CHICAGO IL - JANUARY 23: Quarterback Jay Cutler #6 of the Chicago Bears on the sideline in the third quarter after leaving the game with an injury against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field on January 23 2011 in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jay Cutler is a terrible actor and a very good quarterback, and this should explain everything about why a torn ligament became a sweeping indictment of his character on Sunday.
Physiognomy, the 19th century pseudoscience of determining character through appearance, lives. If you doubt this, just look at Jay Cutler. Cutler's chin--his first one--sits like a sullen trapdoor at the bottom of his skull, pulling the general countenance of his face into the dour range at best. His downturned mouth sits in a near-perpetual scowl. His eyes sit deep in his head. His face has the puffiness of a frat boy on the tail end of a six month bender of late nights, beer bongs, and endless Xbox victories. He lacks the ability to emote to a Favrian degree.
For example: this is Jay Cutler when he was acquired by the Bears. He's very happy here.
And this is Jay Cutler when he was told his mother had been trampled by a herd of wild buffalo:
If you slapped a top hat and ascot on him, he might be the very picture of aristocratic indulgence. (Come on: you can totally see that face on top of a waistcoat kicking an urchin to the curb to get to the door of his Gentleman's Club.) In a modern context, he looks exactly like the worst possible visage of a quarterback drafted out of Vanderbilt, and maybe that is the problem: Jay Cutler looks the part, even if he's not playing the part. He kind of looks like a sullen trustafarian who doesn't understand why securities fraud is wrong, and not so much like the prototypical NFL golden boy quarterback.
He certainly looks the part of a classic dick, and this may be why you assumed he wasn't really injured when he bowed out of the NFC Championship Game. You would not be alone: Maurice Jones-Drew, Derrick Brooks, and Darnell Docket were among the players who questioned Cutler's toughness on Twitter. Mark Schlereth chimed in, as well. Did you know he had 20 knee surgeries? Schlereth did many amazing things in his career as a Super Bowl-winning offensive lineman, but what he would most like you to know about him? That his knee, like a shark's belly, has a license plate and a boot floating around in it at all times. Real men dare oceanographers to knife their joints open and examine the bounty of a properly used joint.
Seattle defensive end Raheem Brock even called Cutler "a sissy" on Twitter. Brock would know about staying in the game even when impaired, since he is a gamer. Real men stay behind the wheel no matter how injured they are. Jay Cutler might take himself out of the game after a few beers, sure; but a gamer like Brock stays in there, wobbling through things no matter how many flashing red and blue lights he sees behind him.
Brock could be right, but the track record for Cutler does not indicate that. I watched Cutler play one of the tougher games by a quarterback at the college level I'd ever seen, a 49-42 loss by his Commodores to Florida in the Swamp in 2005. The game was a distillation of Cutler's entire career at Vanderbilt: abuse, zero blocking by his offensive line, throws off his back foot that somehow rocketed into receivers' hands over and over again, and ultimately a near-miss at glory by an undermanned team.
Cutler had the scowl and general bitchfacedness going back then, but you can't see that under the helmet. All you could see was the durability of a player who watched a good number of his completions from underneath a linebacker or defensive lineman, and the effect he had had on his teams. There was no "sparkle," no "charm," no dreaded "playing like a kid out there." He threw the ball hard. it went the right places. Vanderbilt competed in more games than they deserved to as a result of Cutler doing his job well. It's amazing how simple this equation is when you factor out the NFL's farting miasma of machismo and PR stunting.
Cutler has missed games as a pro: one, after a concussion. He returned after a week, too soon by MMA and boxing standards, but just fine for the NFL. This is a sport involving high-speed collisions between large strong men wearing helmets, and yet this is not enough. Merrill Hoge has to debate the concept of toughness. Mark Schlereth has to chime in on the concept of toughness. We have to elevate the NFL's stonking obvious degree of masculinity to some exalted level not properly grasped by mere mortals*
*Attn: NFL Pain Porn Addicts: hockey players, rugby players, and MMA fighters all lay claim to a degree of physical durability under duress you cannot. Yes this is a tough sport played by tough people. We get that. It is not alone in requiring immense physical sacrifice. By brand, I understand this is not a debatable point. In the real world, it is.
No, you have to understand these are men who play without knee ligaments for the game, and not just because of the NFL's ruthless attitude toward their labor pool. It is their individual virtue that makes them do this, not the threat of being cut immediately, or the other concept from the 19th century that is alive and well here, the complete disposability of the employee. They cripple themselves for a greater cause; there is a nobility in concussing yourself into near-retardation and a future appointment with Parkinson's, because this is more than a game, and not because they are terrified of losing their jobs, a situation making them little more than highly paid coal miners. (Adjustment: coal miners might actually die, and receive nothing like an NFL pension.)
Cutler does have an MCL tear. He will now have to display the images to the assembled public to justify his departure from the game when it mattered most. Now we can receive expert testimony on the exact degree of the tear. Is it a manly tear? Has Maurice Jones-Drew played with a tear of this degree before? Would another, more photogenic quarterback have thrown a game-killing pick on a tear like this? Most importantly, is it a virtuous injury?*
A final 19th century concept that may be alive and well: cheap costume drama. I don't even like Jay Cutler as a player, but he and the Bears made the decision for him not to play, and them being football players and people surrounding football is enough to assume that they knew what was up and made the sound, sane decision. To say this deflates the thing the NFL and its attendant media thrives on, the moron-opera sold through terms of personality and currencies with names like "Favre," "factorback," and "grittiness." It is greasepaint morality play underwritten by Bud Light and Ford, and it is the stupidest thing in the world not named Merrill Hoge.
You'd think football, violent, glorious, sometimes awful football would be enough, but the 19th century is just one sulky-looking quarterback on the bench away. In other news, Jay Cutler may have a torn MCL, but he is apparently a time machine. That's a nice ace to have in your pocket when, like Jake Plummer, you tell the greasepaint theater to kiss your ass and hightail it to the mountains to hunt and play handball all day.
*A word of advice to the NFL: come up with something more masculine than the exercise bike to keep players warm, or at least put flaming tailpipes and fake machine guns on the front. Have it make a roaring noise, or have extra seats for cheerleaders built onto it to mitigate the emasculation of a million dollar athlete riding a machine found in any GloboGym. Seeing a pro athlete do this is like watching David Fincher make a movie on an iPhone camera: wrong and disconcerting.