Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cutler injured, LeBron quits. And the difference in player reaction couldn't be more stark.

Everyone knows that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler isn’t exactly beloved. Rick Reilly took his turn eviscerating Cutler last week, criticizing him for not much more than being aloof and not caring “who understands him and who doesn’t.”  But the level of talk in Chicago and the NFL about  Cutler missing the second half of the Bears’ loss to the Packers in Sunday’s NFC Championship game is amazing.

Maybe he's a bit of a jerk, sure, but at least he hasn’t been accused of any sex crimes, or tortured any animals to death. He comes off as condescending and rude to anyone who dares ask him a question, so it’s a bit understandable that reporters and columnists don’t like Cutler. And people who buy ink by the barrell can influence popular perception quite a bit. But it’s not just with the media that Cutler is apparently disliked.  

Reilly called Cutler possibly The Most Hated Man in the NFL. As usual, I discounted what Rick Reilly has to say, given that he’s a moron. But when Cutler left the NFC Championship game for good with an injured knee, it wasn’t only fans or the media who questioned Cutler’s toughness, assuming that there was no injury severe enough to leave an important game. It was fellow players.

In an unprecedented show of non-solidarity in the foolish instant press conference we call Twitter, NFL players, former and current, slammed Cutler when they saw him leave the game. [It wasn’t determined until Monday that Cutler has a Grade II tear (which also can technically be called a sprain) of his MCL, and would be deemed questionable at best if the Bears had advanced to the Super Bowl.]
ESPN’s Mark Schlereth: “As a guy [who has had] 20 knee surgeries you'd have to drag me out on stretcher to leave a championship game.”

Derrick Brooks: "I have to be crawling and can't get up to come off the field. Josh Freeman would not come out. Meds are available ..." and “There is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart.”

Maurice Jones-Drew blasted Cutler, but then apparently deleted the tweet and then recanted after being roundly criticized.  “All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one.”

NFL Network’s Deion Sanders (never known for being the most physical guy, mind you): “Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field. All the medicine in pro lockerooms this dude comes out! I apologize bear fans! . . .”

Darnell Dockett: "I never questioned Cutler injury! But I know in a NFC championship game and I'm the QB? I'm gonna deal with the pain or whatever to win!"
That was an amazing display. Maybe everyone hates Cutler. Maybe it’s because he stood on the sideline during the second half, appearing vaguely disinterested (which certainly was very curious.) Although emergency quarterback Caleb Hanie disputed that characterization, saying that Cutler was talking to him and was “very encouraging” during the second half.

A couple things stood out to me. 

One is that Jay Cutler, despite being considered a monumental prick by almost all who come in contact with him, has never been seen as a quitter, or as soft. And his teammates universally came to his defense, reinforcing their support for Twitter and blasting his critics. Even Packers lineman BJ Raji said that other players were probably just jealous that they were watching on TV.

Another is that the fan outrage at Cutler isn't anywhere near as strong as the players' reactions.  Sure, as Reilly says, Cutler isn't universally beloved at quarterback.  But he sure isn't despised by Bears fans. I'm willing to bet that the "burning jersey" controversy was two drunk jackasses who saw a news camera, and not some populist movement captured on film.

But more interesting is that the difference between the instant outrage of the NFL players and the utter silence of NBA Players after LeBron’s game 5 effort versus the Celtics last year.  Unlike fellow players, fans and writers immediately jumped on James for his lack of interest in the game. Analysis of the game (video below) clearly shows LeBron half-assing it across the court, but nary a peep came from other NBA stars after that. Even when LeBron embarrassed himself and the city of Cleveland and decided to take his talents to South Beach, rare was the critic who was still playing in the league.  The criticism mainly came from old-school players, like Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, and Charles Barkley, who think that the level of fraternization between players these days is utterly embarrassing.  Only months later are stars like Carmelo Anthony commenting, but only with gentle gibes like '"I would never go about it the way LeBron did it,"  No kidding, Carmelo.

What does that mean? Is that good for the NFL?  Their players are true competitors, gladiators who will win at all cost and cannot stand the man across the line from them? Is it that NBA players are just spoiled prima donnas, raised since puberty in tournaments and settings where every wish is granted for them?  Sure, I think if players want to win at (nearly every cost) and want to step on their opponents' heads while doing it, it's good for fans, leagues, and everyone involved.  Is there any indication on union strength here?  Does this fracture between players have any impact on the upcoming labor agreements in the NFL and NBA? Does this mean NFL players can’t agree on anything, and there will be a work stoppage? Or does this mean that NBA players are totally buddy-buddy with each other, and are uniformly set in their negotiations, so their union is stronger, and there will be a work stoppage?  Or maybe it doesn't mean anything, the labor strife will be, as usual, billionaires versus millionaires and the owners will win, again.

Bears safety Chris Harris certainly was surprised at the criticism and breaking of the "code" from other players. 'It's kind of a slap in the face,'' Harris said. ''It's kind of an unwritten code for players to [not] bash another player based on an injury. It would have been easy for me to say, 'Hey, Maurice Jones-Drew, you should have played our last two games of the season even though you have an injury and your team is still fighting for a playoff spot.' I could do that, but I'm not going to do it.'

I, for one, have not been totally jaded because of LeBron’s antics versus the Celtics (and more often, if you believe the hidden case Dan Gilbert has built). I think in general players want to win. Sure, some are rich, fat, and happy, but most of those, especially in the NFL and not named Albert Haynesworth, are still busting their asses all the time.  Jay Cutler included, and I’m shocked he wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt.