Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Jay Cutler

Well, despite my best intentions, here it is a month after my last post. But, with the events of the past weekend in the NFL, I figured it was time to put pen to paper so to speak. By now, you probably know that the Bears and the Packers -- the NFL's longest running rivalry -- met in the playoffs for the first time since 1941. I have to say that the buildup to this game was unlike any I've ever experienced. I've lived in the Chicago area since 1996...and no matter how big of a deal the Bulls, Cubs, Sox or Blackhawks might be in any given stretch of time, I've seen nothing that tops the excitement that settles in around "Chicagoland" like the Bears making a run in the playoffs. This was different, though -- I was in grade school when the '85 Bears were carving out their niche in history, so I can't say this for sure, but I would imagine it was something like what we saw last week. I almost hated for gameday to actually arrive -- it was a little like Christmas. I love the anticipation of Christmas Eve, but then you hit the actual day, you open all the presents and realize that now it's 365 days until you get to do it again.

But, gameday did arrive, and I'll freely admit that while I was openly telling people that I really expected the Bears to lose, in my heart, I had a feeling they'd win. (Quick aside -- that usually means heartbreak is on the horizon). The game, honestly, was kind of a stinker despite a drama filled final quarter. Overshadowing the whole affair, though, is the fact that Jay Cutler came out of the game after the first series of the 3rd quarter. It was ugly before that, but it seemed that the anti-Cutler forces of the universe all converged at once. It got to be so uncomfortable that you could actually hear Rick Reilly saying "See, told you he was a putz." (Cutler photo courtesy of Life.com: http://www.life.com/image/92598784)

I'm ashamed to admit that during the game, I was finding myself wondering if Cutler had taken himself out of the game. I think the point is overblown, but I do agree that Cutler wouldn't draw the flack that he does if he carried himself differently on the sideline. Now, to be fair, I've also spent a fair bit of time criticizing Alex Rodriguez for what I call his "Fake Derek Jeter impression" -- you know, the one where he's always on the top step cheering his team on, doing the fist pump -- whatever you'd think would play well on TV, except in my opinion it comes off as obnoxiously fake. So if Jay's not a "rah rah" type of guy on the sidelines, I'd rather he just be himself than be fake. Still, you wish an agent or someone would say "Look, Jay, I know this is total BS, but just take these crutches and use them as you're hanging out on the sideline, okay?" I won't rehash all of the comments, because by now you're probably so sick of them that you're wishing for a big steroid admission or something to change the topic.

Once the emotion of the game faded and I had some time to think things over -- and hear some of the comments that had started hitting the newswire -- I started to rethink my knee-jerk reaction that Cutler was tough, but maybe a little mentally soft. Most aren't foolish enough to question the guy's physical toughness. He was sacked more than any other NFL QB this year, and for two solid seasons has been tossed around the field like a rag doll. Yet through it all, you've seen him give very little indication that he's feeling anything. The guy takes hits that would make Walter Payton wince, and I've never seen a tougher football player than Payton. You rarely see him rolling around on the ground in agony....you just get that same flat expression. I can understand how some interpret it as arrogance (but you've got to have some to be a pro athlete, don't you?), some interpret it as "me first" or disinterest. I think it is just Jay.

Until he steps up and plays like a champion in a big spot, the mentally weak label is going to follow Cutler. That doesn't put him in bad company, though. Peyton Manning couldn't beat Florida, couldn't win in the playoffs and would never win a Super Bowl. Then came 2006 (sadly he had to break through against my favorite team), and now he's a winner. Elway couldn't win a Super Bowl. Marino couldn't either. Beyond football, there was a time in the late 80's when I remember reading articles that the Chicago Bulls would never win an NBA title with Michael Jordan. There are people out there that think LeBron James doesn't have what it takes to win a ring. This side of the Cutler detractor's argument is fair -- until you do it, people will wonder if you can handle the spotlight. Regardless of what anyone says, Cutler didn't handle the spotlight on Sunday. He played poorly, and whether it was due to injury or not is irrelevant.

But the level of piling on that we're seeing -- much of it from Bears fans -- is just insane. Honestly, can you tell me that the Bears have the season they just finished if Kyle Orton is still the QB? Does a guy that was sacked 52 times during the season suddenly get scared because the Packers are harassing him? I really find that hard to believe. We haven't seen the evidence that Cutler is capable of rising to the occasion and playing like a top NFL QB, but we also haven't seen evidence that the guy doesn't have heart. And quite frankly -- I've lost a huge amount of respect for some of the people that have felt the need to comment. I'm talking about you Mr. Jones-Drew -- who is so tough that he played a whole season on a knee injury, but skipped the final two games of 2010 with his team still in playoff contention. I'm also talking about you Mr. Sanders, or Neon or whatever. You have your rings, and I haven't seen too many other players that have changed a game the way you did in your prime. But, I also haven't seen too many players that would go to greater lengths to avoid contact, which is saying something in football. Gentlemen, I don't question your talent, your toughness or your heart, but I would suggest that you could use a lesson in conducting yourself with a little class. As your mother undoubtedly told you -- "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

I think Bears nation will eventually rally around Cutler. And I want to believe that Cutler will rise to the occasion and prove his critics wrong. His God given talent has never been in question, but even the most ardent Cutler supporter would agree that he does have room to improve. But, one thing Lovie does better than most head coaches is make his team believe that the world is against them -- that no one believes they can win. He's got the perfect storm building around his QB and his team, so in 2011, he can use that speech for the entire season. And Jay Cutler just might show all of us that he does have heart, he is not a quitter and worthy of our adoration.

A little long winded (I know, as usual), but thanks for reading.

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