CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler is accustomed to having people take shots at him. Just last week an ESPN columnist came to town and wrote a scathing rebuke of the Bears quarterback. It was so all-encompassing that the writer even attempted to make Cutler look bad for not publicizing his charitable activities.
However, what happened Sunday after Cutler was pulled minutes into the third quarter of the Bears' 21-14 loss to the Packers because of a knee injury, which Monday was reported to be an MCL tear, was unlike anything Cutler had ever experienced. It cut him so deeply that tears welled in his eyes at his locker room stall. Being ripped for how he behaves with the media or how he fails to accommodate outsiders is one thing. However having players around the league openly question whether he had tapped out of the most important game of his career because he's soft -- that cut him to the core.
"Cmon cutler u have to come back," Cardinals safety Kerry Rhodes wrote on Twitter. "This is the NFC championship if u didn't know!"
Added Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew on the same site: "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one ..."
Cutler appeared genuinely hurt when asked about the comments, saying: "No comment on that." He then turned his back to reporters, fiddled with some things on a shelf and bit his lip as tears welled. He had been battered and beaten during the early part of the season, when line coach Mike Tice played with different starting combinations and coordinator Mike Martz tried to find harmony between his desire to throw the football and coach Lovie Smith's preference for balance. Yet he never complained or pulled himself.
Cutler says he knew something wasn't right when he took a hit on the outside of his left knee near the end of the first half. Doctors examined him at halftime and a decision was made to test it to start the third quarter, when the Bears would receive the opening kickoff.
He needed only one pass attempt to know the problem was serious. Cutler says the joint lacked stability and, at that point, the medical team made the decision to pull him, according to coach Lovie Smith.
"It's no player decision," Smith said. "For us, Jay hurt his knee. He couldn't go. ... The trainers, doctors and all -- they're the ones who really made that decision. "
The problem was, in this age of the Internet and instant commentary, Cutler was crucified on Twitter and blogs. Maybe things would have been different if an announcement were made in the press box that the medical team had ruled him out because of the injury. However the only statement was that Cutler's return was questionable. In this case, most interpreted questionable to mean that he COULD play. And if he could play, the next logical step is that he SHOULD play -- especially with a shot in Super Bowl XLV on the line.
Instead, the perception among many was that he was having a rough day -- he was 6-of-14 for 80 yards with no touchdowns, one interception and a 31.8 passer rating, so he took the easy way out. Numerous people compared his situation to the January 2008 AFC Championship Game, in which Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers played six days after having knee surgery. Completely overlooked was the fact Rivers sat out the fourth quarter the previous week after sustaining the injury.
"I don't give a [expletive] about players around the league who are watching the game from home," said Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher."It's easy to talk [expletive] about someone while you're sitting on your couch watching the game. That's all I'm saying. I don't understand it. I don't get it. Let them sprain their MCL -- or do whatever he did to his knee -- and let them get back in the game. Let's see them do that, see how well they run the ball, or see how well they do at whatever position they play. I don't agree with it. It's easy to write that stuff on the Internet."
When Cutler was pulled, he stood on the far end of the sideline with his team-issued overcoat zipped up to his neck, a dark beanie with a "C" pulled low on his head, and a 14-0 deficit staring at him on the scoreboard. No teammate or trainer or doctor stood near him. He couldn't have been more alone if he were on Revis Island, for all it mattered.
With no answers for onlookers, the questions spread like wildfire: How is he well enough to stand and walk, even gingerly, but not play? Why isn't he trying to motivate teammates? Shouldn't he don a headset and try to assist backups Todd Collins and Caleb Haine, the No. 3 QB who twice cut the deficit to seven points with touchdown passes, but who also had an interception returned for a score?
"Jay was hurt," Urlacher. "We 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. We don't question his toughness."
Center Olin Kruetz said in the locker room that Cutler might have torn a ligament in his left knee, adding: "If you don't have an MCL injury or whatever, then you don't understand. It's easy to question people from your couch, but it's ... stupid."
Cutler said when he took the field to start the third quarter, he "couldn't really plant and throw." While watching from the sideline, he said it was "a lonely feeling" because he had fought and battled with teammates through the offseason and training camp. He says he was confident about returning after halftime, but "they made the decision that giving Todd a shot would better suit the team."
Cutler's situation in most parts of the country overshadowed the Packers' Super Bowl berth. Football is perceived as the ultimate man's game. Ronnie Lott, the 49ers' Hall of Fame safety, once had part of a finger cut off during the game so he could continue playing. And for decades playing through concussions was considered a sign of toughness, although now we are learning of just how silly and dangerous that line of thinking is.
Even if reports are true that the MRI revealed an MCL tear of Cutler's knee, he still will be viewed as someone who quit on his team when the game mattered most. Never mind that the medical staff made the call to pull him. "Real" men don't come out of games of this magnitude if they're able to stand, let alone walk.
I have been a critic of Cutler for years. He has been boorish and, at times, condescending with the media and distant with fans. But the look in his eyes after hearing that players around the league questioned his integrity told me something that an MRI cannot. The pain in his heart was far greater than anything he felt in his knee.