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Only one way hurting Cutler can repair rep now

by | CBSSports.com Columnist
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So it's Jay Cutler's fault then. In fact, it's so much Jay Cutler's fault that NFL players miles from the NFC championship game lined up to say so -- and said so in such volume and with such venom that Cutler was so overwhelmed that his eyes welled up.

That was the report from SI.com's Jim Trotter, typically a very good observer of the human condition as it relates to the ballet/carnage of pro football. In short, we believe it to be so.

Jay Cutler took more hits after the game than during it. (AP)  
Jay Cutler took more hits after the game than during it. (AP)  
But while people are still picking sides on whether Cutler should have gimped his way through the rest of the 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers, this much is true. The Chicago Bears quarterback is at crossroads of his career, right now. In fact, not the crossroads, but the edge of the abyss, and his next few steps have to be very careful.

Here, we do not doubt that he could no longer continue. There is nothing in his resume that suggests otherwise, and the Internet free-for-all around his courage is the natural by-product of I-have-an-opinion-based-on-nothing-that-you-must-hear-now America.

What is more interesting is the way that he has somehow positioned himself as the man even his contemporaries love to hate. He has succeeded and failed in his time, but he is certainly not an incompetent or gutless quarterback. He let down Bears fans, but he also brought them further than they had a right to expect.

He is, however, profoundly resistible among his peers, and that not only takes some doing, it makes you wonder if the real fight to save his career rests in winning them over, rather than you or I.

Players tend to defend each other on the perfectly sensible notion that "We were there and you can't understand unless you were there, too." It's hard to get players to go off on each other, except for competitive trash-talking or reasons of lawbreaking. Barack Obama would take the most critical TV talking head in the NFL and consider him his most ardent supporter.

Cutler, though, has managed to become a pariah among so many of his peers (though teammate Brian Urlacher rose to highest dudgeon to defend him) that one wonders how he could manage such a feat. Personality? Work ethic? Inconsistency? It's hard to imagine how he could scrape so many people who have never come in contact with him the wrong way.

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But this is where he stands, whether he deserves it or not. Somehow he has managed to become a national lightning rod for courage/cowardice and skill/incompetence and worst of all, charm/offensiveness.

And there's no way to get out of that one save winning the Super Bowl some day.

He can defend himself, or have a hundred players defend him. He can show X-rays of a tattered knee. But people have made up their minds not to like Jay Cutler, which means every sentence about him will start, "I don't care how good he can be" and end with "I'm just saying."

The Super Bowl cures everything, because that's when the mythmakers come out in hordes, have their laying-on-of-hands and cure the sick and unpopular.

But Cutler, more than any other player in recent memory can be saved from national opprobrium only with a ring. Those who criticize him already didn't like him and wanted a new reason to do so, and the murky details of his knee injury are reason enough. They wanted exposed bone, and even then they would have said, "It wasn't exposed enough." Put simply, Jay Cutler has been deemed fundamentally unlikable, not only by media and fans but by a loud portion of his peers and predecessors, to the point where words alone won't change that fact. How he got there is a personal choice, and he may have to accept his share of blame for that. One suspects he's already well engaged in the "how did this go so spectacularly wrong?" stage of his self-criticism.

How he gets out is simple, though, and nothing silences quite like jewelry. In fact, in this case, nothing silences but jewelry. That's an awfully high bar for Cutler to clear, but that's the way it plays, and the way it's going to play for the life of his career. He will always wonder what the players around him really think of him, and if there is a hell involved in making lots of money to play the game you love, this is it.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.com

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