Last Sunday was the first postseason game of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler’s five-year NFL career, and Cutler made the most of it.
He ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more.
Cutler was the catalyst, the protagonist of the Bears’ 35-24 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, which propelled Chicago into this Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against their most storied rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
Yet much of the postgame focus was on Cutler’s news conference demeanor. To a Philadelphia reporter not schooled in the ways of Cutlerology, the QB’s answers were OK, a little bland. He didn’t seem real happy to be there, but he answered questions politely.
Asked what it was like, having grown up in Indiana as a Bears fan, now leading the Bears into a game against the Packers for the right to go to the Super Bowl, Cutler said, “Yeah, it doesn’t get any better than this.”
He went on to say he was going to have to watch a lot of film. “They’re a really good football team; they’re really hot,” Cutler continued. And so on.
The next day, Chicago papers discerned a Cutler coming-out party. The Chicago Tribune cited “eye contact with reporters.” The Sun-Times referred to his “pleasant – and sometimes playful” news conference.
All of which might lead an outsider to wonder what the heck the guy was like before.
Some of the answers might lie in an ESPN.com column written by Rick Reilly days before the Seattle game. Reilly puzzled over Cutler’s often smirky, grouchy demeanor, and told two revealing stories from Cutler’s days in Denver, which ended in a 2009 trade to the Bears.
In one story, veteran safety John Lynch was trying to explain something to Cutler, but Cutler wouldn’t stop texting; he refused to put down his phone, until Lynch grabbed it and threw it to the floor, smashing it.
In another, Cutler went to lunch with Broncos legend John Elway and then-coach Mike Shanahan, but wouldn’t turn away from the TV to give Elway his attention.
It wasn’t just a lambasting. Reilly also mentioned anonymous charity work Cutler did. Basically, he wondered why a guy who ought to be the toast of Chicago seems to shrink from adulation, or even civil discourse. Antisocial quarterbacks who hate the spotlight are about as rare as offensive linemen with six-pack abs.
All of which is relevant right now, as the spotlight on Cutler and the Bears grows brighter. It’s tempting to root for the Bears to win this weekend, just to see Cutler on the podium every day of Super Bowl week, with reporters from all over the world attempting to probe his psyche.
The Reilly piece was a big enough deal in Chicago that Cutler was asked about it after the Seattle game, in that aforementioned news conference.
“Mr. Reilly wasn’t very happy with me, and I saw that,” Cutler said, as Chicago reporters chuckled indulgently. “It is what it is. Like I said, nobody outside that building is going to affect me, or hopefully, anybody on our team.”
Of course, no one at that news conference probed the particulars – why wouldn’t he listen to Lynch, or Elway, back in Denver? Why does he seem to radiate sullenness, even when things are going well?
In the gentle questioning of Cutler on Sunday, it was possible to hear echoes of the way the Philadelphia media used to interact with Terrell Owens, in 2004, when the Eagles were marching to the Super Bowl. When a star player is propelling his team to victory, everybody wants a happy story. It’s human nature; this guy is doing wonderful things on the field. Surely, he must be a swell person, deep down, right?
If the Bears advance, expect a steady stream of “the other side of Jay Cutler” stories, in the national media. It’s what we do.
The truth about Cutler, on the field, is that he has an incredible arm, but has sometimes relied too much on that arm, with disastrous results. Down the stretch this season, under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Mike Martz, and with Martz mixing in the run more to take some of the pressure off Cutler’s arm, Cutler seems to have matured.
The guy who led the NFL with 26 interceptions in 2009 has logged a passer rating over 100 in five of his last seven games, a stretch that started against the Eagles on Nov. 28.
Bears tight end Greg Olsen said Cutler’s turning point came three weeks earlier than that, when Chicago came out of its bye week with a victory over Buffalo that began a stretch drive of seven victories in nine games, nailing down the NFC’s second seed.
As well as Cutler played last week, though, there were occasional hints of the wobbly decision-making that has been known to infuriate fans in Denver and Chicago. Up 7-0, on the doorstep of taking an early two-touchdown lead, second-and-1 at the Seattle 3, Cutler tried to throw a slant through Seahawks safety Jordan Babineaux. Babineaux, taken by surprise, watched the easy interception bounce off him and fall to the Soldier Field turf. Four plays later, the Bears took that two-touchdown lead, and they never looked back.
Afterward, Olsen said, “That’s about as good a quarterback play as you’re going to get,” which brought up the specter of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, the QB Cutler will match up against Sunday.
The night before Cutler led the Bears past Seattle, Rodgers played one of the greatest postseason games, eviscerating the Falcons 48-21 in Atlanta. Cutler is 1-3 against the Packers since joining the Bears, and has posted a lower passer rating than Rodgers in each of their meetings.
Of course, Rodgers had his own off-field image crisis this week, when footage of him walking past a cancer patient, failing to sign her hat, surfaced on the Internet. Rodgers apparently did not mean to slight the woman, whom he had signed for in the past. Rodgers, who projects a much friendlier demeanor than Cutler, was able to quell the controversy.
Cutler, a friend who texts Rodgers regularly, was asked Sunday if he intends to try to be “warmer” with the media now.
“I’m trying,” he said, with a hint of a smile. “Can’t you tell?”
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