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Viral bullies, beware!
That’s one message of the Jay Cutler saga. At least in Chicago, where, after an early thrashing by fans that started well before the end of Sunday’s NFC Championship Game between the Bears and the Green Bay Packers, the city now proudly has its much-maligned quarterback’s back.
At the beginning of the game’s fourth quarter, the TV camera focused on an apparently injured Cutler — no longer part of the action. Rather than cutting an imposing, athletic silhouette befitting a Monster of the Midway, he stood on the sideline, swaddled in a slightly more-athletic version of a Snuggie, staring into space. Jaws of those at a small game-day party dropped, and one knowing viewer stated that which seemed obvious: “He’s going to be torn apart for this tomorrow, huh?”
Oh, how naïve to have thought the critical onslaught would wait for Monday-morning quarterbacking. Before the game clock hit 00:00, the verdict appeared to have been in: Fans, along with commentators and — most shocking of all — current NFL players, took to Twitter and blog message boards to express their distaste. By the time the Packers were hoisting the George Halas Trophy, Bears fans were uploading videos of themselves burning Cutler jerseys. (Most surprising here is that people had Cutler jerseys to burn; on any given Sunday, one is far more likely to see Bears fans showing their sartorial support for Brian Urlacher and Devin Hester.) For a few moments this Sunday, it appeared that Jay Cutler would be ridden out of town by dawn.
Harsh? Chicago is a sports-obsessed city, and Chicago fans are tough. Forgiveness is not necessarily a Second City value. Case in point: More than seven years later, one can hardly imagine Steve Bartman being welcomed for brats and beers anywhere near Wrigley Field. The stakes are always high here, and everyone gets invested. This time last week, the city was blanketed not only in snow, but in blue and orange as well. The only thing standing between the Bears and the Super Bowl was a victory against their most hated rivals, the Packers. So it came as no surprise that those following the contest on Da Bears Blog live-feed boards ripped into Cutler for “tapping out” of the biggest game of the year. The more printable posts ran the gamut from personal dismay (“I am disappointed in Cutler’s lack of leadership — even if not playing — how about trying to root your team back into this game…”), to unfavorable comparisons (“He is not ‘too injured to play.’ Brett Favre played half-dead.”), to philosophical queries (“Did Cutler just bitch out?).”
Well into the next day, commentators, both professional and amateur, questioned Cutler’s toughness, heart and injury. If he couldn’t play, people wondered, couldn’t he have been a bigger presence on the bench? Where was the Gatorade-throwing tantrum as he begged Lovie Smith to put him back in? Whither the high-fives to Caleb Hanie as the “third quarterback” attempted to mount an improbable (and, as it turned out, impossible) fourth-quarter comeback? Why had he not sought out a pair of blue and orange pom-poms and brandished them with vigor? Instead, Cutler seemed sullen and sulky on the sidelines; On ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon proclaimed that he had body language issues. Indeed, it seemed that Cutler’s BLIs were more of an issue than any potential MCL injury — he appeared bundled and bemused on the cover of the Chicago Sun-Times as the headline blared “Green Ache-r.”
Of course, Cutler hadn’t exactly established himself as a rally around guy for Chicagoans. Before his arrival at Soldier Field, it was widely reported that Urlacher, the Bears’ team leader and megahero, had called him an unpleasant name that certainly did not refer to his catlike quickness in the pocket. In his first game as a Bear (against, who else, the Packers), he threw four interceptions. He gained a reputation for being distant, at best, during press conferences. Two weeks ago, ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly criticized him for not being ostentatious enough about his charity work. (At Christmastime, Cutler and his girlfriend, Kristin Cavallari, bought gifts for an entire children’s hospital ward, which he later refused to discuss with the Chicago Sun-Times.) Cutler lacks the charisma of Bears greats like Walter Payton and Mike Ditka. Heck, even Rex Grossman could crack a joke or two. Before Sunday’s loss, it would have been difficult to imagine Cutler doing a “Super Bowl Shrug,” let alone the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Not that it matters now.
But by Monday morning, even before the official injury reports poured in, something funny happened. Suddenly, almost in unison, Bears fans got tired of the verbal bullying that had become a national story. Now, rather than cursing Cutler’s name and burning him in effigy, fans started jumping to his defense. He had, after all, led their team to within one game of the big one. Those other NFLers voicing their distaste for Cutler via Twitter? Most fans agreed with Urlacher, who called them “jealous people watching our game on TV while their season is over.” Urlacher also vouched for Cutler’s heart — a far cry from a purportedly derisive comment two years ago. As for his toughness? The boards speak for themselves: “Jay has done better then any QB in our history. He’s gotten so much better after last year. He’s a tough SOB who took 52 freaking sacks. 52!” On any other day, praising your quarterback by extolling how many times he got rocked for a loss is a bit like a teenager swearing he couldn’t have broken grandma’s prized vase because he was otherwise engaged smoking pot in the basement. Coming from a Bears die-hard just after a heartbreaking loss, it read like an ode to heroism.
Why the sudden fan turnaround? Perhaps because Cutler really was injured. Perhaps because his teammates jumped to defend him: Hanie said Cutler was, in fact, “very encouraging.” Perhaps because so much of the criticism came from outsiders and, well, he may be an unlikeable guy, but he’s Chicago’s unlikeable guy, darn it. Perhaps because the brouhaha over Cutler’s supposed lack of toughness in light of a real injury is ridiculous, as Barry Petchesky at Deadspin pointed out, especially in a year in which NFL players’ safety has never been more in the spotlight. Whatever the reason, by Tuesday, Chicago felt compelled to defend its QB — much to its own chagrin. In Tuesday’s Chicago Tribune, David Haugh wrote, “I can’t believe I’m defending a guy who played so poorly in the first half Sunday and can act so unprofessionally, but Cutler doesn’t deserve the labels being attached.” Which is not to say that, after a crushing defeat, Chicagoans have gone soft. Always hungry for a scapegoat, they’ve found a few: the offensive line (it of the 52 sacks), the refs (of course), second-string quarterback Todd Collins (poor guy) and the Bears organization. But those who rushed to blast Cutler? As one fan so eloquently put it, “f-ck anyone burning Cutler jerseys, they aren’t Bears fans.”
Come next season (or even next week), the tides of public opinion may turn once again against the grumpy fellow from Santa Claus, Indiana. But for now, Jay Cutler need not jump on the first bus out on the Borman Expressway. The viral bullies who incited a counter offensive made it clear that, for now at least, Chicago thinks Cutler should stay.