There’s a classic scene in the overquoted masterpiece Monty Python and the Holy Grail where King Arthur, on his way to find the title piece of dinnerware, is challenged by the Black Knight. With a shrug, Arthur promptly lops each of the Knight’s arms off, transforming him into Medieval England’s first foosball player.
“It’s just a flesh wound,” the Knight yells. And, because you’ve heard this from everyone from your college roommate to that guy in accounting, you know Arthur slices the Knight’s lower half off too. “I’ll bite your legs off!” he shouts toward Arthur’s midsection, a half-courageous, half-crazy attitude that wouldn’t be out of place in today’s NFL. