At the start of my typical post, I recap a story or event that I saw or read about and then either make my comments about it or go off on a barely related tangent.
This time, I don’t have to do that, because you’ve already heard enough about Jay Cutler in the last three days. Approximately 94% of all football stories written since Sunday started something like this:
Jay Cutler left the NFC Championship Game with a knee injury in the third quarter. Players ripped him on Twitter. He stood on the sidelines in the second half and looked disinterested. The Bears lost.
Then the story goes one of three directions:
A. Jay Cutler is a big sissy. He needs to man up and lead his team when his team needs it the most.
B. We’re all just a bunch of fat turds watching the game from the sofa and don’t know how badly his knee hurt. We just don’t know. Don’t pass judgment. We just don’t know how badly he was hurt. We don’t know.
C. He shouldn’t have pouted like a girl on the sidelines with an injury. For crying out loud, they pay you a boatload of money to be a leader. The least you could do is pretend to be interested.
In my quick conference championship recap post, I briefly went with choice C. I argued that Jay Cutler was the least self-aware person on the planet and he apparently didn’t even think that it looked bad that he chose to stand on the injured knee instead of sitting on the bench or getting it worked on.
But I think I missed the larger point when I wrote that. The treatment of Jay Cutler is merely an extension of my post from last Thursday on how the media drives our perception of sports figures. Jay Cutler’s story is already written. Sitting on the bench during the second half of the NFC Championship Game is just another chapter of his story.
Here is how Jay Cutler’s story is perceived by fans. Once again, I don’t know if any of this is actually true, but perception is all that matters:
Cutler attended Vanderbilt University. The same Vanderbilt University that every private school kid in the South dreams of attending. And happens to have the second highest cost of attendance of any FBS school. And is named for the richest and most famous Southern family in American history.
The Commodores went 11-35 in Cutler’s four seasons at quarterback. Oh sure, Vanderbilt sucks and has sucked for a long time. But they went 12-32 in the four years before Cutler. Fairly or unfairly, he earned the dreaded “not a winner” label in college.
Cutler somehow shot up draft boards because of his ridiculous arm strength, mobility, and solid completion percentage. Ironically, the Broncos picked him with the 11th pick in the draft, the exact same number of wins he had in college.
Cutler didn’t make the playoffs in three years with the Broncos. He was variously described as moody, sulking, not a leader, standoffish and any synonym of those. He stared down receivers when they dropped balls. He looked like a jerk on the sidelines – at best, he seemed disinterested; at worst, he seemed like a locker room cancer.
The Broncos and new coach Josh McDaniels had a verbal dispute with Cutler in the offseason after the 2008 season, presumably in a competition to see who could act like a bigger douche. The Broncos brass decided the relationship was irreparable and traded him to the Bears for Kyle Orton and two first round draft picks. As a Bronco, he was considered a future franchise quarterback. Not any longer – a franchise QB cannot be traded for Kyle Orton, regardless of how sour the relationship turned.
Cutler was supposed to make the Bears into a contender. He did not. He added erratic and poor decision-maker to his already less than sterling reputation. He threw 26 interceptions in 2009 – six more than Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford, who tied for second with 20 interceptions. Stafford and Sanchez were rookies.
Cutler led the Bears to an 11-5 record in 2010. He played in and won his first postseason game of any kind since the 2000 Indiana High School State Championship. And then came the fateful NFC Championship Game.
Is this the whole story? Absolutely not. By all accounts, Cutler is a model citizen. In 2008, he announced that he had Type 1 diabetes and has since become a diabetes spokesperson. I’m sure he’s a fantastic guy if you get to know him.
Of course, that’s highly irrelevant, because the media thinks he’s a jerk and I’m not going to ever meet him. So the issue really has nothing to do with how tough Cutler is or how big his proverbial heart is. How can it be? He has missed a grand total of one game on any level – and that was this year, when the NFL literally didn’t allow him to play because he failed a concussion test.
The guy was sacked 57 times in 17 games this season. I don’t have sack stats from Vanderbilt, but I can’t imagine that the offensive line was particularly effective in stopping SEC defensive linemen. And yet he never missed a game. He’s a tough dude. Before this game, you could say a lot of things about Cutler, but a quitter was not one of them.
But then we get headlines like this from FoxSports.com’s Jason Whitlock:
Jay Cutler’s a quitter, just like LeBron and that’s why we’re mad
Or this one from Yahoo’s Les Carpenter:
Cutler’s rep takes another hit after ‘injury’
These headlines imply that a) fans are mad that Cutler’s a quitter and b) the “injury” isn’t really an injury. As if both of these are a given. FOXSports.com even had a cute slideshow with the biggest quitters in sports next to Whitlock’s article.* And there are countless other similar articles online.
* Number one on the list is Roberto Duran saying “no mas” after getting beaten senseless for eight rounds by Sugar Ray Leonard, one of the best boxers of all-time. Really? Not going back out to keep getting pummeled after ALREADY getting your ass kicked for 24 minutes makes you a quitter? Can’t figure out why American kids don’t box any more.
Looking at his career, there’s no reason that we should attribute the word quitter to Cutler or question his injury. Prior to Sunday, he had left only one game in his career with a non-head injury: a November 2007 regular season game against Detroit with a deep lower leg bruise.
So why are fans burning his jersey in the streets of Chicago? Simple – we’d already given Cutler all the loser labels I listed above. Why not add quitter to that list?
Seriously, look at the various articles on the internet about Cutler. Even the ones defending him still feel the need to mention his reputation. Which makes no sense. Of all the things you could have said about his reputation prior to this game, pretty much the only thing you couldn’t question was his toughness.
Off-hand, I can think of no other established starter in the league that would have gotten that treatment. Maybe Vince Young, if you can call him established. Maybe Donovan McNabb, if only because of his stomach illness in Super Bowl XXXIX. But even with those two, I’m fairly certain that they wouldn’t have gotten the venom that Cutler has gotten.
There is no way that Aaron Rodgers, a guy who twice had season-ending injuries as a backup, would have been questioned half as much as Cutler has been if it was Rodgers with the knee injury. There’s definitely no way that a dozen or so other NFL players would have taken to Twitter to mock Rodgers’ heart.
The bottom line: this is not a story about toughness, heart, or a knee sprain/tear/whatever the diagnosis is. It’s the story about dislike of a guy who has a reputation for being a jerk.