“C'mon Cutler, you piece of shit.”
- Friend of the author and Bears fan, during an undetermined 2011 game
Near the middle of the fourth quarter of 2013’s Week 16 game against the Eagles, Jay Cutler hit Alshon Jeffrey for modest 10-yard gain. There wasn't a whole lot to the play, which was a simple out pattern. Neither was there much for either team to play for at that point in the game, as Philly's 40-11 lead meant everyone was going through the motions, making sure all limbs were intact and brains un-concussed while the clock kept up its inevitable creep towards zero. But, with the gain, Cutler hit the 222 passing yards threshold on the day, giving him a grand total of 14,687 in his five-season Bears career. That was one more yard than previous career Bears passing yards record holder Sid Luckman, who set the mark over 11 seasons. With that play, Jay Cutler became the most productive quarterback in the franchise’s history.
Cutler's next pass was diabolically perfect: A pick-six to Brandon Boykin, who ran it back, untouched by the offense-turned-defense, 54 yards for a touchdown. It was one of those beautifully inept passes in which every fan watching gets to experience a momentary and muddled version of ESP. Before it leaves the quarterback's hand, the viewer gets it. Something isn't right. The receiver's route is taking him away from the ball's eventual trajectory and the defender has taken his place, almost as if he knew the play before it arrived from the sidelines. The most basic visual shortcut viewers have when watching sports—that those wearing the same color jersey are on the same team—has been compromised. The fan is left disoriented, angry, exhausted and delirious.
This second pass, and the emotions that came with it, were certainly more indicative of Cutler's time in Chicago than the 63-year-old record he'd just broken. To Bears fans watching that night, it was almost as if the previous pass attempt, or 2,066 that preceded it, never happened. This is how it goes for the best quarterback the Bears have ever had.
And, just going by statistics alone, Jay Cutler is without a doubt the best quarterback ever to play for the Chicago Bears. He's also arguably the most despised player in Bears history.
The bipolar state of Chicago fans came out in full brat-cheeked, mustachioed force during the second half of the 2013 season, when the team was ping-ponging between Cutler and a surprisingly capable Josh McCown at QB, their playoff odds shuffling from first loser, to Controllers Of Their Own Destiny, to whatever those last few minutes against Green Bay were. Every moment of insecurity—and the end of any NFL season is full of them—was opportunity to mention how Cutler was playing without a contract. Once the final down of the 2013 season was over, he'd be a free agent, available to suitors around the country.
Conversations about player contracts are a mix of near-sociopathic pragmatism and armchair psychology. Fans weigh the person's value from a marketing perspective, or maybe they feel they can get a free agent to accept less monetarily because the player's wife seems to like the area, or maybe the team should pay a modest sum to bring that player's best friend aboard as a consultant. The conversations get creepy, sure, but generally it boils down to a simple question: Will the player be worth the money? With Cutler, the debates had little to do with money. It was more, do we want him around at all?
For those paying attention, there was no way the team wasn't going to resign him. Since the hilarious 2009 trade that brought him over from the Broncos—one that a team subject to faster-moving karma wouldn't so easily have gotten over—Cutler has been treated by management like the righteous golden-armed god he is. They quickly swung a trade for BFF Brandon Marshall, spent a high draft pick on another acrobatic wideout in Alshon Jeffrey, kept his former college pal Earl Bennett on the roster despite a continual decrease in production, hired his former quarterbacks coach from Denver days (who, subsequently, wasn't able to do a whole lot, due to former coach Lovie Smith's policy of filling the offensive coordinator position with whatever Mike was lying around), and even included Cutler in the interview process for a new head coach last season. Not surprisingly, then, the Bears chose a coach whose gravestone is going to read “quarterback guru.”
The only thing they failed to do was put an offensive line in front of him until last season.
