Jay Cutler Drops Back

During his tenure with the Bears, the legendarily aloof quarterback was one of the NFL's most distinctively weird and reliably polarizing players. Now that Jay Cutler is gone, one of the strangest eras in recent football history is fading.
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Last month, Mitch Trubisky answered a question addressed to him by a reporter and grinned. As in his previous interactions with the media, he hurried off the Bears’ practice field at Halas Hall with a palpable eagerness. The challenge of meeting fans’ expectations was greeted with enthusiasm.

“I love that,” the No. 2 pick of this year’s NFL draft said of the scrutiny he would face as Chicago’s latest attempt at a franchise quarterback. “I’ve come to a place that’s crazy about football, crazy about the NFL and takes a lot of pride in the city. That’s who I am as a person. I feel like I fit in great. It’s an exciting time. I’m very blessed to be in the situation I’m in. Now it’s my job to go to work and do whatever I can for the team.”

Trubisky’s comments were noteworthy for several reasons, the first of which was that for most people they weren’t noteworthy at all. Across the league, as teams conduct OTAs in preparation for the coming season, Trubisky’s peers have been no different in their public-facing demeanors. The offseason is a time for optimism. There are weighty consequences for players who deviate from the standard practices of the NFL and fail to toe the company line. For quarterbacks in particular, it’s vital that field generals display leadership and valorize the city for which they play. Trubisky is a friendly reminder of the way athletes are expected to conduct themselves. But for his predecessor, Jay Cutler, that was rarely the case.

Of the countless transgressions he was condemned for during his tenure in Chicago, Cutler’s greatest sin was his failure to sell himself: The Sin of Apathy. “This man plays quarterback with the same amount of urgency that Adam Sandler puts into his film roles,” Deadspin wrote in 2015. Uproxx called him “a housecat in disguise.” Former Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall questioned Cutler’s passion for the game, while Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s preeminent sports shouter, went a step further, calling Cutler “an absolute joke,” “a football abomination” and “the worst quarterback in the NFL” following a thumb injury last season.

One Northbrook woman despised Cutler so much that she threw him shade from the grave. When Cutler retired in May and announced that he would become a TV analyst, The Sporting News scorned Fox Sports for “hiring such a dour, arrogant, unfriendly, unlikable, underachieving former player” to be a color analyst on one of its top broadcast teams. 

As Cutler’s days in Chicago seemed numbered, Sports on Earth’s Will Leitch summarized the quarterback’s reputation succinctly: “I do not think it is an overstatement to say that Cutler is the most universally derided quarterback of my lifetime.”

That Cutler ended his career as the Bears’ all-time leader in passing yards is beside the point. Even the harshest of Cutler cynics can’t help but acknowledge his franchise records for victories and touchdown passes for an organization that has desperately sought a fixture at quarterback for almost its entire existence.

Cutler’s problem was that he refused to perform when he was off the field. The public demanded a level of devotion he was unwilling to provide, and it was that aversion to conducting himself in a manner befitting of a franchise quarterback that ruined him.

By most measures, Jay Cutler had a fine professional career. But within the warped context of the NFL, where substance can never come at the expense of tone, his credentials within the field of play were never going to matter.

It’s obvious where this begins: Six and a half years ago, during the 2010 NFC Championship Game, the entire narrative surrounding Chicago's season was consumed by Jay Cutler and what a galactic, unequivocal pussy he was. The Bears, whose porous offensive line had yielded an NFL-worst 52 sacks during the regular season, found themselves one game away from their second Super Bowl berth since the glory of 1985; Cutler found himself in a position to cement his standing with Chicago in just his second season with the Bears. A date with Aaron Rodgers and the rival Green Bay Packers was all that stood in his way. You know the rest.

The entire episode was disillusioning for Bears fans. If only he had taken a seat. The media interpreted Cutler’s eternally dour expression while standing on the sidelines as a referendum on his toughness and competitiveness. Fans took it as malice, personal malice, his outward lack of anguish at being unable to help his team representing an indefensible breach of the sacred contract between athlete and city.

It was a baffling sight. After all, he didn’t look injured. If he was hurt so badly, observers screamed at their televisions incredulously, how come he was healthy enough to stand? How could he be so selfish? Why didn’t he care about winning?

"If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT," Arizona defensive tackle Darnell Dockett posted on his Twitter account.

“All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee... I played the whole season on one," Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew added. With the spotlight fixated directly on Soldier Field in such a pivotal game, Cutler’s manhood was called into question throughout the NFL community.

Thankfully, Mike Ditka added to the discourse with characteristic nuance and modesty: "Myself, I would have had to have been paralyzed to come out of the game,” the former Bears coach said. “I don't want to say that word. I would have had to be completely knocked out to come out of that football game."

By the time the true nature of Cutler’s injury was revealed – a grade-2 MCL tear – it was too late. Cutler’s reputation was forever stained – penance for the callousness he displayed. He was demonized for his demeanor, rather than his performance. “No comment on that,” he said when told players were questioning his desire.

The Bears haven’t returned to the playoffs since.

