I decided not to comment on this story in my recap, because I wanted to wait and see the extent of the knee injury. I was not going to make a snap judgment about a player without having some facts to support my opinion.
One of the big stories coming out of the NFC Championship Game (won by the Green Bay Packers 21-14 over the Chicago Bears) was that Bears QB Jay Cutler sat most of the second half with a knee injury. It caused a lot of people to question his toughness and whether he should have tried to play with the injury.
After the game, his teammates were quick to defend him. MLB Brian Urlacher is the leader of that team and said the following in his press conference, “Jay was hurt. I don't question his toughness. He's tough as hell. He's one of the toughest guys on our football team. He doesn't bitch. He doesn't complain when he gets hit. He goes out there and plays his ass off every Sunday. He practices every single day. So, no, we don't question his toughness."
That did not stop other NFL players from questioning the situation. Arizona Cardinal's DE Darnell Dockett posted the following tweet on his Twitter account: "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!"
Jacksonville Jaguars RB Maurice Jones-Drew also posted a tweet which read, "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee... I played the whole season on one..."
Monday the news about Cutler’s knee indicated that he was indeed hurt, as he suffered a torn MCL. It is not known yet how severe the tear is or whether it will require surgery. The news though would tend to support Urlacher’s take that the injury was serious enough to cause him to miss the rest of the game. It would also seem to indicate that Dockett and Jones-Drew made a snap judgment without all of the facts.
I have four thoughts on the situation:
1) Only Cutler knows the severity of the knee injury — I cannot say that Cutler should or should not have gone back into the game. He is the only person that knows how injured the knee was and whether he could be effective with the injury.
My guess is that the knee injury must have been serious, otherwise Urlacher does not defend Cutler with the intensity that he did. If Urlacher was questioning whether Cutler could have played, he still would not have called him out. He would have just given a vanilla answer about how Jay must have been hurt if he could not go back in the game.
The fact that Urlacher went the extra mile and thought enough of Cutler to stick up for his work ethic and call him one of the toughest players on that team shows me that he believed the injury was severe. The support Urlacher gave would cause me to believe Cutler was too hurt to play.
2) Cutler has a great track record for playing hurt — Cutler is not a player that has a track record of sitting out games with injuries. Since taking over as the Denver Broncos starter at the end of the 2006 season, Cutler has missed one start. That came after a concussion this year, suffered in a game against the New York Giants in which he was sacked an NFL record nine times in the first half. When a player only misses one game since 2006, that is an excellent record of durability and it tends to also make me give him the benefit of the doubt that he was too hurt to play in this instance.
3) Quarterbacks are expected to play hurt — Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre set the gold standard for toughness. He played a season with a broken thumb. He played this year with two broken bones in his left foot. For 297 weeks he never missed a start with the Packers, New York Jets, and Minnesota Vikings.
San Diego Chargers QB Philip Rivers played the 2007 AFC Championship Game with an ACL tear. New England Patriots QB Tom Brady played most of this year with two broken bones in his foot. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers has suffered two concussions this year, but missed only one game. Pittsburgh Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger played with a broken nose and severely swollen ankle against the Baltimore Ravens this year.
Quarterback is the most important position on the team and quarterbacks are paid the most money. They are expected to play hurt and it is expected that questions will be asked when a starting quarterback sits the second half of the NFC Championship Game.
Any quarterback would have had to answer those questions in that situation and the fact that Cutler could not even tell reporters what play he hurt the knee on in the game added fuel to the fire in this controversy. While I do not believe Cutler could have reentered the game, I think the question is a fair one given the circumstances.
4) Cutler has a perception problem — Cutler is at a crossroads in his career. The perception of him at this point is that he is not a team player and is an ineffective leader. He does not talk well to the media and does not have a good relationship with fans. When something like this happens, critics are more than willing to pile on at his expense. He is becoming one of the villains in the NFL and unlike a player like Favre; he does not have a large number of fans and media that are also in his corner.
My verdict is that Cutler was in a no win situation. Had he played through the injury and the Bears would have lost, people would have criticized him for having too big of an ego and that he put himself before the team by trying to play when he could not be effective. That is what happened to Favre every time he tried to play hurt and did not play well. Cutler critics would have been more than willing to play the same card.
By not playing and the Bears losing, he is to blame for not staying in the game. Basically fans and media are looking for a scapegoat to pin the loss. Cutler is the easiest guy to do that to, because he is the least popular person in the room.
A MCL injury is going to affect his mobility and the amount of velocity he can put on the ball. He probably would have generated more sacks and interceptions than positive plays had he remained in the game. He also could have injured the knee worse and put the Bears in a really bad position for 2011.
The better team won on Sunday and Cutler’s decision to not play had no impact on the outcome. Injuries are part of the game and the Bears were not able to overcome that injury, even though third string QB Caleb Haine played well (with the exception of the costly interception returned for a touchdown). The Bears need to upgrade their offensive line and skill position players if they want to win the NFC Championship in 2010. Switching quarterbacks is the least of their worries.
Where I do blame Cutler is that he gave critics more than enough ammo to line up a firing squad. By not being able to answer when the injury happened, he added fuel to the speculation. By sitting on the bench pouting and not appearing to be involved in the game plan, he looked like he was more worried about his predicament that whether the team won the game. He should have either been more involved with his teammates or just stayed in the locker room trying to receive treatment and out of public view. He is paid a lot of money and pouting on the sideline did nothing to help his already troubled image in this situation.
This incident will not define Cutler. It does not matter what fans or the media thinks. If his teammates believe that he was too hurt too play, he will still have the support of the locker room. Given the comments that Urlacher gave, that would appear to be the case. That is why I believe this is more of a perception problem that a reality based problem. As long as he does not let the incident destroy his reputation with his teammates, he can easily recover. Winning cures a lot of problems with fans and the media.
Cutler would be very well served to look in the mirror this summer and come up with a new approach to dealing with fans and the media. He turns 28-years old and has a bright future in front of him. If he can become more outgoing and responsive with media and fans, it will go a long way to improving his image. It would allow him to receive the benefit of the doubt if and when something unfortunate like this happens. If he stays on his current path, he will be blasted at every corner, whether that criticism is justified or not.