Cutler has been the cornerstone upon which Chicago’s entire offensive philosophy has been built over the past five seasons. Cutting bait on him now would hit refresh on a team that was a Biblical Plague of Defensive Injuries away from contending in 2013. So, it was never a matter of “if,” but a multi-tiered question of “how long” and “how much.” When it was revealed that the answer to the latter two questions was seven years and $126 million, Bears fans lost their shit, as they are prone to do and doubly prone to do where Cutler is involved.
Facebook posts burbling with vitriol claimed this signing was going to destroy the team. Message board rants and comments sections found new and exciting ways to Photoshop Cutler's swollen head onto a tearful toddler. Text messages sent to me from the 312 area code reeked of desperation, while those from other listings mockingly wished me a joyous next seven years. Yahoo! Sports wrote an article, one I refuse to link here, entitled “Is Jay Cutler the Most Overpaid Quarterback in NFL History?” (These reactions were ridiculous, and not only because most failed to read the fine print of the deal, or appeared to comprehend the distinct difference between football and baseball contracts, which is that they're not fully guaranteed. The Bears can cut him after three seasons, the only penalty being the $54 guaranteed money. That's roughly the going rate for the most important position in the sport.) This was a team pre-built around their best quarterback ever, and they were re-signing him in the midst of his prime years. But, still: The hate. The reflexive, bilious, rageful, and so-very-familiar hate.
During Brett Favre's 2007 season, when he was plowing through nearly every counting stat record with the mechanical selfishness of end stage Craig Biggio—sure, Favre's the record holder for most TDs thrown and passing yards, but he also sets the pace for career interceptions thrown, sacks taken and fumbles lost over a career; this is what happens when you just play and play and play and play—a listicle wound its way around email accounts and MySpace bulletin boards that listed all the quarterbacks the Bears had put under center during the ol' gunslinger's 200-plus starts in a row. There are 21 names on this list. Some could be considered “okay” quarterbacks (Jim Harbaugh, Erik Kramer, even Jim Miller if you take the never-had-the-chance-to-show-his-entire-hand angle). But most have no value other than as a point of pride for masochistic Bears fans proud of their ability to remember their names.
The list has everything. Big Men on Campus that never translated to the pro game (Rick Mirer, Rex Grossman, Brian Griese, Craig Krenzel, Steve Stenstrom, and, oh dear lord yes, Cade McNown), one-time magic-in-a-bottle types from which the team hoped to extrude a little extra sorcery (Kordell Stewart, Chris Chandler), a former big-league pitcher with a career ERA of 24.75 (Chad Hutchinson, small sample size), and a man named Moses. But the most heartbreaking thing about the list, the subtle punch you don't feel until the next morning, was reserved for the more big-picture Bears fans.
While the list looked at the team's quarterback deficiency from 1992 through 2007, you really could take a snapshot of every other era in Bears history and come up with the same general lack of quality. This wasn't an off two decades for the team. This was the latest iteration of the norm. Jim McMahon seems to be the exception, but that's mostly due to his best season coinciding with the 1985 team who, for a multitude of reasons, captured the world's imagination. Without that, he'd essentially have the track record of Erik Kramer: great when healthy, and barely ever that. Before Cutler, Sid Luckman was the bearer of most of the team's records, a bad sign seeing as he played half his career before Harry Truman was President.
There's no other way to put it: Bears quarterbacks have been historically atrocious. Until Cutler.
And yet, still, when his murky contract status became a point of contention, fans were actually wondering, out loud, without immediately getting punched in the face, whether or not it wouldn't be a smart move to maybe, you know, just spitballing here, let Cutler walk and re-sign McCown as a starter. You know, the 34-year-old journeyman whose greatest accomplishment in his 13 year career was winning the DirecTV-sponsored “NFL's Quarterback's Challenge” event in 2007? How is it that, to Bears fans, this guy seemed like a more capable option than Cutler?
If one were to create a time demarcation when the aura surrounding Cutler turned from, to borrow a wrestling phrase, face to heel, it was on the evening of January 23, 2011.
