NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl
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With apologies to the Packers and Steelers, Jan. 23 will go down as the day the entire NFL called Jay Cutler a coward. As Bears fans lit his jersey on fire —lest we rush to judgment about the intent here, we must remember that Chicago is on hypothermia watch —Cutler's NFL colleagues opined on Twitter about the quarterback's departure from the NFC title game with a knee injury. Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, menacingly: "If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!" Contact-averse cornerback Deion Sanders, with characteristic modesty: "Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field. All the medicine in pro lockerooms this dude comes out!" Retired linebacker Derrick Brooks, just being dumb: "HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart." (Not even Zoloft?)
But my favorite tweets of all came from Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew. After starting with a character-assassination bank shot—"I think the urban meyer rule is [in] effect right now... When the going gets tough......QUIT"—Jones-Drew claimed that Cutler's toughness does not compare with his own. "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee," Jones-Drew wrote. "I played the whole season on one." Jones-Drew, in fact, did not play the whole season on a hurt knee; he missed the last two games due to his balky joint, crippling the Jaguars' playoff chances. (Cutler has missed one start in his career.) But, wait, there's more! Shortly before calling Cutler a pussy, the running back tweeted his approval of ESPN pundit Mark Schlereth's criticism of an elongated season. And what's the problem with playing 18 games each year? "[T]he season would effectively be a 20-game (injury-plagued) marathon," Schlereth wrote.
Why would a crippled player who thinks the NFL season is a death march criticize a colleague who got hurt? For one thing, Cutler never screamed in agony—there were no replays of a Packer snapping his leg in half or of the quarterback twisting his knee in the turf. If we couldn't see the injury, the thinking goes, it couldn't possibly have been serious enough to keep a manly player out of a playoff game. Thus, Jay Cutler is a wuss. (After the game, Cutler said, "We gave it a go that first series [of the second half], but I really couldn't plant and throw. So they kind of pulled me." He'll have an MRI on Monday.)
I thought Fox's broadcast team encouraged this line of reasoning by failing to report out the circumstances of the injury—this was the game that proved, once and for all, that sideline reporters are totally worthless. Even so, I don't think this absence of evidence would've mattered if we were talking about, say, Ben Roethlisberger, a guy who is widely disliked yet still maintains his tough-guy cred.
It's undeniable: NFL fans and NFL players are predisposed to think the worst of Jay Cutler. That's what I thought was so fascinating about the player-on-player Twitter criticism. The guys who've played the game—who we're always told hold special insight about what happens on the field, knowledge that outsiders can never have—were behaving just like fans, attacking one of their own with irrational tougher-than-thou heckling. ("You're a bum, Cutler!")
This is the magic of Jay Cutler, that great leveler of men: Nobody but nobody likes the cut of his jib. Stefan, you wrote this last week about your former Broncos teammate: "As a person, I didn't like him much: He was laconic, unfriendly, sometimes immaturely rude. The bored, eye-rolling, smirking entitlement bugged me, and not only me." So, did you feel bad for Cutler on Sunday as he came under attack from everyone but the ghost of Red Grange? For now, the guys in his own locker room are standing up for Cutler, with Brian Urlacher saying "he's one of the toughest players on our football team." For Cutler's sake, I'm glad at least one person thinks so.
It was only partly Jay Cutler's fault that both of Sunday's games seemed raggedy and out of joint. The Packers, those legendary cold-weather warriors, operated with less precision outside the friendly confines of the Atlanta Falcons' home stadium. Aaron Rodgers, last week's greatest quarterback in NFL history, had a lower quarterback rating than Chicago's backup-to-the-backup Caleb Hanie.
Yes, Rodgers did look awesome in flashes, but he'll be playing in his first Super Bowl because his interceptions weren't quite as destructive as Hanie's pair of picks—the game-clincher when the Bears were down just 7 with less than a minute to go and the interception for a touchdown by Green Bay's B.J. "The Freezer" Raji. (I still believe there's no greater joy in sports than watching a fat man run back an interception.) Given Chicago's inability to move the ball, Rodgers' most-important play of the game was probably the tackle he made on Brian Urlacher after the linebacker's goal-line interception. (The obvious parallel here is Ben Roethlisberger's game-saving tackle against the Colts in the 2006 playoffs. Clearly, Jay Cutler would've missed the tackle, then sat in the dirt and cried about it for an hour.)
That Rodgers tackle was a reminder that so much of what happens in the NFL is due to chance. While I hate to impugn the 18,000 combined panelists on the Fox, CBS, ESPN, NFL Network, and HGTV pregame shows, there is zero chance that any insight any of those buffoons offer will have more bearing on the outcome of a game than absolute dumb luck. Sure, Rodgers hustled and everything, but if Urlacher had cut a few more inches to the inside, maybe the Bears win. If Ike Taylor doesn't fall down, then Santonio Holmes doesn't catch a 45-yard touchdown pass, getting the Jets back in the game. That didn't have anything to do with a scheme, or matchups, or talent, or merit: Ike Taylor just fell down.
Taylor's stumble, of course, didn't cost the Steelers their eighth trip to the Super Bowl. Rashard Mendenhall ran the ball over and around the Jets, helping the Steelers to a 24-3 halftime lead. The Pittsburgh defense also maintained its usual stellar play, stifling the Jets' running game and scoring a crucial touchdown on a Mark Sanchez sack-fumble at the end of the first half. The Jets came back to make it 24-19, but Roethlisberger kept New York at bay with his usual scramble-around-and-clinch-the-game-in-the-59th-minute routine. In two weeks, he'll have the chance to tie Tom Brady by winning his third Super Bowl. For a guy who doesn't strike you as all-time great, he sure is acquiring the trappings of greatness.
And as the Steelers move on to Dallas we must say farewell to the Jets, those brave talkers of trash. The Super Bowl won't be a lesser game in the absence of Rex Ryan and company—the Packers and Steelers are deserving foes—but it will be a lesser event. Just as I'll remember Sunday for the ritual slaughter of Jay Cutler, I'll remember the 2010 season for the hard-knocking, goddamn-snacking, Brady-baiting Jets. In a year in which the concussion-riddled, defenseless-receiver-smashing NFL seemed constantly on the verge of crisis, the Jets—with their ridiculous taunts and stupid pronouncements and dramatic comebacks—made football seem like nothing more or less than a silly game. That's exactly what we needed.