Cutler's leadership will be further questioned

MOBILE, Ala. – There was a common theme to the look from NFL coaches and executives in town for the Senior Bowl when asked about Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler(notes). The first reaction was to avert their eyes, hoping to somehow contain the harsh feelings they had deep inside.

But their collective measured response was something along the lines of this: "I don't know how you recover from that."

Cutler has been defended by his coach and GM.
(Kiichiro Sato/AP Photos)

Cutler sat out much of the second half of Sunday’s NFC championship game loss to the Packers with what appeared to be a minor injury, a move that drew criticism from other NFL players and many fans. He later was diagnosed with a sprained medial collateral ligament – a Grade II tear, as the Bears' medical staff reported afterward.

In the regular season, a sprained MCL can send somebody to the bench for a month, particularly if you play a position like running back or wide receiver.

In the playoffs, however, plenty of guys play. Say what you want about former New York Giants wide receiver Plaxico Burress(notes), but the man played in Super Bowl XLII with a torn MCL in his left knee. He even shot his knee up with painkillers (something athletes are told time and again not to do) to get through the game. On the game-winning touchdown pass from Eli Manning(notes), the most ironic part of the play is that Burress couldn't go to the right. He could only go left. Somehow, he still got open.

Burress also played almost the entire 2007 season on an ankle so badly injured that he had to tape his right foot to an angle where he was basically running on the side of his foot, as if it were the blade of a skate.

And there are tons of other stories like that about athletes who played through pain and injury. From Willis Reed to Y.A. Tittle to Johnny Unitas to Brett Favre(notes) to Kirk Gibson to Curt Schilling to Jack Youngblood, the history of sports is replete with athletes who put aside pain for glory, for the chance to, at the very least, be symbolic leaders and sacrifice themselves for the good of the team.

That's the kind of thing we admire in our society. In fact, it's a quality all too short in supply these days when you look at the other parts of society. The enduring image of Cutler is a guy with a disaffected stare wearing a hooded jacket as he stood on the sideline, watching a third-string backup do his best to make a game of it.

The widespread belief is that Cutler and the Bears face a brutal offseason and, assuming there is no long-term labor strife, a 2011 campaign that will feature plenty of questions about whether the Monsters of the Midway have the right man under center.

Or as one NFC offensive coordinator said: "I don't know if you can have a quarterback who does something like that."

The controversy surrounding Cutler isn't going away anytime soon. In what ESPN declared earlier this month as the "Year of the Quarterback," Cutler is going to be the leader under the most scrutiny. In a half of one game, Cutler leapfrogged the likes of Vince Young(notes), Donovan McNabb(notes), JaMarcus Russell(notes) and Eli Manning in the "under fire" category.

Sure, the national spotlight will shift to other subjects, such as the Super Bowl, the CBA talks, the NFL draft and whatever else comes up. But every time the Bears are brought up in discussion, the first thought is always going to be, "What about Cutler? Can he lead this team?"

As colleague Dan Wetzel pointed out earlier this week, this is not some media creation. This is based on the thoughts of current or former players like Maurice Jones-Drew(notes), Darnell Dockett(notes) and Deion Sanders – thoughts that may very well be going through the heads of some of Cutler's teammates as they think about the guy who is put on the leadership pedestal. On any football team, the quarterback is the guy who fuels everything. He has to be the hardest worker, the first guy in and the last guy out.

Fair or not – and there is plenty of evidence from the past to show Cutler has played through his share of pain – there is going to be doubt and suspicion about Cutler.

The question now is simple: How do the Bears and Cutler manage that? Specifically, how does Cutler look into the eyes of his teammates in a crucial moment and say something along the lines of, "We have to get this done"? It's going to be really hard for Cutler to evoke any image of William Wallace leading his men as they stormed York.

Yes, this is all so hypocritical. At a time when the NFL is talking about player safety and concerns are being expressed about the long-term health consequences of expanding the season to 18 games, players, fans and the media are all taking Cutler to task for tapping out. The problem is, this was one of those times that measures the heart of a man, particularly one in a leadership role like quarterback.

Between Cutler's inactivity and sour look, which is sadly constant despite the fact that he plays a game for a living, his mere presence on the sideline captured the essence of a guy putting self above team. Sure, Cutler may have been told by the Bears' medical staff that he couldn't return, but he didn't make them take away his helmet to keep him from the field.

Hanie engineered a pair of second-half TD drives vs. the Packers.
(Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photos)

Moreover, consider this: What if the undrafted and relatively unknown Caleb Hanie(notes) had actually led the Bears to a comeback victory in the NFC championship game against the Packers? Who do you think the Bears and their fans would want at quarterback in the Super Bowl? Yeah, it might seem nonsensical to some, but who would Bears players want to rally around at that point?

Yeah, that ignores the pure talent perspective. When you think about it that way, Cutler is clearly way ahead of Hanie. Cutler possesses one of those right arms of God, as scouts like to put it. He throws thunderbolts and he changes the way a team can play offense. He makes the field bigger, expanding how far receivers can run and the plays that can be called.

None of that matters when an athlete shrinks in the clutch.

Chicago coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo can yell all they want about the criticism Cutler has faced and defend him up one side and down the other. The Bears can trot out all the doctors they want to describe the injury. Others can talk about Cutler dealing with diabetes and playing or taking sack after sack last season.

It doesn't matter. What matters is what didn't happen in the NFC championship game. By standing there instead of fighting to get back on the field and play through the pain, Cutler lost credibility. Regaining it will take no small measure of success.

In short, this moment will last with Cutler for a long, long time. Perhaps forever.