NFL

Injury brings Cutler to screeching halt

Lovie Smith talks about Jay Cutler's thumb fracture.
Lovie Smith talks about Jay Cutler's thumb fracture.
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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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CHICAGO

The NFL can have such a simple cruelty. Jay Cutler was having his best moment, chipping away at the embarrassment of last season’s NFC Championship Game. And then on Sunday, he reportedly broke the thumb on his throwing hand.

Just like that, Cutler’s season might be over. And the Bears, who had become serious contenders, are going to struggle just to make the playoffs. Backup quarterback Caleb Hanie is not taking this team anywhere special.

This is just sick, made even more cruel because such a little injury plays so big. Cutler didn’t even let on a few minutes after the Bears’ 31-20 win over San Diego. Maybe he didn’t know yet? He talked about a touchdown-saving tackle he had made after throwing an interception: “You don’t want to be in that position too often, trying to run down a DB.’’

It was a play that showed how invested he has become in the team. It also might have been the play that got him hurt.

There are still too many unknowns to say for sure what will happen to him, or to the Bears. Jay Glazer first reported the injury on FOXSports.com, and then the Chicago Tribune said that Cutler will be out six to eight weeks.

It was just as he was finally making something big of himself. He was the last person who was ever going to become a leader.

The thing is, leadership doesn’t have a prototype. It doesn’t have one approved model or requirement or demand. It can come from impossible places in impossible ways.

That was the only explanation for Cutler, because he had done everything wrong from what we have accepted as the Book of Leadership, and yet was taking control of the Chicago Bears offense and of his own career destiny.

This was the Bears’ fifth straight win since Cutler’s “F--- Him’’ moment. That’s what microphones caught him saying about his offensive coordinator, Mike Martz. Of course, half of Chicago was saying the same thing.

What was happening to Cutler? He took charge after that. Behind the scenes, he took on Martz and his whacked-out play-calling. Cutler found a way to use his stand-off-ishness to start to build something important. He turned surliness into toughness.

That week, he, and presumably Coach Lovie Smith, talked with Martz. It was an intervention. Cutler took control over the play-calling.

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“You look at all the really good quarterbacks in this league, and for the most part, they are going to be in the same system for a long number of years and have the same guys around them, and everyone is going to grow in the offense and get better and better,’’ Cutler said after the game, explaining how much more comfortable he is in his second year with Martz.

“It’s like anything else: To be good at something, you’re going to take your lumps, but eventually, if you keep at it, something good is going to happen.’’

That philosophy is true. But it’s not exactly what was happening with the Bears. Cutler and the Bears didn’t start to get used to Martz’s offense. They got rid of it and started over with a running-based offense, and shorter drops to protect Cutler.

The entire offense has come around. A few weeks ago, Cutler was cursing out Martz, running back Matt Forte was griping about his contract, the offensive line couldn’t block anyone and Martz was calling all the wrong plays.

Team dysfunction has found a rhythm since then. It is particularly amazing, though, that it came from Cutler. It was just in January that he had the first truly Big Moment in his career, the NFC Championship Game. You remember what happened: He tapped out and slumped off with a minor knee injury.

It seemed like the end for Cutler. And he was going to have to win back at least some part of the locker room. Meanwhile, the Bears dumped their leader, center Olin Kreutz, who was Cutler’s great defender.

Cutler was going to have to stand on his own. And the Bears’ coaches and front office went about pitching him at every turn, on every interview, as the team’s new leader. What else could they do?

It was laughable. But whether by plan or fluke, it has worked out.

Cutler is invested in this team now, and not just in himself. In the fourth quarter, with the Bears leading 31-20, he threw an interception when his receiver, Johnny Knox, fell down. Cutler chased the play downfield, helping to make the tackle.

Smith called it the biggest play of the game. How many quarterbacks chase their interceptions downfield like that?

Look, in Denver, fans wanted Cutler to be the next John Elway. In Chicago, he was supposed to be the Bears’ Brett Favre. That’s never going to happen. So Cutler has always been hope or failure, and nothing in between.

STING ME

It's the ugly but unavoidable side of football. Take a look at the major injuries of 2011.

It’s not that he has become a superstar now, either. In some ways, maybe that was the problem all along, that expectation. The Bears are based on tough defense and Devin Hester’s amazing returns. Cutler has learned to manage the offense, and make big plays at times.

His leadership is still not ideal, but the players are buying in.

“He’s a show-me guy,’’ receiver Roy Williams said. “He has the best arm in the NFL, hands down.

“He’s not a rah-rah guy. I’ve never been around a guy who gets fired up over mistakes the way he does. He’s a perfectionist. He was mad that he threw that interception, mad at the receiver for falling down.’’

Cutler was finally getting it together, changing the definition of himself and maybe defining a new leadership. Now, a simple cruelty might steal a big season, and a big moment, too.
 

Tagged: Bears, Jay Cutler

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