In Defense of Jay Cutler

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When Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler came out of Sunday's NFC Championship Game with an apparent knee injury, everyone and their mother raced to question his heart, his will to win, and his (ahem!) manhood. After the Bears lost to the Green Bay Packers, 21-14, the accusations started flying in all directions, as fans and former players lampooned Cutler for not gutting it out while Chicago players lashed out at the horde of detractors. News that Cutler suffered a sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee (akin to a slight tear) barely put a dent in the firestorm of criticism.

It's often impossible or unnecessary to apportion blame in situations like this. But this time, it's easy: Everyone's to blame. Everyone except Cutler.

The players are to blame. A horde of NFLers whose teams had long since been been eliminated from the Super Bowl hunt became what they claim to despise: judgmental couch potatoes. "There is no medicine for a guy with no guts and no heart," tweeted former linebacker Derrick Brooks, who briefly became relevant again for all the wrong reasons. Jaguars' running back Maurice Jones-Drew did Brooks one better, joking, "I think the Urban Meyer rule is in effect right now... When the going gets tough.......QUIT" despite having missed the last two games of the regular season with a knee injury of his own.

If some football players think of themselves as modern-day gladiators who should only leave the field of battle if they die or lose a limb, that's their prerogative. But criticizing a peer who is forcibly benched because he is physically unable to go on without a career-ending injury undermines player unity just weeks ahead of an all-but-certain labor dispute and reinforces the perception that real NFL men wreck their bodies. As former offensive guard, current ESPN analsyst, and resident meathead Mark Schlereth put it: "As a guy who had 20 knee surgeries you'd have to drag me out on a stretcher to leave a championship game!" The irony is palpable.

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The coaches are to blame. Bears' coach Lovie Smith could have saved Cutler from the howling masses by proclaiming him out for the game at halftime, when Smith already knew that Cutler was operating on one working knee. Instead, he told reporters Cutler was "questionable," stringing along Chicago fans and television viewers alike. While Smith defended his quarterback after the game, he might not have had to back him up so strenuously if he'd spent the whole game acting in Cutler's best interests. But at least Smith backed his QB up—former Bears head honcho Mike Ditka dragged Cutler through the mud on ESPN for 24 hours before flip-flopping on the issue faster than Mitt Romney.

The fans are to blame. At least the other players taking Twitter potshots at Cutler have football chops—the sports radio crowd who called for Cutler's head managed to be hypocritical and reprehensible at the same time. Here's a trick, fellas: Get your leg caught in something and twist it until your knee pops and you can feel your kneecap sliding around like a lump in mashed potatoes. Try and put all your weight on that leg without falling, and then push off that leg as hard as you can. That, plus dodging 300-pound defensive linemen, is what Cutler faced on every passing play once he sprained the MCL. Still feel like mouthing off about Cutler's "wimpy attitude"?

The league is to blame. Roger Goodell and the owners have done an OK job this year trying to combat the rash of head injuries in football (though they are about five years late to the party). But the league's stubborn insistence on expanding the regular season to 18 games highlights a callous disregard for the long-term health of its workforce. Even if head injuries decline precipitously over the next few years, football players will still suffer debilitating injuries—it's an inherently violent game, and every part of a player's body is at risk on every play. The Packers had five different running backs suffer major injuries during the season, and it's a safe bet some of those players will never be the same athletically. If teams are already a collection of walking wounded and much more prone to injury by championship Sunday, how is adding two more games to the regular season going to do anything but compound the problem?

The only party that's blameless in this situation is Cutler himself. The QB suffered an injury that normally takes 3 to 4 weeks to heal, tried to gut it out on the following two offensive series, was clearly unable to play near 100 percent, got benched by his coaching staff (remember, he didn't unilaterally take himself out of action), and was visibly distraught about it after the game. For his trouble, he's taken heat from all sides. It's pretty clear that Cutler's reputation as a whiny, aloof pretty boy (a modern-day Jeff George, if you will) greatly compounded the public outcry against him. And it's true that he's a mercurial star at best. But when it comes to throwing stones for Sunday's events, the only person who should really have a rock in hand is Jay Cutler.