Before, he wasn't exactly a beloved personality. He was a brash young punk with a rep for not getting along with Denver’s youthful genius of a coach, Belichick acolyte Josh McDaniels. But then, slowly, we learned that McDaniels himself was a brash young punk, so it was kind of a wash. Cutler had cannon enough to wing it 60 yards downfield to Devin Hester's 100 Madden speed, but also the maddening gumption to believe his rocket-propelled throws would make it through triple coverage. (It didn't help that, generally, these failed threadings-of-needle occurred in the end zone.) In sports radio call-in parlance, at least in the Chicagoland area, he was a “mental midget,” a phrase that should go quite a way towards understanding the cultural sensitivity in place throughout much of the Second City. But, still, fans didn't hate him.
Here was someone who actually could take chances, a rarity in the annals of Bears quarterbacking. And being near the top of the league in sacks gave him not only a built-in excuse—how is he supposed to set his feet and make an accurate throw when he's constantly on the run?—but a rough-around-the-edges vibe that plays well in the blue collar/butchery toughness that is the city of Chicago. Playing through the constant pain that comes with having a line like a sieve, that was the important part. It showed He Was A Man. So the verdict of barroom conversations from Oak Park to Oak Forest to Park Forest, and in all the Oaks and Parks and Forests in between, was to give him the benefit of the doubt if his brain let rip with occasional flatulence. It was part of the deal, a thing that came with his gift, a gifted bro version of Icarus pushing boundaries to find them.
Then came the 2011 NFC Championship Game.
This was not only a winner-goes-to-the-Super-Bowl/loser-throws-a-Super-Bowl-party affair, although it was that. It was Bears vs. Packers. It was The Rivalry, in prime time, at Soldier Field. You can count the number of games with a higher emotional investment for Bears fans using the hairs on Michael Jordan's head. If that turn of phrase doesn't quite work, just note: It was a big deal.
Throughout the year, Cutler was a beaten-down man playing behind Mike Martz's “I don't have time to figure this shit out, just get rid of the ball quicker, asshole” blocking schemes. This was the script for Cutler all year: (1) Say a prayer; (2) Receive the ball; (3) See if a receiver has broken free within a second; (4) Just run the fuck around to avoid the pass rush; (5) Try to find someone, anyone; (6) Throw the ball (optional); (7) Get sandwiched between four heavily-muscled opponents; (8) Peel up off the ground and repeat. Cutler led the league in times sacked, the worst instance coming in a Week 4 game against the Giants, when he was brought down nine times in the first half. The last of those sacks delivered him a concussion-based vacation the following week.
The year was basically an unauthorized sequel in the Saw series, with Martz standing in for the sadistic puppet and the offensive line for the torture implements. And yet, despite that, Cutler only missed one game and led his team to an 11-5 record, a first round bye, and then a home playoff win against the Seattle Seahawks.
Perhaps now's a good time to discuss how Chicagoans feel about football players being hurt: You know Ray Liotta in Goodfellas explaining Paulie's compassion for owners he's in business with? It's that. “Have a broken finger? Fuck you, play. Got a little boo-boo on your brain? Fuck you, play. Tear your ACL, MCL, neck and lose an eyeball? Fuck you, play.” This mentality of playing-through-pain has been extolled to all Chicagoans since youth—Curious George stories replaced with tales of Dick Butkus biting off a ref's finger—and refreshed every week during pre-game shows when former players like Steve “Mongo” McMichael and Doug Buffone get their time on the air to call out any pansies.
So, when Cutler exited the game in the third quarter of the Biggest Game in Bears History after a dismal 6/14, 80 yards line—forcing the team to go to second-stringer Todd Collins, before reaching deep down to third-stringer Caleb Hanie in the fourth quarter—it was not met with kindness. Especially when the Fox cameras constantly showed Cutler on the sidelines, walking around, not dead, training staff not working on him, shoulders slumped, sourpuss in full bloom.
Fans were apoplectic. Writers had their easy-to-copy narrative to fart into the “take”-laden landscape of “sports journalism.” Meathead former players took to Twitter:
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.”
