Cutler might have checked out long ago

You’d think after four days of nonstop dissection, the Jay Cutler discussion would’ve reached high ground by now, flirted with something substantial, insightful or meaningful.

I apologize. I’m as guilty as anybody.

When Cutler mentally checked out on the Bears in the NFC Championship Game, my attention focused on the instantaneous, vicious backlash directed at the Chicago quarterback and the parallels between King James’ “The Decision” and King Cutler’s “The Disengagement.”

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook and all the other high-tech advances in communication, we’re clearly in a new era of public opinion.

Cutler and James got overrun by social-media flash mobs.

It can happen to any athlete/celebrity regardless of his race, wealth or fame. Screw up (or even appear to) on the wrong stage and the American public feels justified in analyzing, ridiculing and pontificating about your human flaws.

Capitalism forces the mainstream media to quickly participate in the debate.

Where we, the media, erred is in failing to lift the Cutler discussion to its highest level.

We left it right where we found it — on 140-character Twitter. ESPN beamed its worldwide-leading lights on the Twitter comments of Cutler’s NFL peers. Talk-radio shows across the country followed suit. And so did most sportswriters and bloggers.

We debated Cutler’s “toughness” because his peers seemed to be questioning it on Twitter and during TV interviews.

You can’t judge athletes on what they say. You have to judge them on what they mean. Let me explain.

My Twitter motto is simple: “Judge my columns. Enjoy my tweets.”

You can’t express a full opinion in a 140-character tweet. You can’t express half of an opinion in a tweet. Twitter is an easy-to-misinterpret stream of consciousness. It’s mostly a collection of thoughts you’d never publicly express in 1990.

I’m good at Twitter. I’ve been earning a living as a writer for 20 years. I’ve hosted radio and TV shows. I’ve learned the art of condensing my thoughts to a short sound bite.

Athletes haven’t. For the most part, athletes need to be interpreted. I’m not calling them stupid. I was once an athlete. Factory workers, doctors, nurses, policemen, etc. haven’t been trained in the skill of tight, concise communication, either.

Hell, many accomplished writers have little skill in tight, concise communication. Take away their plethora of editors, give them three or four hours to craft a well-constructed argument rather than three to four months to pen a single story and you’d be shocked at how poorly they write and the immaturity of their critical thinking.

They’d sound as disingenuous and inarticulate as Antonio Cromartie, the cuss-word-happy Jets cornerback who I called out earlier this week for undermining his union’s labor negotiations because he has nine kids by eight women (that we know of).

My point is Maurice Jones-Drew and the other current and former players who might have insinuated Cutler wasn’t tough didn’t mean to. It’s all they could think to say on Twitter or during a TV interview.

They’re not communicators. Not even many of the ones getting paid to be on television. They need to be interpreted.

As I summarized in my original Cutler-LeBron column, no one is really questioning Cutler’s toughness. Football people question his love of the game and whether he has the right mental makeup to be a consistent, effective leader at the quarterback position.

That’s the real debate, the discussion we should’ve been having this week.

And there is an ancillary debate stemming directly from the NFC Championship Game: Did Cutler quit on Sunday?

Let me start there and then swing it back to the “real” debate.

“Quit” is a strong, reprehensible word, particularly in the sports world. It’s also a layered, complex, nuanced one. There are a thousand ways to quit.

A woman may want out of her marriage and withhold sex over a six-month, one-year, 10-year period to reach her goal. She may never admit “quitting” on the relationship, but you know she did.

It took me four years to quit the Ball State football team. It was a process that reached a crescendo a week or two after our 1988 season finale. The then-team doctor for the Colts, Donald Shelbourne, was a friend. I went to his office because I wanted a professional, objective opinion on my right knee.

I’d hurt it in the spring and been told by my school’s team doctor it wasn’t seriously injured. The knee never felt right all season. Two minutes into my visit with Shelbourne, he informed me I had an ACL tear. I’d played 11 straight games on a torn ACL.

I quit. But I’d mentally checked out years earlier.

Like Jay Cutler, my personality never really fit football, especially college football.

I don’t like bullies. In fact, I enjoy exposing their ignorance and cowardice. Football is filled with coaching bullies. From the earliest interactions with my offensive line coach, I knew college football would be a struggle for me. I respond to logic, intellect, respect and fairness.

For two years, I was coached by an idiot. And during those two years I focused much of my intellectual energy on the unfairness I perceived within the Ball State football program.

Our best player — a linebacker from Detroit, a kid who never drank or used drugs and made good grades — was never properly celebrated or embraced by our coaches. They chose to promote the inferior, small-town, boy-next-door linebacker who on the surface fit the image the program wanted to project.

The coaching staff favored the steroid users. I could go on.

It all turned me off to the game. Killed my passion. Made me lazy and combative. I tried to quit my second year. Thankfully my parents wouldn’t let me. The idiot coach left. The genuine passion and love for playing the game never returned even though I loved my new coach (Lawrence Cooley).

Football isn’t for players who think. It’s a game meant to be played by Brett Favre and Antonio Cromartie.

Jay Cutler doesn’t remind anyone of Brett Favre. Cutler always appears to be lost in thought. I don’t know if he’s a deep thinker, but his body language and approach make me think he’s too thoughtful for football.

He doesn’t have the passion. You can get away with that playing on the offensive line or at wide receiver if you can run as fast as Randy Moss.

There’s no place for a quarterback to hide on a football field. He’s always on stage. He’s always leading. He’s always being asked to make the big play. The quarterback has to give his team energy and confidence.

Cutler gives off an air of indifference. He plays like someone who mentally checked out years ago.

He’s from a small southern town in Indiana, yet Purdue dropped him as a recruit. Some low-tier BCS schools wanted him to play safety. Late in the recruiting process, Cutler and his dad convinced SEC bottom-feeder Vanderbilt to give Jay a scholarship.

I ran into one of Cutler’s former Vandy teammates at my gym this week.

“Jay was better than everybody on the team and he knew it,” the kid told me.

Cutler took a brutal beating at Vandy. A QB with Florida talent surrounded by a Ball State supporting cast and playing an SEC schedule is a recipe for mental disaster. It can kill your passion. It can put a real chip on your shoulder.

Josh McDaniels lying to your face and secretly looking to replace you in Denver can kill your passion and put a chip on your shoulder. Absorbing a league-high 52 sacks during the 2010 regular season can kill your passion and love of the game.

Quitting something you once loved is a process.

You may go a day, a week or even a month feeling like you’re in love all over again.

And then you might reach the NFC Championship Game, be in the wrong mood, suffer some adversity and return to the path you’ve been on for years.

Quitting the newspaper industry took me 13 years. I had affairs with magazines, ESPN, radio stations and anything else that would take my mind off the self-destructive actions of the people leading the profession I once loved.

We can all relate to Jay Cutler. He’s not a bad guy. He has no shortage of toughness. He just has the wrong job for his personality.