In retrospect, the whole affair seems like Cutler’s career writ small, with no one quite sure how to assess the degree to which he succeeded. Cutler carried the Bears within a game of the Super Bowl, but he also plagued the team with inexcusable errors in the first half that compromised its chances at winning. This bifurcation of results plagued his entire career.

“Since arriving in the Windy City in 2009, Cutler has shown occasional flashes of brilliance – though it's been his aloof behavior that's earned him a reputation as one of the most icy guys in the NFL,” Rolling Stone said in a 2012 article titled “12 Times Jay Cutler Didn’t Give a F--k.” If there is one thread that weaves most prominently through the fabric of Cutler’s relationship with Chicago, this is the one.

But a public face has to be managed. In a fair and just world, Cutler would be remembered as a perfectly adequate quarterback who had a penchant for making plays that won games just as often as he lost them. His stubborn refusal, however, to be anything but prickly with the media – the primary conduit to fans – led many to repudiate his accomplishments.

It isn’t any more complicated than that, really. Cutler was overtly unconcerned with appeasing fans or the media. When he could have restored his reputation over criticisms following the NFC Championship Game that were as specious as they were predictable, he elected not to engage.

“It hurt,” Cutler said laconically when asked how his knee felt after the game.

Excusing yourself from the responsibilities of being a franchise quarterback, though, is contingent on delivering on the field, and by keeping the media at arm’s length, Cutler forfeited any chance of his shortcomings being masked by goodwill. The drawbacks of his erratic approach never subsided. The promise of his potential never materialized. His lucrative contract and recurring problems with durability only exacerbated the criticisms pointed his way. As his proclivity for costly turnovers only worsened, he had no emotional foundation to fall back on. The media had no desire to carry his water. It became increasingly difficult for the Bears to justify his role within the organization.

Put another way: Cutler wasn't good enough at football to act the way he did. He didn’t appear grateful. He lacked humility. The demands of being the face of the franchise brought contentiousness to a man already brimming with antagonism. There may be dignity in Cutler’s refusal to engage in the artifice essential to self-preservation, but it wouldn’t have been hard. He simply and utterly seemed constitutionally incapable of giving a shit.

***

Hang around locker rooms for long enough, and you start to question why anyone talks. Coaches and the players they serve face almost exclusively negative outcomes for speaking honestly. Everyone on the receiving end of a question would be wise to strike as perfect a balance between bland and genial as possible for fear of losing a competitive edge.

Reading Trubisky’s impeccably inoffensive quotes from the start of camp, I found myself longing for Cutler’s delightful irreverence to the ceremonial seriousness the public demands of its athletes. Cutler may have had his shortcomings on the field, but I always appreciated his open disregard for the fundamental emptiness of the press conference format. And in an age when public figures are incentivized to cooperate with the media in service of their brands, his commitment to do the complete opposite felt almost admirable.

Cutler’s demeanor, so unnecessarily combative toward the public, was decidedly imperfect. But he becomes a sympathetic figure when considering the tedium that accompanies observing societal norms. Animus over begrudgingly doing things you don’t want to do is universal. As insolent as Cutler’s behavior could be, it was infinitely more human.

Against this backdrop of rationality, Cutler’s refusal to adhere to the rules of decorum very nearly becomes something to be celebrated. Cantankerous encounters with fans transform into charming addendums to the Cutler Mythology. If Russell Wilson or Kris Bryant were to give a photographer the finger while walking their fiancée’s tiny dog or drunkenly cutting off a gushing fan who approached him in the bathroom of a trendy sushi restaurant with, “DOOOONNNNTTTTTT CAAAAAARRRREEEEEE,” they’d be maligned as hucksters, deceitfully presenting themselves as immaculate pillars of the community.

This is not to say Mitch Trubisky should start indiscriminately antagonizing fans. But in a league where someone like Colin Kaepernick is banished for having the audacity to speak his mind and leverage his platform for a cause of legitimate importance, there was something inspiring about Cutler’s ability to hold his job while serving as “the NFL’s Duke of Don’t Give a Fuck.”

Up until the amount of losses became untenable, Cutler had been a treat. Lament his pitfalls all you want – and there’s validity to that wooden stance – but the Cutler Era was never boring. He may not have been the answer to Chicago’s problems, but he remained unequivocally himself, and that’s an accomplishment that stands on its own.

Cutler arrived in Chicago to great fanfare, while Trubisky’s introduction on draft day was scored by a chorus of boos and disbelief. The irony is that Trubisky will be given a longer leash if he endures similar scuffles as long as he continues to ace his media obligations, even though that will mean he’s far less interesting as a person than Cutler ever was.

For all there is to admire in the surgical effectiveness of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, there was something equally compelling, if less vital to the business of winning football games, about Cutler’s  insubordination. Already, before his replacement has played in a single professional game, it’s hard to believe he was able to stick around for as long as he did.

But that is not how the NFL works. The Bears won’t admit this, but Trubisky was drafted to restore a sense of normalcy; he’s in Chicago to turn Cutler into a memory. This is his moment. The keys to the franchise are his, and his directions are clear: Keep your head down and pilot this organization in the right direction, and we’ll forget things had ever been done any other way.


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