Deion Sanders: “in the playoffs u must drag me off the field.”
Kerry Rhodes: “Cmon cutler u have to come back. This is the NFC championship if u didn't know!”
Lovie Smith didn't make the situation any better by refusing to clarify other than saying Cutler was done for the day. It wasn't until the next day, after the 21-14 loss, that an MRI revealed Cutler had an MCL sprain, a legitimate injury—you need your knees to play quarterback, especially if your Swiss cheese line forces you to spend a majority of that time running away from people that desperately want to hurt you—that would have been serious enough to render him mighty questionable for the upcoming Super Bowl. You know, if Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie didn't play like Todd Collins and Caleb Hanie. But that release was the equivalent of a Page 14 “Corrections” notice for the previous day's cover story. The image that stuck was that of Cutler, away from his team when they needed him most, pouting on the bench. The labels “quitter,” “man-baby” and “whiner” had already been lofted, and they stuck perfectly well.
This is because Cutler has a ready-made adhesive for such blustery adjectives: his face.
At this point, nearly any mention of Cutler is obliged to mention, at the very least cursorily, the web phenomenon that is Smoking Jay Cutler, a website composed entirely of Photoshopped images of the man smoking a cigarette. “[D]edicated to the most apathetic looking athlete in the history of sports,” goes the site's byline. It's tough to argue, or even to find a contender to that crown.
Cutler just looks like someone who should have a lit cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth. His eyes are a bit too squinty, as if he's pulling some silly pose after watching Rebel Without A Cause one too many times. His five o’clock shadow-ed jawline is a bit too gelatinous, lending a certain softness that could be read as weakness. His hair's stuck in a rising coif that shows an attempt to make himself presentable (a no-no in the “don't you dare show off” Chicago vibe), but not doing so successfully (an even bigger no-no). His facial expressions vacillate between absolute nothingness and a slight, knowing smirk, the left side just a tad higher than the right. It's the face of that guy at the bar who thinks he knows more than everyone else, so he's just going to let you have your little cute opinion while he shuts up, smirks, and finishes this bucket of Bud Light.
Here is a rare area of consensus among Bears fans: Jay Cutler has a stupid face. A dumb, detestable face. The face of a jerk. You know that dick in high school that pushed you down in gym class before having entirely too easy a time talking to girls? He looked an awful lot like Cutler.
Television cameras, with their ever-persnickety gaze, love certain people. Jay Cutler is not one of them. He is Nixon during his first televised Presidential debate, flop-sweated and droopy. He's that weaselly character actor whose easily-despicable face directors use as shortcuts to inform the audience that, this guy here is someone you should hate. (Contemporarily, it's tough to think of a more contemptible face than Frank Vincent's, although it’s tough to imagine Frank Vincent at Cutler’s comparatively young age.)
Honestly, Cutler's face isn't that terrible. It’s just his face, and if it droops and pouts and tends towards the blank, then it’s just a face that does that, not some secret aesthetic window into passionless deficiency. And when Cutler does show some spark—by, say, yelling at teammates between plays—his body language is read not as someone “being a leader” like Peyton or Tom, but instead as that of a “blaming cry-baby” like, well, Jay Cutler. Even his smile, rarer than a South Side vegan, seems to be mocking. He's definitely not laughing with you. But most damning of all: He doesn't look like he's having F-U-N out there.
That very childlike energy was Favre's get-out-of-jail free card, rapscallioning him out of false start retirements, drug addiction, unrequested cock-shots, and dozens of brutal gunslinging picks. The Manning Brothers were one big bore cluster before loosening their collective collar and shilling for whatever corporate sponsors pay best. Aaron Rodgers smiles nearly every time he gets to the line of scrimmage; Cam Newton seems, quite reasonably, to be having a blast being Cam Newton. It’s rare to see Russell Wilson slump after an interception, and when you do, it's not with the depth or sullenness as Cutler.
