For a quarterback, an injury to the medial collateral ligament—like the one suffered by Jay Cutler on Sunday —can be a deal-breaker. To be effective, the quarterback must take the snap, pivot, and drop back quickly and decisively. To pivot and push off of a damaged knee is not so easy, and usually results in a slower and shallower drop. The success of any passing game relies on timing and execution of depth, by receivers and quarterbacks. If the quarterback is limping during his drop and can’t get his proper depth, everything is thrown off.
I tore my MCL when I was playing wide receiver in NFL Europe in 2004. A defensive lineman fell on the outside of my knee and I heard a loud, resounding pop that echoed through my body. I pulled down my sock, expecting to see a bone sticking out, but all looked normal, so I got up and walked off the field. On the sideline, I tried to jog around and convince myself I was OK, but I wasn’t.
The stability that I took for granted as an athlete was totally compromised by this injury. I felt unathletic and fragile. I couldn’t cut and I couldn’t bend my knee. I was out for four weeks. I should have been out longer, but I was holed up in a rehab center in Birmingham, Ala., which is where NFL Europe cripples were sent to heal, and I was stir crazy and surrounded by, well, Alabama. I exaggerated the progress in my knee so I could be cleared to go back to Germany and finish the season with my teammates. It took another four weeks until I actually felt healthy.
Every quarterback I have ever known is maniacally competitive. He has been dreaming his whole life of playing in the Super Bowl. Jay was on the cusp of achieving his lifelong dream against a beatable Green Bay Packers team, and the consensus is that he just gave up? He just didn’t want to play? What was it, Deion—his heart?
While I would advise against paying too much attention to Prime Time’s critique—it’s never a good idea to listen too intently to a guy who refers to himself in the third person—I will touch on the reaction from current and former players who aren’t such egomaniacs. There are a few details about Jay’s injury and the way he dealt with it that fly in the face of the conventional on-camera NFL injury sequence. First, a play occurs in which the player is obviously injured. He is squirming, bleeding, limping, or crawling his way back to the huddle or off to the sideline. Play stops and we go to commercial break. When we come back, underwhelming Joe Buck has the play queued up, and we watch it several times in slow motion. Yep, look at that. Right there. That’s when it happened.
Then we see the player being helped off the field by a concerned looking medical staff, asking concerned-sounding questions to the obviously distraught player. This is followed by a shot of the player on the sideline, gathering his wits, pleading with the docs to let him back in the game. The next shot is of him trying, in vain, to jog on the sideline. He winces. He sighs. He concedes. The stoic soldier can fight no longer.
None of this happened in Sunday’s game. No one, including Jay, knows when he hurt his knee. There was no theatrical limping or squirming, no arguments with medical staff on the sideline, no grimacing, no futile attempts at shaking it off on the sideline. This infuriated fans as well as current and former players like Maurice Jones-Drew and Derrick Brooks. I don’t think they actually believed he wasn’t hurt. The vitriol is because people just can’t figure him out. Why isn’t he squirming? Why isn’t he limping? Why isn’t he doing what I would do?
The fact that Jay didn’t limp around theatrically doesn’t mean the injury isn’t real. For most players, pain doesn’t actually exist on the football field. The adrenal glands won’t allow it, especially in the NFC Championship game. Rarely have I seen a guy on the field or on the sideline who looked like he was truly in pain. When you’re hurt, it feels like more of a malfunction—the machine is broken. Whereas another player might play up this malfunction to let everyone know why he can’t play, Jay’s mind doesn’t even go there. He’s not interested in social conventions.
And this is what pisses people off about him. He is in the position, as a star NFL quarterback, to be one of the good ol’ boys. This is the most elite club in professional sports, and Jay has a key to the VIP room. But he has no interest in using it, and that’s why former players, especially former quarterbacks, criticize him whenever they get the chance. He doesn’t say what they would say and he doesn’t do what they would do. And this criticism spills into the minds of fans who look to these analysts for guidance. On Sunday, it would have been just fine with everyone if he had dragged himself off the field, then pleaded with Bears coach Lovie Smith to let him back in the game, like all the other good ‘ol boys would have done. But he ain’t a good ‘ol boy. The sooner Bears fans realize this, the better off they’ll be.