We’re a little more than twenty-four hours after the Green Bay Packers punched their ticket to the Super Bowl by eliminating the Chicago Bears 21-14 at Soldier Field on Sunday (a result I expected, but sadly, wished I had been wrong about). But the story coming out of the Windy City as the game came to an end wasn’t the tremendous playoff run by the Packers to reach the title game, it wasn’t about the emergence of Aaron Rodgers, and it wasn’t about the ending of a surprising season from the upstart Bears. Rather, it was about Jay Cutler — not about what he was doing, but what he wasn’t doing. Namely, playing.
With the Packers leading 14-0 as the third quarter got underway, it was Todd Collins under center for the Bears, as Cutler stood silently on the sidelines, the same blank expression on his face that those of us who’ve followed the Bears closely recognize. Watching the game at home while trying to assemble a piece of furniture and talking on the phone with my friend Steven, I almost didn’t notice the switch at quarterback at first (it took him to point out that it was Colllins trotting onto the field to me). I asked my friend if I’d missed Cutler getting hurt — neither of us could remember seeing a play that had suggested that the Bears quarterback had been injured.
With Cutler simply standing on the sidelines, helmet off, showing no obvious signs of pain or discomfort, my first comment was, “He must have gotten a concussion — that’s why he’s not in.” That was, to me, the most likely explanation — especially when it became obvious that Cutler wasn’t going to be returning to the game. I guessed that it was a hit to the head and a subsequent concussion diagnosis that, with the stricter rules now in the NFL, would be the only thing that would keep the Bears starting quarterback out of such a huge game — as I told my friend, “All of his limbs are attached and he’s still breathing — I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t be in otherwise.”
I was mistaken. As it turns out, Cutler had suffered a MCL sprain of his knee — the actual severity of which has still not be officially reported. Even before the game had ended, I imagine that every Bears fan was in some way questioning Cutler’s toughness or heart — and unbelievably (at least, with the culture of the NFL), Cutler’s peers — other players around the NFL — were questioning him as well. Some of the most vocal critics were Maurice Jones-Drew, who tweeted “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee … I played the whole season on one.” Arizona’s Darnell Dockett posted “If I’m on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT.” Even former coach Mike Ditka had weighed in, saying, “Myself, I would have had to have been paralyzed to come out of the game. I don’t want to say that word. I would have had to be completely knocked out to come out of that football game.”
Harsh words for Cutler — but are they justified?
We’ll never know for sure exactly what Cutler was capable of doing on Sunday and what he wasn’t — only Cutler knows that for certain. His Bears teammates are sticking by him publicly — for now — most notably, linebacker Brian Urlacher. His coaches and GM are doing the same — Lovie Smith placed the decision for Cutler not to return on his shoulders and not the quarterback’s, saying, “If you’re going to attack somebody, you should be attacking me. As a head football coach, and our medical staff, we’re the ones … he wanted to go back in.”
The support for Cutler from his teammates and coaches should be expected, and because of that, should be taken with a grain of salt. It is true, however, that none of us who were watching the game at home were able to examine the knee and determine the extent of the injury, and it’s also not up to us to say whether or not he could have continued or not.
But that’s not going to stop you or I from speculating. My own take was that I’ve seen other quarterbacks play through injuries that seemed to be far worse than what Cutler experienced on Sunday. Phillip Rivers once played an entire AFC Championship game on a torn ACL, and I watched Brett Favre play much of the last two seasons while being held together by duct tape. Former Bears legend Jim McMahon, during their 1985 Super Bowl season, led the Bears to a comeback win against the Vikings after spending part of the week before the game in the hospital. Matt Cassell played barely a week after having an appendectomy this season. And so on. I found myself asking afterward “Would Tom Brady have left a similar game in that situation? Or Peyton Manning? Or Ben Roethlisberger? Or Joe Montana, John Elway, or a host of other great quarterbacks?”
And there now lies Jay Cutler’s dilemma in Chicago. Gone is the goodwill he built up with his solid second half play. Forgotten is the fact that he helped bring the Bears to the NFC Championship game to begin with. As poorly as Cutler was playing before he was injured (6-14 with 0 TD’s and an interception), the Bears weren’t winning on Sunday even if he had stayed in — but the minute Todd Collins came on, the Bears were finished. Before yesterday, Cutler’s career had been defined by his often poor attitude, a whiny disposition that led to forcing his way out of Denver, and tons of turnovers — now, that’s been replaced by the image of his standing sullenly on the sidelines while the Bears’ Super Bowl chances slipped away. And unless he manages to lead the Bears the final step to play for a championship, that’s an image that — for most Bears fans — won’t fade anytime soon.