There was a palpable sub-tension to Thursday night’s game between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears. There was the game itself, an increasingly lopsided see-saw, but there was also the loud ticking of the Jay Cutler doomsday clock. As the game slipped out of reach, what interest remained came from waiting for Jay Cutler, America’s favorite sports misanthrope, to do what he does best.
That is to say, become frustrated to the point of no return and finally display the spectacularly sulky body language that is his distinctive gestural mode of communication. This is a full-body pout unrivaled anywhere in sports, with the possible exception of tennis, which is home to some of the most palpably displeased people on earth. Once Cutler achieved Point Cutler and began his weird, sullen dance performance, it would begin: Twitter would rise up to ridicule his ridiculous faces, back-footed throws, exaggerated gesticulations and unacknowledged pleas to officials. He would, in short, turn from a highly capable NFL quarterback into Jay Cutler, sadfaced meme and joke. This is what Cutler would do, because it is what he does.
Unexpectedly, perhaps, as the same Packers defense that had seemed incapable of slowing down an ice cream truck in Week 1 roughed up and ran through the Bears’ overmatched offensive line. Cutler looked terrible, and could hardly have looked any other way.
But it wasn’t just the sacking of the former Pro Bowler seven times or the forcing of four interceptions on the sort of hurried, underthrown passes that have been a hallmark of Cutler’s worst games as a pro. It wasn’t even that the Packers’ “ace” secondary (read: statistically the worst group of defensive backs in NFL history, as of last season) turned Cutler’s favorite target -- former Broncos teammate and fellow avatar of sketchy body language Brandon Marshall -- into David Terrell. It was that the Packers clearly got in Cutler’s head, which, in turn, led to the schadenfreude show that everyone really wanted to see: Good Ole Baby Jay, his pudgy pout affixed, complaining to officials between bouts of very deliberately buckling and unbuckling his chin strap.
The errant throws and the bad sacks, along with all that pouty slouching, have been seen before and will be seen again. The moment that will endure, though, is likely to be a part of any Jay Cutler segment airing on ESPN for the next three months. That would be his pushing of third-year LT J’Marcus Webb following Webb’s particularly bad blown assignment against linebacker Clay Matthews, which can be seen below:
It’s important to note several things about the push. First, J’Marcus Webb was performing about as badly as a player can without being not just benched but fired immediately; this seems pretty obvious in retrospect, considering that Clay Matthews had a staggering 3.5 sacks in the game and got to Cutler several times more than that. Secondly, it was really not much of a push. What it was, however, was another example -- to those who think such things -- of Jay Cutler being kind of an idiot, someone who will not, cannot and will never accept that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and so will never get from his talent what he should.
The old evidence to that effect is familiar stuff. Complaints about when Cutler left the NFC Championship game early, discounting the knee injury that kept him out; the time he broke his thumb and cost his then 7-3 Bears a dark-horse chance at the Lombardi Trophy, discounting the fact that he broke it trying to make a tackle in a close game. This one will be filed under Playing The Game The Right Way Comma Not. Barking at teammates is something that Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, for starters, do all the time, and for which they’re praised. Heaving no-hope ropes into triple coverage is something Brett Favre did for over a decade without becoming any less legendary for it. Cutler doesn’t get this allowance: he does what he does and is called smug, tactless, a punk, a joke. All this disapproval instead of one simple realization: Jay Cutler is us.
Well, most of us. Anyway, me.
Cutler is, finally, like any other kid who grew up insanely competitive and firmly convinced of his or her own exceptional abilities. With that certainty can come a certain level of disdain, or contempt for those who question your methods. Cutler, as a NFL quarterback, is certainly more correct in his assessment of his own unique awesomeness than most of us were during our days of unquestionable perfection. He certainly seems to hate losing as much as any adolescent, though.
When you think you’re better than others in the way that Cutler thinks he is better -- because of a weird mix of measurable talent and unmistakable shoulder-chip -- it can manifest itself in a way that comes off as whiny. To a certain extent, it is. But it’s not necessarily a whine directed at anyone on the field, in the stands or in the press box. This is an existential whine, not so much a questioning sound as the sound of someone confronting a fate he is sure he doesn’t deserve. It’s a sort of alpha version of a tantrum: teammates get yelled at, officials get it worse, the press gets only the most withering disdain. Losing is awful, for athletes and other people. Cutler just performs that awfulness more fully than any other athlete. Maybe it’s childish, and maybe it’s beneath him. But the truth is, it’s not anything we wouldn’t do.
And that is the problem, maybe: Cutler is too much like us on the other side of the TV screen. In football, as with most sports, there are three groups of players: the ones who “get” it and have “it”, the people have “it” and don’t “get” it, and the ones who don’t have “it” but “get” it. We have a tendency to align ourselves with the last group -- those guys we consider underdogs and overachievers, the Joe Montanas -- and admire those from the first: the golden children of sports, the truly transcendent athletes who combine pathological work ethic with incredible physical gifts, like Michael Jordan.
The second group, those athletes for whom physical limitations are of no great concern but whose mental makeup may leave something to be desired, are treated as the middle child of sports fandom: blamed what they do differently from the overachievers and asked why they can’t be as good as the effortless ones. Fans and media tell them, in so many words, to do guidance counselor things like apply themselves, trash them for not getting more from their gifts and refuse to accept excuses as to why. We boo them for acting like us, and for reminding us of ourselves and our frustrations.
We can continue to laugh at and jeer Jay Cutler, of course. We can do whatever we want. But maybe, the next time Jay Cutler blows up at official or bumps a teammate, we can try to understand that when we get mad at him, we’re only getting mad at ourselves.