I like Jay Cutler.
When he was leading the NFL in interceptions, with the bulk of Chicago calling for his head on a pike, I still liked Jay Cutler. I wasn't delusional about his issues, nor do I make a habit of supporting a Bears QB simply for having the job, but there was something about the double-chinned, socially awkward, and seemingly pretentious guy from Santa Claus, IN that got to me.
Living in Lions territory, as I now do, it was far more often that I heard "Cutler sucks!" or "Detroit won that game in week one!" while sporting my #6 jersey around town, rather than the shouts of "Da Bears!" I was normally accustomed to. But, when a decidedly lackluster Bears team won seven of their last nine and claimed the NFC North championship, it looked like my support was anything but misplaced. When he wasn't being slammed to the ground behind the line of scrimmage, our quarterback, MY quarterback, showed flashes of calculated brilliance backed with a self-satisfied smirk. To finally silence critics, he needed only to outgun the mighty Aaron Rodgers, establishing himself as Chicago sport's greatest anti-hero.
It's easy when you're likable. When you're a beloved character, showing up in New Coke ads and playfully mooning journalists, people tend to gloss over your problems on the field. However, the Chicago media and fans alike have been looking for reasons to hang Cutler since he stepped off the plane at O'Hare, and if they didn't have a particular moment to point to before, surely this was it. Jay Cutler, the guy no one wanted to like in the first place, walking around on the sidelines after coming out of the most important game of his career with a dubious-at-best knee injury.
I find it hard to imagine fans burning Jim McMahon jerseys outside of solider field, were the same to have happened. I also can't imagine Jim McMahon, ever considerate of public opinion as he was, to not have had the presence of mind to writhe around in pain for the cameras. Yet, the idea of Cutler over-selling an injury so that people knew he was hurt enough to justify his coming out of the game seems positively un-Jay-like. As does playing when he could wind up being more of a detriment to his team than anything. For a guy who never did anything to try and impress anyone, why would we suddenly expect Cutler to make a big heroic show of himself when it was likely he wouldn't be able to perform anywhere near his normal capacity?
So where does this leave us?
Maybe my most optimistic forecast is true and Cutler was too hurt to play. From my personal experience, and I'm sure the experience of most former athletes, I can tell you there's a canyon-sized difference between walking and performing with certain injuries. To this day in rec league soccer, I have a reoccurring issue that sometimes makes kicking a ball with any force damn-near impossible. In those instances, do I want to keep playing? Of course. But what I want and what's best for my team are dramatically different animals, and if that's a distinction a schmuck like me can make while playing kick-ball with some other maybe-coulda-beens, then I'm sure the notably pragmatic Jay Cutler can make it too.
Conversely, maybe Cutler is a gutless coward that abandoned his teammates and the city he represents. Maybe I've misplaced my faith in the guy and, as stated by so many jeers my jersey has drawn this season, he does, in fact, suck.
I don't know that answer.
I do know that last year The Bears weren't in a conference championship game. I also know that this year, neither were Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Matt Ryan, or Michael Vick, but Jay Cutler was. I know that next year I'll be taking even more shit over my #6 jersey, and I know that I'll still be wearing it.
Should those of us on Team Jay have had our confidence shaken? Obviously. It'd be irrational not to, and there's a big difference between faith and sheer stupidity. There's no sense in pretending that the 2010 NFC Championship never happened. It did. It's there. A big, smug, frowning elephant in the room who doesn't like fielding questions from the media. When a heartrending loss of this magnitude comes along we look for something to be mad at; be it Refs, conditions, Clay Matthews' ridiculous metal-head hair, or Cutler's apparent pussying-out. We, as fans, are powerless in the thing we hold so dear, and cheering or bitching are our only weapons.
However, before we declare that the sky has fallen, or go tossing out the orange-and-blue baby with the bathwater, consider the 1984 Chicago Bears, when backup quarterback Steve Fuller and company were trampled in the NFC Championship game by the 49ers. As you might recall, the world kept spinning, and the very next season, something amazing happened.
As for Cutler? There's a good chance we'll never know what his deal is. But I, for one, would feel pretty stupid for turning my back on him now, only to have to come crawling back with crow-feathers on my chin when the Bears make their next trip to the playoffs.