Those niceties matter. Not to other football players—Cutler has yet to be criticized by the one group that know him the best: teammates—and certainly not in record books or results. But they matter to the general football-viewing public, notably more than they should. Cutler's Eeyore visage make many people want to root, root, root against him as hard as humanly possible; it recasts his every mistake and misjudgment as petulant, willful, dour.
It's upsetting, because the criticism doesn't seem fair, and can at its worst take on a palpable gang-bullying tone. It’s tough to know what Cutler is really like; he has mostly kept his private life private, despite having a former reality TV star for a wife. He does a bunch of diabetes awareness volunteer work; he has Type 1 himself, requiring daily insulin shots. He wears Cosby-like sweaters, and we must presume he does it because he thinks they look good. He's never been accused of sexual assault or drunk-driving or animal cruelty or anything, really, beyond being a true-blo Bro. All in all, Cutler seems like a fairly well-rounded individual off the field, and his stats prove he's worthwhile on it. But because of his stupid face, he is punished again and again. Unfairly, the fans are unfair to him.
To live one's life as a fan of a particular professional sports franchise—a much different existence than fan of an entire sport, mind—one needs to find meaning from more than whether or not that team wins a championship. Spectator sports can't be a zero sum game at that level, if only because the negatives would so far outweigh the positives if they were—only one team wins last, after all. Think of it that way, and rooting for your team would be as self-destructive as a meth habit: The highs are incredible, but increasingly anxious and brief; the long lows in between become the norm. Sports bars would be replaced by FA (Fans Anonymous) meetings, coffee on tap, ashtrays overflowing, Entenmann’s donuts stretching to the horizon. Good thing, then, that fandom has emotional outs.
The enjoyment that comes from this most culturally-accepted addiction is, thankfully, not only present when your team hoists the Great Historic Trophy at the end of a championship season. It's there in the times in between. The parental pride that comes with watching a slow rebuild. The queasy excitement that accompanies a Dan Snyder-esque offseason free agent spree, knowing things are going to be fun for a bit, before the eventual reckoning.
But that's fandom on the macro level, long seasons leading to sustained emotions, and what takes up nearly all of a fan's time is an examination of the micro. That is, the play that was missed, the boneheaded decision, the thing that didn’t happen but should have. It's escapism, but it doesn't put the visionary, avatar-like, in the body of the player—even the most hubristic sports fan secretly knows not to say “I could've made that play,” and mean it seriously. To be a fan is to inhabit the mind of the player, coach or GM, the only parts of them that are recognizably somewhat like ours.
The cuter side of this is the sort of fan fiction we might call rosterbation. The darker side is more common: Drunken complaints at family gatherings, 2,000 word message board rants about “[Player X] not having the heart of a champion,” waiting on hold for 50 minutes to tell a radio show's listeners and host that coach should've went for two and he's a goddamn bum for not pulling the goddamn trigger. It's “I can do this better than you” spread out over every hour of every day on every medium, joylessly and mostly witlessly. That's the enjoyment of fandom on the off-championship days, which is to say, that's the enjoyment of fandom. Complaining serves the same function that breathing does.
And so where does Jay Cutler fit in all this? He is all of it, its deliverance: the ultimate mix of hope and frustration, his perfect downfield spirally peaks giving fans reason to hoist beers and slap friends on the back, his wobbly tosses into triple coverage valleys giving them the grievances they need just as much. He gives Chicagoans both of the vital sports-fandom emotions: The unbridled joy of victory and its inverse, the comforting superiority of believing you're better than a multi-millionaire with unimaginable athletic skills. That unique combination is a true gift, a rare one, something that must be recognized. Jay Cutler—the man born in Santa Claus, Indiana—is a glorious stocking full of gold and coal.
Alternately and simultaneously: Cutler is scapegoat, lightning rod, frustration and promise. He is perfect, he is beautiful, he is brilliant. He is despicable, he is wretched, he makes me want to pry my own eyes out to keep from having to watch any goddamn more. We're all going to miss him when he's gone, but people like him really never leave.