He walked onto the field in the second half after he supposedly injured his knee. He walked along the sideline. He walked behind the bench. He walked back out through the tunnel when the game was done. He walked through the crowds of reporters in the Chicago Bears locker room following the 21-14 defeat to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game. He walked down the corridors beneath Soldier Field, all the way to the players' parking lot where he climbed into a white Mercedes and drove out into a city that will no longer love him.
And he never limped.
Cutler watches from the sideline in the second half.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
So was he hurt? Was he not? Chicago doesn't like football players who are hurt and yet can walk. Chicago likes football men like Brian Urlacher(notes), the bald and scowling linebacker who most resembles a block of stone with arms and legs. It loves characters upon whom it can attach brawny nicknames like "Iron Mike."
It does not like mysterious injuries with vague descriptions and unclear origins. It does not like seeing the franchise quarterback standing on the sideline, wearing a cape, looking for all the world like a player who could be on the field and being told he was too injured to play.
Sunday it came in the voice of a furious fan who identified himself as Rob Venderwall of Crete, Ill., and shouted "I think he's a [expletive]," as the hated Packers ran onto the field and celebrated their NFC championship.
"I think it's weak," Vanderwall continued. "They needed to throw. He wasn't going to be scrambling."
It came in the photos posted right after the game of fans preparing to light his jersey on fire.
It came in the elation Bears fans suddenly had for their third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie(notes). The third-year Colorado State product proved far more competent than backup Todd Collins(notes), who looked dreadful in four fateful third-quarter pass attempts.
Was Cutler hurt?
He didn't look hurt and that's all that mattered.
The unfortunate thing is if the climate becomes too toxic and the Bears can no longer keep Cutler as their quarterback, dumping him off to say the Washington Redskins, Chicago will lose the best player it has had at the position in years. After all these seasons of sad sacks and retreads, the Bears finally had a player who could push the offense down the field and make touchdowns happen.
All season long he has been hammered by defenses, deceived by an offensive line that hasn't always done enough to protect him. Some of those shots were brutal and yet he still played. There is irony in the fact that one innocuous hit in the first half of Sunday's game would be the one to destroy his reputation, launching him in a Bartman pantheon of Chicago sports villains.
Ridding itself of Cutler, even for the new favorite child Hanie, will set Chicago behind and wipe out the gains of an 11-win season.
Maybe this is why the Bears raced to defend him after the game.
"Jay was hurt," Urlacher growled, eyes flaring. "I don't question his toughness, 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."
The Bears sacked Cutler twice.
(Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
"Jay? Of course, come on," he said. "You see the position we're in [a game from the Super Bowl] and look at who the quarterback is. Who was the quarterback the whole ride we went on to get here? It's easy for those who aren't in our circle to say they don't think a guy is hurt, but they don't know."
Toughness and pain are the hardest things to judge in sports. Who can know if a man who walks perfectly, without the hint of a hobble, isn't wracked inside with a stabbing hurt. Who can imagine just how little Cutler was able to properly move?
The quarterback, when he finally came to his locker long after the game, said he couldn't plant and the decision for him to sit came after the first series of the second half when the coaches told him they were pulling him. Coach Lovie Smith said the trainers and doctors made the call. Who is right? Who knows?
He has never endeared himself to Bears fans. In Denver, he blew up his relationship with the team after it fired coach Mike Shanahan. In Chicago, he has come off moody and disinterested, almost as if an NFL game is the last place he wants to be. It's made him tough to love. And the fact he was standing on the sideline, walking perfectly fine in one of the biggest games ever for one of the toughest teams did little to endear him to those fans.
So was he hurt?
Unless an MRI scheduled for this week says his ACL is torn to shreds it's going to be hard for Bears fans to believe he was. Not the way he walked. Too free. Too easy. And if the answer is as ambiguous as it was on Sunday, the relationship with Chicago – however tenuous – will be destroyed.
Next time he should at least try to limp.