The click said it all.
Eight months after what was probably the worst afternoon of Jay Cutler’s professional football life, the controversy that shrouded his performance in last winter’s NFC Championship game continues to dog him.
Was he offended by criticism that he didn’t play hurt?
“No,” Cutler said sharply.
Was he surprised by the backlash?
“I was not,” he said.
Did it hurt him that much of that criticism came from players in the league?
“No,” Cutler said.
The Bears quarterback will have a chance to close the book on what happened on that cold day at Soldier Field last January, when Cutler left the game early in the second half with a knee injury that caused the Bears to list his return as “questionable,” which then fueled a firestorm of debate as to just how significant the injury was when Cutler didn’t return to the game. Should Cutler lead the Bears to victory against the Packers this Sunday, all of that criticism from last January will come to a grinding halt.
Cutler’s motivation for Sunday’s game is distinct. The click said it all.
“It’s a big game. I know what it means to this organization, I know what it means to Green Bay. To get the season going and to get back on track, we need this game,” Cutler said during Wednesday’s conference call with Packers media.
The Bears are 1-1, which is a reasonable start for a team that opened with games against Atlanta and New Orleans, two of the four Super Bowl favorites in the NFC this year. The Bears’ opponent this week, of course, is the Super Bowl-champion Packers.
How’s that for a trio of games to open the season? Should the Bears come out of that starting schedule 2-1, they’ll be positioned well for what remains of the season.
“We struggled to run the ball and couldn’t protect,” Cutler said of the Bears’ loss in New Orleans this past Sunday. “We had a turnover deep in our own territory and when you do those three things it’s going to be hard to win the football game.”
Through two games, Cutler has thrown three touchdown passes and one interception. He has an 84.1 passer rating.
“Played well the first game, we didn’t play the way we need to play in the second game. That’s sums up Jay’s play. We took a step back this past week. We feel comfortable and confident with Jay leading us,” Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith said.
Last January’s NFC title game and the controversy that resulted from it have made Cutler a lightning rod for media concentration. FOX spiced its coverage of the Bears’ opener against the Falcons by using fictitious newspaper-type headlines for viewers to see. The network’s cameras, of course, were trained on Cutler and dogged his every step.
“This goes back to FOX. They’re going to show me when it’s good for them. You look at any quarterback in the league and if you put the camera on them after a sack or an interception, you’re going to get much of the same reaction. If you want to write about certain instances of the game, go ahead,” Cutler said.
It was explained that he wasn’t in full-voice for the conference call, the result of having been kicked in the throat during the loss to the Saints. Times certainly have been tough for Cutler. He can change that, of course, on Sunday.
“We’re playing the Super Bowl champs. This week I don’t have to start off with a lot of George Halas speeches about getting ready for this game. We know who we’re playing. The guys will be ready for this game,” Smith promised.
Smith is talking up his team, even if the team’s fans aren’t. The Bears offense is the subject of criticism this week for a 13-point effort against the Saints.
“We’ll take the criticism that comes our way, but we feel real good about this football team,” Smith said. “I think this is the best football team we’ve had since I’ve been here. I made that statement.”
Sunday’s outcome will go a long way toward defending that statement, or challenging it. Sunday’s game will also go a long way toward putting last season’s NFC title game in the past, or making it even more of an issue.
“Nothing in the past is going to make a difference in this game,” Cutler said.
Click here to listen to Jay Cutler's conference call with Wisconsin media Additional coverage - Sept. 21