After his early departure from the NFC championship game on Sunday, Chicago Bears Quarterback Jay Cutler is at the center of a media storm. There are several issues surrounding the incident, but the heart of the matter is this: does a Quarterback have a responsibility to his fans and teammates that goes beyond his actual performance on the field? I believe he does.
A lot of attention is being paid to the severity of Cutler's injury, and whether or not it prohibited him from continuing to play in the game. I find this to be somewhat of a moot point, as are the countless arguments that so-and-so quarterback played an entire NFL season with some sort of knee injury. Every situation and injury is different. Cutler is tough. He played two entire NFL seasons with untreated type One Diabetes. He is not a player who removes himself from the game often. Even after taking ten sacks in a nationally aired game against the New York Giants, Cutler continued to play on, bloodied and bruised, until a concussion knocked him out.
I have no doubts that Jay Cutler is a physically-tough guy. He played a great season and he should be proud of that. Still, I question Cutler's ability to demonstrate emotional leadership on a team that desperately needs offensive leadership. Whether he was able to play or not, he appeared to have mentally checked out of the game after his injury. His body language communicated a message of demoralized defeat in a game that was half over, and could easily still have been won.
Fans want our quarterback to be an emotional leader and show some heart on the sidelines. Jay Cutler may well have wanted his team to win very badly on Sunday. He may have been quietly giving Caleb Hanie his full support. But we didn't see it. We didn't see him getting crutches, hobbling down the sidelines to follow plays. We didn't see him standing and turning to the crowd, raising his arms to incite the fans to cheer. We didn't see him high-fiving his teammates as they came off the field. We didn't see much of anything but a blank, defeated facial expression.
Chicago Bear fans are being mercilessly crucified today for our criticism of Cutler. We're being portrayed as an angry lynch mob, burning jerseys and calling for our Quarterbacks release. I agree that some fans are reacting to this incident inappropriately, as are some other players in the league. That being said, I understand where these disgruntled fans are coming from, because I am one of them. While I'm not burning any jerseys or calling for a Cutler trade, I am disconcerted by the way Jay Cutler represented his team on the sidelines.
Having spent hours searching eBay and Craigslist trying to secure a pair of tickets for Sunday's game, I know how big of a financial sacrifice it was for many die-hard Bear fans to attend the NFC Championship game. Bear fans sit through games shirtless wearing orange body paint when it's five degrees outside. As fans, we make sacrifices for our team and we expect our quarterback to make them for us. We can yell and scream all we want on the sidelines, but the quarterback is our proxy on the field. We need him to yell and cheer and show us that his heart wants to be in the game. We need to see that he hurts when we lose.
Whether Jay Cutler cares about his image or not -- everyone else does. Being a quarterback in the NFL is a job, and like any other job, it carries with it responsibilities that may not play to your strengths. Charisma isn't one of Cutler's strengths, and that's okay. But he needs to make an effort. He may have felt hurt and defeated and frustrated on the sidelines, but the game wasn't over. Part of being a leader is having the mental fortitude to look beyond yourself and your feelings and be there for your team and fans. Cutler has spent most of this season learning how to manage complex offensive plays, and it will serve him well in the offseason if he puts in some serious time learning to manage his emotional affect.
That's really the heart of the matter.