Updated: January 24, 2012 7:18PM
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, sidelined for nearly the entire second half of Sunday’s NFC title game with a knee injury, sidestepped the question everyone wanted him to answer.
Asked how he wanted to respond to anyone questioning his toughness, Cutler said, “No comment on that.”
But at some point, whether through words or actions, Cutler’s going to have to come up with an answer.
The first revelation may come today, after Cutler undergoes an MRI to determine the full extent of what is believed to be a left knee injury.
Cutler said he got hit on the “outside of my leg,” and neither he nor coach Lovie Smith provided any details. But center Olin Kreutz said he saw Cutler’s knee “shaking” and “swinging like this,” motioning his hand back and forth quickly, an indication of instability.
“I didn’t think he was going to even finish the half,” Kreutz said. “Then when he came out and tried it again [in the third quarter]; that amazed me.
“If you don’t have an MCL injury or whatever, then you don’t understand. It’s easy to question people from your couch, but it’s really stupid.”
To a man, in a show of unity, Cutler’s teammates and coach trumpeted the quarterback’s toughness, one noting that he endured a league-high 52 sacks this season. Another teammate insisted that Cutler had to be talked out of returning to the lineup, despite a porous effort in which he completed just 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards. But Smith said he didn’t give Cutler a choice.
“For us, Jay hurt his knee,” Smith said. “He just couldn’t go; team, doctors and all, there was no decision, really.
“He was injured.”
Cutler has shrugged off criticism about his body language, his mechanics and even his media relations. But the perception that he’s not a tough quarterback will be a daunting one to shake, whether real or imagined.
Informed that the popular social media site Twitter was ablaze with criticism of his quarterback, Kreutz said people were “being stupid,” and he bristled at repeated questions about Cutler’s toughness.
“I don’t know what all this questioning is or what someone might have said,” Kreutz said. “But that’s just ignorance. They should turn that [expletive] Twitter off.”
Fans, naturally, flooded Twitter with posts that, for the most part, wondered how Cutler could — with the exception of a three-and-out — sit out the entire second half.
Several noted that San Diego’s Philip Rivers played in the AFC title game during the 2007 season with a torn ACL.
After the game, in the parking lot of Soldier Field, there were pictures of at least one fan burning a Cutler jersey.
But those flames were fanned by a surprising group — other NFL players.
Many former and current players didn’t hold back when Cutler was sidelined, crossing what some consider an unwritten rule.
The popular website Pro Football Talk collected a sampling of criticism, outlined in their entirety without edits:
Former Pro Bowl offensive lineman and current ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth: “As a guy who had 20 knee surgeries you’d have to drag me out on a stretcher to Leave a championship game!”
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee . . . I played the whole season on one.”
Perennial Pro Bowl cornerback and current NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders: “Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart.”
Oakland Raiders quarterback Bruce Gradkowski: “Is cutler still ur starter next year? Did the players give up on him?”
Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher didn’t shy away from backing his quarterback and ripping some of those players.
“Nothing like jealous people at home. Players around the league, you said, right?” Urlacher asked. “Yeah, I love jealous people when they are watching our game on TV while their season is over.”
But now his team’s season is finished, too.
During the offseason, the Bears can start by addressing the offensive line, a unit that struggled throughout the season and in Sunday’s title game.
“I feel horrible for him,” Kreutz said of Cutler, who was sacked twice and pressured several other times. “But that falls on us. He was getting hit too much.”
But Cutler won’t be able to dodge the inevitable questions about his toughness as easily as he has some other issues.
And, ultimately, only he’ll be the one capable of adequately addressing them.