CHICAGO – On a day when the temperature was showing the first signs of winter, the source of the chill was unclear.
Was it the wind whipping off Lake Michigan or the air emanating from Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler's mouth?
Things can get frosty in a hurry in Cutler's world. The important question for the Bears is whether it matters and threatens to derail the team?
On Thursday, for instance, he spent the first six minutes of his weekly news conference in a mostly good mood. He smiled frequently and answered the questions with enough detail to help reporters get through the myriad of stories they were working on.
But when conversation took a turn toward his mercurial on-field attitude, Cutler's patience with the subject wore thin in a hurry. Onion-skin thin.
"It is what it is," Cutler said, chuckling lightly at the first question about being in prime time again for Monday night's divisional clash against the Detroit Lions. "I'm going to play my brand of football and let the chips fall where they may."
When asked if he cares about people such as analyst and former quarterback Phil Simms calling him "mean" (which Simms framed in a complimentary way), Cutler started to get anxious.
"He said more than that. I mean, you take things out of context. That's the problem," Cutler said.
But did you like what Simms said?
"I think you have to have a certain edge out there as a quarterback. That's the thing I'm going to take away from what he said," Cutler explained. "Everybody has their thing, it is what it is and that's the world we live in. That's the reason you guys are in this room, and that's the reason you guys are paid to do your job, is to have an opinion. But at the end of the day, they are opinions, they're not facts."
Do you think some of the comments are personal?
"Some are, some aren't," he replied. "Like I said, everyone is going to have opinions. I can't internally process each and every one of them. I'm trying to win football games."
But you indicated the week before that some of the comments have hurt.
"I'm not going to get into this. Anything else about Detroit? No? All right."
Cutler then walked away from the lectern.
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Few people like to be psychoanalyzed by a mob. Unfortunately, that is part of the job description for an NFL quarterback. It happens in every game and will be particularly the case Monday night. Cutler gets to play another game under the watchful eye of what seems like 100,000 network cameras. Without a doubt, those cameras will be focused on whether Cutler has another blow up like the one he had with offensive lineman J'Marcus Webb in Week 2 against the Green Bay Packers or offensive coordinator Mike Tice three weeks ago against the Dallas Cowboys.
Since the incident at Lambeau Field in which he berated Webb, Cutler has been criticized from within and outside of the locker room.
"I like him, I think he's a great talent," Fox analyst and Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw said of Cutler on WSCR in September following the Webb incident. "I do not like – I'm telling you I'll go right on the record – I do not like calling out my linemen and bumping them and screaming and hollering because you've got all these cameras watching."
Earlier this month, after the flare up with Tice, Bradshaw again took Cutler to task.
"I know I would never act like that," said Bradshaw, who had a famously negative relationship with Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll. "I would show respect to the head coach and offensive coordinator. I would never do, Jay, what you did to Mike Tice. No matter if he was in your ear the whole time screaming and hollering.
"You know you've got millions of people watching. If I were you, I would learn how to be a little bit nicer. I know you don't care and nor do I care if I ever sit down and do an interview with you – which I have yet to do – maybe there's a reason for that. I like everybody. I'd like to like you, but right now I don't like you. Grow up, young man."
Throw in Cutler's normal stare of teenage indifference and you have a guy who rarely seems to look happy. Or as several Bears fans said Tuesday night at a downtown watering hole: "We know, our quarterback is a …"
The word rhymes with "pick."
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Of course, being a leader doesn't necessarily mean you're some nice guy. Sometimes you have to tell people exactly what you think, even if that's cutting and ugly. Usually, though, that kind of talk is best done behind closed doors. Further, few people follow leaders who are overwhelmingly negative.
For their part, the Bears don't necessarily argue that Cutler is not what he's perceived to be. Sure, there are the requisite "people on the outside don't know what goes on in the building" statements. But the big-picture take was best summed up by cornerback Charles "Peanut" Tillman, a 10th-year veteran.
"It's like a marriage, man, you don't always get along and you even fight sometimes," Tillman said. "But as long as you can get it all out and deal with it, you can be together."
"This locker room is about the players," center Roberto Garza said. "That's what coach [Lovie Smith] has worked hard to make it about. What people think from the outside doesn't matter as long as we work together."
Tillman and Garza represent two key ingredients to making it work with Cutler.
First, the Bears have a large number of veteran players, including six who have played at least 10 years in the NFL. Moreover, five of those six start, including four on defense (Tillman, defensive end Julius Peppers and linebackers Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs), the place where the Bears have built their reputation for decades.
"What the fans and the media think seriously doesn't matter," Urlacher said. "I know what everybody wants to hear, but that's not it. Jay is Jay. You come here, you do a job, you help us win. That's what we care about. You do that, we're good with you … This is not some sport where you can worry about hurt feelings in the middle of a game.
"It's intense, it's brutal, it's tough. You might not like the way somebody says something. Too bad, get over it."
Translation: There's no time to worry about Cutler's edginess. Guys like Urlacher are too old and running too short on time to worry about whether Cutler smiles enough or whether he likes his job.
"The veterans in here get it," journeyman cornerback Kelvin Hayden said. "Guys like Peanut, Urlacher, Briggs, they put in the work and focus on what you need to do to win. All that other stuff about trust and whether you like each other, they don't care. If you're on this team, they trust you and expect you to do your job."
Second, the other important element to the six 10-year vets is that five (Peppers is the exception) have spent their entire careers with the Bears. That gives them a special perspective on the history of Chicago quarterbacks. Or lack of history, as it were.
In nearly a century of existence, the Bears have produced only two quarterbacks who would come close to being "franchise" level. That was Sid Luckman (primarily in the 1940s) and Jim McMahon, the team's passer during for the 1985 Super Bowl-winning team. Other than that, being a Bears quarterback is about as important as being a debate moderator.
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Yeah, you have an important function, but nobody remembers you.
That was the case in 2006, when the Bears made the Super Bowl with the thoroughly forgettable Rex Grossman at quarterback. Bears history is littered with one guy after another who didn't have the goods.
Cutler has the goods. His combination of rocket arm and scrambling ability easily make him talented enough to take a team to a title, especially if that team has this kind of defense. The 4-1 Bears have yet to beat a team currently with a winning record, but they have been dominant in victory, including a 34-18 dismantling of the Cowboys in Dallas.
"We don't need Jay to carry us," Urlacher said. "He's capable of that, but he doesn't have to do that. He has to make plays just like all of us do."
And if Cutler does and the Bears win a title, there is little doubt that the happy ending may cast a different light on his approach.
"I think he's misunderstood," wide receiver Brandon Marshall said. "But I love it. I just can't wait to see when it's all said and done the legacy he leaves behind and how the stories are going to be written differently. … I'm going to sit back then and pick up the papers and watch the news and see how they talk about Jay Cutler."
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