Suddenly, in Chicago, Steve Bartman isn’t looked upon with the same level of scathing disdain as he was a week ago Now, it appears that Jay Cutler has supplanted Bartman as persona non grata in the Windy City after Chicago lost the NFC Championship, the Halas Trophy, and a berth in Super Bowl XLV on home soil.
Two weeks ago, Cutler was king as he joined Otto Graham as the only other quarterback in the history of the playoffs to throw and run for two touchdowns in a playoff game. Leading the Bears past the Seattle Seahawks and into the NFC Championship against arch rival Green Bay, the returns on the trade that landed Cutler from Denver were beginning to pay off. Cutler was beginning to erase the quarterback ghosts of the past. After all, Bears fans have been aching for a start quarterback to come along and allow them to forget the likes of Shane Matthews, Steve Stenstrom, Cade McNown, Jonathan Quinn and Moses Moreno.
Yuck. In fact, double yuck.
But as we’ve seen in the past, all it takes is a week for your luck to change just that fast, because in the blink of an eye Cutler has gone from hero to heel after sitting out a majority of the second half in last Sunday’s NFC Championship loss against Green Bay with some degree of a knee injury. How could this be? How badly was Cutler hurt? What was the severity of his injury? Was it so painful that he couldn’t gut it out? Why can’t he go back out there? Why does he look it’s no big deal? How come he’s not in the face of Lovie Smith and the coaching staff, demanding to go back into the game? These were just a sampling of questions racing through the minds of Bears fans and football fans alike as we watched the surreal moment of the Bears going it without their starting quarterback and eventually turning to third stringer Caleb Hanie.
His absence in the most critical time of need for the Bears drew the ire from former and current NFL players (Maurice Jones-Drew, Darnell Dockett, Derrick Brooks to name a few). Cutler’s guts, leadership and toughness have all come under heavy fire, without a hose in sight to douse the flames of criticism without knowing the true seriousness of Cutler’s injury. Speaking of flames, photos surfaced after the game of Bears fans burning Cutler jerseys in the parking lot. Cavaliers fans would be proud.
Perhaps this was the wrong town and certainly the wrong moment for something like this to happen. After all, it’s Chicago we’re talking about, a city made famous by tough guys and hard-as-nails personalities. The names Bronko Nagurski,. Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary ring a bell? As far as they’re concerned in Chicago, they don’t come any tougher than that, and there’s a different toughness standard there.
And there lies the problem. Whether fair or not, Cutler plays for the Bears and it seems as though he doesn’t come close to measuring up to the pre-determined toughness standards in Chicago. For the record, personally I don’t question how tough Cutler is as a player. I don’t know Jay Cutler from Jay Mohr. I haven’t had the pleasure of playing on Sundays with him. From what I’ve seen, playing behind a woefully, holes-a-plenty offensive line that surrendered the most sacks this season, despite taking routine punishment, Cutler’s managed to get up off the turf and get back in the huddle.
If this were the regular season, a Grade II MCL sprain would probably have required Cutler to be out at least a month, possibly longer. But this is the playoffs we’re talking about, particularly the NFC title game. The bigger the magnitude of a game, the more that’s expected from you especially if you’re playing the quarterback position. There’s been a precedent set on toughness in the NFL, widely considered the toughest sport with the toughest of tough guys.
The battlefield is littered with tales and stories of players who’ve come long before Cutler and a few of Cutler’s peers. Brett Favre’s 298 straight starts epitomizes toughness, playing through broken bones, sprains, and at times a heavy heart. Former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress played in Super Bowl XLII with a torn MCL in his left knee. This season, Ben Roethlisberger played with and through a broken nose and a broken foot. Late Titans QB Steve McNair played through every injury imagineable. You name it and McNair played through it.
And then there’s guys like Jim Marshall, Jack Youngblood and Ronnie Lott. Marshall, defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings, maintained a streak of 282 consecutive games despite pneumonia, ulcers and a shotgun wound. Los Angeles Rams defensive legend Youngblood played the final three games of the 1979 season, including the Super Bowl, with a broken leg. Perhaps the most legendary story of them all is of Lott, the heart and warrior of the 49ers’ defense. In 1985, Lott shattered the bone in his left pinkie playing in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. Rather than miss any playing time and risk any chance of having his career shortened, Lott has his pinkie chopped off down to the third knuckle.
It’s a given in the NFL and in sports in general: there’s this code of the warriors, playing and sacrifcing anything, at all costs for the betterment of the team and chance at glory. We conjure up images of Willis Reed coming out of the tunnel in Madison Square Garden, a sick Kirk Gibson rounding the bases in the World Series and Olympic runner Derek Redmond finishing the race with the help of his father in the 1992 Summer Olympics. That’s the type of courage, heart and determination we as a society and fans love and often times expect.
The last, less-than-flattering images we have of Cutler is a guy with a disconnected, blank expression in a Bears’ hooded jacket standing on the sidelines. And like it or not, the perceptions and conclusions drawn from Cutler fueled the fire. He sat aloof, almost disinterested on the bench, as if he were pondering where to get a good burger after the game rather than lending some counseling to Todd Collins and Hanie in his absence. The lasting image that sticks out is Hanie and Cutler sitting side by side on the bench. As Hanie was reviewing game photographs from the Bears’ previous offensive series, there was Cutler next to him not saying a word or lending support.
From his head coach, to his center Olin Kreutz to team captain Brian Urlacher, they’ve rallied behind Cutler and taken up for their quarterback. Urlacher said it was ridiculous for any outsiders to take shots at Cutler’s toughness. Kreutz said he didn’t know how Cutler was able to come back out in the third quarter and attempt to play with he knee shaking so badly.
Still, despite all the defending of Cutler inside the locker room, I don’t think it’s lessens the anger and frustration of the fans who can invision Jim McMahon going nose to nose and shout for shout with Mike Ditka had Dikta made a call to keep McMahon out of the game. They can picture Mike Singletary knocking his own mother to the ground to get back on the field. ‘Sweetness’ would’ve turned sour had he been told by the medical staff they didn’t think he should return to action. The perception, and quite possibly the reality, was that Cutler didn’t force Lovie Smith to take his helmet or that Smith was forced to call security to physically have Cutler removed from the sidelines. That’s the fire and desire I think Bears fans everywhere wanted to see.
Fair or unfair, it seems as though for a long time Cutler and the Bears are going to have to deal with the fallout of the NFC Championship. There will be doubts and plenty of suspicisions about Cutler’s toughness and whether or not he’s the right guy to lead the Bears. How do the Bears recover from this? It’s sure to be a difficult offseason for Cutler, who’s widely viewed as the guy who jumped off the ship as it was sinking. In the biggest moment in the longest standing rivalry in the NFL, Cutler placed a toe tag on himself and the end result was Green Bay reading the eulogy at Chicago’s playoff funeral.
There seems to be only one sure fire solution for Cutler to win everybody back in the Windy City: win football games. More importantly, Cutler must lead the Bears back to the NFC title game and into the Super Bowl.
But for now, all the questions surrounding Cutler are whether or not he’s the right man for the job to lead the Bears at all.
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