More than most NFL players – and, realistically, most American citizens of the 21st century – Jay Cutler(notes) and Aaron Rodgers(notes) understand what it's like to have their personalities publicly dissected. The quarterbacks who'll face off in Sunday's NFC championship game at Soldier Field have felt the sting of presumptive perceptions during their young careers, and at times the evidence cited against them has been downright dubious.
It's no wonder that the scorching-hot passers for the Packers and Bears are friends who, despite being in the middle of a longstanding rivalry, cheer for one another's good fortune.
And it's nice that they have one another's backs, given that each player will take the field on Sunday feeling as though "He Hate Me" could be stitched onto the rear of his jersey.
Throughout Cutler's five-year career, and especially since his falling out with new Denver Broncos coach Josh McDaniels led the franchise to trade him to the Bears in April of 2009, we've been subjected to analyses of his "body language" as a sign of his leadership deficiencies. Last week, an ESPN.com column by my old SI colleague Rick Reilly focused on Cutler's aloof manner and speculated that he's "The Most Hated Man In The NFL."
Rodgers, initially scorned by many Packers fans as unworthy of succeeding a legend, had been riding a wave of popularity as he blossomed into a bona-fide star and led the Packers to a pair of road playoff upsets over the Eagles and Falcons. Then, out of nowhere on Sunday night, he got an unexpected welcome into Cutler's world.
In a scathing post on his popular website, profootballtalk.com, Mike Florio upbraided Rodgers for failing to stop and sign an autograph for a cancer patient at the Austin Straubel Airport in Green Bay as the team prepared to fly to Atlanta the previous Friday. Citing a quick video clip from a news report that aired on Green Bay's WBAY-TV, Florio ripped Rodgers for "behaving like an ass" and declared, "The fact that Rodgers would crap on a rare moment of happiness for someone whose entire life is consumed by fighting the disease and contending with the physical, mental and emotional effects of it should make the stomach churn of anyone who has cancer, or anyone who has seen a loved one stricken by it."
It turned out that Rodgers has a history of sensitivity toward cancer-stricken individuals, that he'd signed an autograph for Jan Cavanaugh at the airport the previous week and that she wasn't offended by the quarterback's failure to stop, telling WBAY that "this really isn't that big of a deal … it's up to the players to decide who they want to give an autograph to …"
On Tuesday night Florio posted an apology, and suggested that it was time to move on to more compelling matters, like how rudely Rodgers might treat the Bears' defense on Sunday.
Yet for Rodgers and Cutler, the insatiable scrutiny is here to stay. In an era of ever-present, high-def exposure, both passers can be fairly sure that anything they do on or off the field can and will be used against them as it suits the purposes of their critics.
And there will be critics – consider that these are two of the 2010 season's more successful players, and that by Sunday night one of them will be a victory away from owning a Super Bowl ring.
With the whole football world watching – and half of it seemingly blogging, looking for the snarky take or the dismissive one-liner – the slightest deviation from decorum or expected and accepted behavior is raw meat for the hounds. Those of us who actually get to know the subjects we write about aren't immune to rushed, overly charged conclusions, either, though I like to think we do so with a sharper sense of how they actually interact with their respective work environments.
I've known Rodgers since before he entered the NFL, and I've spoken to peers and teammates who've thrown out adjectives ranging from "cocky" to "loyal" to "relentlessly positive." I've seen him fight through adversity and let down his guard, and because I'm acutely aware of the arc of his story, I'm excited by the prospect of him becoming a champion.
Cutler and Rodgers are each starting in their first conference title game.
(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The same goes for Cutler, who I got to know in the spring of '08 after he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes, a condition with which my family is all too familiar. I've seen him handle disappointments with defiant petulance and with stark self-criticism, and I regard his recent success as a stirring testament to his resilience and competitive fire.
Going into Sunday's game, I think both quarterbacks are Super Bowl-worthy, and that whichever one fails to advance to the Ultimate Game should nonetheless be commended for a superior season.
Afterward, if players or coaches provide me with insight into either man's character, I may choose to draw some conclusions – but I'm not going to tell you to love or hate them based on some brief behavioral glimpse that happens to be projected to the masses. And I'd encourage all of you, in general, to err on the side of appreciating the art, rather than overanalyzing the attitude of the artist.
Look, I get it: We're captivated by sports, and we pay close attention to many of those who play them on the highest level. We're human, so we make assessments based on what we see and hear, and there's more information flying at us at faster intervals than ever before. Our rooting interests stir our passions and sometimes blind us to our occasional departures from rationality. Our participation in fantasy leagues gives us the sense that we somehow own these athletes and can diss, dismiss or demean them as we see fit.
To some extent, it's inevitable. It used to happen on barstools and at water coolers; now it goes down in cyberspace and on 24/7 sports-talk radio, too. But, to borrow from the great Ice Cube, I hope we check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. As you size up Rodgers and Cutler on Sunday, I'd urge you to pay close attention to the way they respond to pressure, reveal their toughness and lead their respective teams in a highly charged atmosphere, and to realize the extent to which our emotions shape our ever-changing impressions.
If you need any further proof, all you have to do is stick around to watch Sunday's AFC championship game and witness the rampant love that Steelers fans shower upon Ben Roethlisberger(notes) as he charges onto Heinz Field. And ask yourself: Has he really changed that much in eight months, or have they?
I'll leave you with four other questions as we run through what's left of the NFL's food chain, beginning with the team whose quarterback makes it the most potent threat to win it all:
3. Pittsburgh Steelers: Is it just me, or is Big Ben the most underrated quarterback in the NFL?