Updated 1:55 p.m. ET, Monday, Jan. 24, 2011
CHICAGO — It was an odd sight, Jay Cutler standing, hooded and cloaked in a gray overcoat, watching from the Bears' sideline and unable to help his teammates overcome a seemingly insurmountable 14-0 deficit.
Standing, hovering, walking. But hurt. That's what was announced, and as we found out after his MRI on Monday, he was hurt with a sprained medial collateral ligament. Yet, no crutches, no trainers, no glacial bags of ice on his knee.
The setting was right for a black-and-blue kind of game: Soldier Field. Bears. Packers. First playoff meeting since 1941. It was supposed to be an afternoon of lore and epic.
Instead, it was a bizarre contest with Caleb Hanie — not Cutler, supposedly the most irreplaceable player on the Bears' roster — leading Chicago back and making the starter look pretty bad in the process.
What a weird, unpredictable NFC title game. The Packers made their first Super Bowl in 13 years, and immediately afterward, it almost felt like it was the undercard story.
We're now left to wonder about Cutler ever making it in this city. The company line throughout this run to the playoffs had been, "Hey, as long as he wins, we don't care if he's a nice guy or not." There's some backstory here. Cutler was ripped by a national writer a few weeks earlier, a writer who no doubt flew in first class and flew out the next day, on to his next assignment and next bowl of lobster bisque in some other city.
Most people came to Cutler's defense when they read the columnist's story, which basically called Cutler the biggest jerk in the NFL. Is he the nicest guy in the world? Uh, no. Does he care one iota about the media or how fans perceive him? Maybe, but he doesn't act like it. Does any of that really matter?
Then it didn't; now it does. Cutler has to answer to every Bears fan and every media member now who has questioned his toughness for not finishing the game. The first to his side afterward was Bears MLB Brian Urlacher, although he could be seen next to Cutler during the game, almost appearing to implore the quarterback to get back in.
"Jay was hurt. I don't question his toughness," Urlacher said. "He's one of the toughest guys on our ... 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, practices every day. So, no, we don't question his toughness."
Urlacher spoke no more after that.
C Olin Kreutz never questioned Cutler's toughness. "No, not when I saw his knee. It was shaking right after he took a hit and (he) walked back in the huddle. It was swinging like this," Kreutz said, moving his hand back and forth to demonstrate. "So I knew that one of his ligaments probably went."
Those were two of the stronger responses in the Bears' locker room. When asked about those who questioned his toughness, Cutler said he had "no comment at all." He said he couldn't plant on his right leg and that the coaches and trainers held him out; he wanted to come back in. But Cutler also added that he "knew it was probably better that I didn't (come back in). I know my knee. I know my body."
A testy Bears head coach Lovie Smith revealed little more. "He hurt his knee, and he was out, all right?" Smith said. "There's nothing else for me to tell you on that. He couldn't go and that was that."
Down the hall, the Packers celebrated their appearance in the Super Bowl. They were oblivious to most of the Cutler drama, although OLB Clay Matthews rubbed a little more salt in the wounds when he suggested Cutler had no chance to beat the Packers. "I looked out there and they had a new quarterback," Matthews said. "I kind of wish we had Jay in there the whole game the way things were going."
Then you had the drama going on outside the stadium, where fans burned Cutler jerseys, immediately posting their hate-fueled pyromania on Facebook and Twitter. It was as if they could put up with him to a certain point, but this was different. They could deal with his sulking face and bad body language; what they couldn't ever accept was a perceived lack of toughness.
And on Twitter, many players went bananas when they saw Cutler standing on the sideline and not begging and pleading to go back in. They saw what they saw and put themselves on that sideline, wishing they were there instead of at home, watching on TV. Maurice Jones-Drew tweeted that he played the whole season on an injured knee. Darnell Dockett said Cutler would have had to wait to shower had he been in the Bears' locker room. Dozens of others chimed in.
Urlacher wanted nothing to do with those comments.
"Nothing like jealous people at home watching," he said. "Players around the league, you said, right? Yeah, I love jealous people when they are watching our game on TV while their season is over."
Now the Bears and their fans will join the other haters on their respective couches, ready and willing to replay the NFC title game in their heads. How hurt was Cutler? No MRI results can reveal the level of pain and restriction Cutler was feeling. No doctor's opinion can reverse for some what was a white flag or a towel in the ring when such a move just can't happen.
Fair or not, Cutler won't ever live this game down in Chicago, short of winning a Super Bowl one day. Based on the way he played in this game, you have to wonder if he'll ever get to that level. These are the kinds of games that, no matter who says what to defend Cutler, people will have made up their minds already.
For a player who was just beginning to crack through some of the fans' hardened doubts about his character, this set him back. Perhaps beyond the point of repair.
This article first appeared in the Pro Football Weekly print edition dated Feb. 6, 2011, which previews Super Bowl XLV. The print edition breaks down the big game in North Texas, including how the teams match up, five keys to the outcome, which club holds the edge at each position, how the teams compare statistically and much more. The issue also includes Nolan Nawrocki's mock draft, PFW's Super 50 of top players in 2010, a feature on former Giants RB and Super Bowl XXV MVP Ottis Anderson, and our annual Griddy Awards honoring top NFL broadcasters. You can purchase a copy of the Super Bowl preview print edition at retail outlets across the country or online at PFWstore.com, where you can buy either a print copy or an electronic (PDF) version.