While several former and current NFL players complain about the toughness of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, his teammates vehemently defend Cutler and claim there was a sound reason for Cutler leaving his team early in the third quarter of a 21-14 NFC Championship loss to the Green Bay Packers.
When Chicago mortgaged their future on Cutler in 2009 by dealing two first-round picks and a second-round draft selection, along with quarterback Kyle Orton, to attain his services, they expected a franchise quarterback to lead them to the promise land. Though he struggled in his first year with the Bears, he took them within one game of a Super Bowl appearance in his second season.
Critics have said he is not an upper echelon quarterback, but his 2010 statistics were not far off those who are considered the best at the position. The Packers Aaron Rodgers is one of those lauded as a top tier quarterback, yet Cutler had just five less touchdown passes and five more interceptions than Rodgers in 2010 with a lesser talented receivers corps.
That does not ease the anguish of Bears fans after Cutler completed just six of 14 passes for 80 yards before bowing out of a loss to their arch rivals. The media has spent their time since his departure trying to find the moment Cutler hurt himself, something Cutler himself was unable to pinpoint. Critics also wonder why Cutler was allowed to walk to the locker room at halftime instead of having his injury treated.
Bears center Olin Kruetz thought he saw Cutler hobbling towards the locker room, so the question has to arise if Cutler failed to mention his injury to the Bears training staff or if anyone else failed to alert them considering it appears they failed to notice the hitch in Cutler's gait themselves. "I know my body", he said, “I was going to keep playing but, you know, they made the decision that giving Todd (Collins) a shot would better suit the team.”
The critics were also found in the Bears own clubhouse after the defeat. "I don’t see a brace on that knee. Do you?”, said one Bear player left unnamed.
Whomever the blame is temporarily laid on, Cutler, the Bears coaches, or training staff, the problem mostly symbolizes the modern day NFL quarterback that Roger Goodell has molded. One who is so coddled that he is considered gutless when he stands on the sideline claiming his knee aches yet surrounded by cameras when his team wins because of a superior defensive effort.
The game today has very few leaders willing to pull a Johnny Unitas and hobble out onto the gridiron in order to be there when his team needs him most. A player willing to gamble his contract, endorsements, and football future all for a shot at winning a championship ring.
One Packer the Bears fans disliked but respected was Brett Favre. Favre was built like other legendary Green Bay leaders who defeated Chicago too often for their fans tastes. Packer Hall of Famers like Arnie Hebner and Bart Starr who were renowned for their gritty leadership as much as any other intangible they had that made them champions. Like them, Favre built his legend on picking up his slammed carcass off the turf and winning the game at the end.
Part of the reason the Bears fans dislike for Favre is the fact they haven't had a tough quarterback of their own for a long time since Hall of Famer Sid Luckman retired in 1950 after having won four championships. Bill Wade was fairly tough at times, leading them to a title in 1963, but he was a Bear for only for six years and split time with Ed Brown and Rudy Bukich most of his career. Jim McMahon led Chicago to a title in 1985, but he was hurt and missed several games in each of his seven seasons with the team.
Luckman's 14,686 passing yards still leads all Bear quarterbacks 61 years after he retired. A yardage total Drew Brees has almost surpassed in just his last three years with the New Orleans Saints. Cutler was brought in to finally topple Luckman from the top of the Bears passing yards mountain, but now there are members of the media questioning if he will return next year after his latest actions.
Caleb Hanie was put on the field with a erroneous gamble by the Bears coaching staff that luckily paid off almost to a Super Bowl showdown with the Pittsburgh Steelers. After the 39-year old Collins, most likely playing in his last NFL game, failed miserably in a few passing attempts, Chicago inserted a second-year pro who had 14 career passing attempts that resulted in eight completions and an interception.
The problem was that the move happened before the third quarter ended, thus nullifying Cutler and Collins from the rest of the contest. If Hanie had been hurt from that point on, Chicago would have been stuck with inserting another position player behind center. Hanie stayed upright and almost led his team back, going 13-of-20 for 153 yards and a scoring pass. He also threw a key pass that led to another score, but tossed two key interceptions. One was returned for a touchdown and the other sealed a Packers victory.
The next six months should find Cutler hiding from the voracious Chicago press if his knee does not require any surgical procedure. Many will question whether or not Cutler has that rare intangible to be a champion, even though he took his team just 60 minutes away from playing for one. Critics will point out how he failed to win much in college or in his three seasons with the Denver Broncos.
Giving Cutler credit for a nice season goes away with him standing along the sideline when his knee was reportedly keeping him from playing. Bears fans respect toughness. They have legends like Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after excelling on the field with injuries that included them playing several seasons on one good leg.
Maurice Jones-Drew, the Pro Bowl halfback of the Jacksonville Jaguars expected to get a few MVP votes this year said," All I'm saying is that Cutler could have finished the game on a hurt knee. I played a whole season on one."
But this is how the Bears quarterbacks have been since Luckman left. Long before Goodell put a protective bubble around the position to hinder the defenses. These rules almost ruined the NFC Championship, which was supposed to be lauded as an intense defensive battle between the two longest running rivals in NFL history. When Bears Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers hit Rodgers with a clean shot in any other era but the Goodell Era, he got a 15-yard penalty that luckily resulted in no points for Green Bay.
Chicago still houses a generally young team with enough experience to load up for another run next year. This will be boosted by a sound draft, but the luck of staying healthy and having lucky breaks like they had the first game of the season is a trick hard to replicate. It also would be the second season Cutler would be under offensive coordinator Mike Martz's system, assuming Martz returns.
The only way for Cutler to shed his new branded label is to win. Much like how Ben Roethlisberger has quelled the chatter of his sexual assault charges by taking the Steelers to a third Super Bowl in his young career, or how Michael Vick quieted talk of his past by being successful with the Philadelphia Eagles this year.
But Chicago fans need Cutler to accomplish this for many more years every game to break the revolving door around the quarterback position. He will be just 28-years old when the next season kicks off and he has been durable enough to miss just one start the last four years, which occurred this season.
All Bears fans need is at least one Super Bowl win over the next seven years where he takes practically every snap. If Cutler does this, he should top Luckman on the passing yards list thanks to the offensive-friendly rules of the game now. He'll never surpass Luckman in their hearts, even with multiple titles and an induction into Canton, but even doing well gets you a life long pass in the hearts of the loyal Bears fans. McMahon is proof of that even though he never played more than 13 games in a season for the Bears.
The teams future is still mortgaged on Cutler even though it appears to some that he went on vacation at a crucial time. Though a few lucky breaks are needed, he is under contract with the team until 2013. If he fulfills his potential, let alone expectations, Cutler could very well have the Bears on the verge of a Super Bowl again. What he does with it remains to be seen, but it would be almost on par with almost every other quarterback that followed Luckman that his NFL epitaph has the 2010 NFC Championship Game Bailout engraved on his resting stone.