Matt Hasselbeck and Rich Gannon, just to name a few. Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, new to the Super Bowl mix, is somewhere between engaging and downright charismatic.

Maybe, on the other hand, the Bears themselves are just fine with Cutler's personality, and they, like many of us, think he can come back on a sound knee after an offseason of work on footwork/fundamentals and take them one step further, which would likely stop the questions about his toughness and his personality. But if he doesn't, and if members of his own fraternity continue to publicly question his courage and whether he'll do whatever necessary to win, whether or not Bears fans think it's warranted, the referendum on Cutler and his worthiness will be up for discussion long after this Super Bowl is over.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.

Michael Wilbon | email

Pardon the Interruption co-host
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC, in addition to ESPN. You can follow him on Twitter: @RealMikeWilbon

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