Commentary

Four NFL lessons and a Sooperbowl

Jay Cutler can't be forgiven; Ben Roethlisberger can. And Rex Ryan doesn't understand.

Originally Published: January 24, 2011
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

Having lasted through the seven-hour catechism of Sunday's conference championships …

Q: "What is the chief end of Jay Cutler?"

A: "To disappoint."

Q: "And the Jets of New Jersey?"

A: "Likewise. And to not cover, also."

… some thoughts today on success and failure and the limits of inspiration, on epiphany and ecstasy and the icy arc of celebrity, on fairy tales and reputation and the happy magic of transubstantiation. Then on to Super Bowl √2025!

Part I

Jay Cutler is a riddle wrapped in a mystery hidden inside a jackass. Somewhere at the bottom of a haystack made entirely of Jay Cutler Russian nesting dolls lies the needling truth of Jay Cutler's character.

All of which my colleague Rick Reilly pointed out here not two weeks ago.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesWhat to make of the most disrespected star in the NFL now?

Thus, Cutler last week, hero.

Cutler this week? Well, you know.

Which merely goes to show how fragile a thing, and how fleeting, is the reputation of any man who pretends not to care about his reputation. I have no doubt that Jay Cutler was too seriously hurt to return to the field on Sunday. I also have no doubt that he is now the most openly disrespected star in the NFL. If you're being dissed Twitter-style in real time by your peers, your reputation is junk. Which is fine -- unless you find yourself in a leadership role. Like, say, that of an NFL quarterback.

If you're going to play the "I don't care what people think of me" game, you better be a painter, a poet or a dictator. Someone who lives and works alone, inside the hot bubble of his or her own self-regard.

Part II

The other fake narrative all last week was the passion, eloquence and irresistible power of Rex Ryan's locker room oratory. He enlivens the entire league! Coming off their long-shot win against the Patriots, the nitwit press was delighted to tell us the Jets were 99 percent inspiration, 1 percent perspiration.

Which, oddly enough, proved to be absolutely true a week later.

[+] EnlargeRex Ryan
AP Photo/Charles KrupaThe mouth that roared got floored in Pittsburgh.

The Sunday Jets might have been ready to grab the mike on the ring apron of the WWE, or mount the stage at a Cambridge debate, or perform another "reality" season on HBO, but they were totally unprepared to play NFL football.

Because inspiration, like ecstasy, is by its very nature brief. And occasional. Which is why writers and musicians and football teams rely on craft -- practice -- to carry them across the years.

Rex Ryan chose instead to beckon the muse, and paid the price when she didn't show. Stiffed, stood up, undone, he then said:

"We are going to chase that Super Bowl. We are going to chase it until we get it. And we'll chase it after that again.

"But that's it. If you want to criticize us, then go ahead, but you have no right."

Fired up? Sure. But the statement also betrays a complete misunderstanding of football and coaching and the entitlements of the audience in the American theater.

No right to criticize? With seat licenses going for 25K?

Oh, Rex.

Part III

Success teaches us nothing. Nor is it very interesting. So not much to say here on the matter of Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, except congratulations. They seem genuinely happy to find themselves where they are.

Brace yourself, however, for two weeks of sports stories in which the ghost of Brett Favre howls and flaps and sulks in the background of everything they do and say.

Part IV

The other running narrative, to the shame of all attached to it, will be the Media Week Redemption of Ben Roethlisberger. Forgiveness in the NFL being a function of passer rating -- per Michael Vick -- look for many, many, many stories in which the central premise is the happy remanufacture of Mr. Roethlisberger's immortal soul.

[+] EnlargeBen Roethlisberger
AP Photo/Matt SlocumSomething to keep in mind over the next two weeks: He's just a football player.

Which is not to say that he shouldn't be forgiven. He should be, of course, on the grounds that he is only human. As are we all. Forgiveness is our greatest gift, and we each deserve a second chance.

But to assume that he's a different man, or made spiritual restitution in full, is to make the same mistake we make with Michael Vick.

Redemption is the thing you earn everywhere but the field.

And reconciliation is the work of a long lifetime.

Football is only football.

Part V

Still, in less than two weeks, the entire apparatus of the American Football-Industrial Complex will gather for the Super Bowl. There, at the Crypt of Narcissus, at The Jerry Jones Monument To Jerry Jones, we'll hear again the stories of our prophets, retell the glorious testament of Aaron and the late shame of Caleb, and bend to the prayers and benedictions of our national sacrament.

Packers. Steelers.

And we shall be remade in this, the ancient and annual pilgrimage to the Church of our Forgetting, the corporate Hajj on which we forgive ourselves everything.

Except, of course, Jay Cutler.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at jeff_macgregor@hotmail.com, or follow his Twitter.com feed @MacGregorESPN.

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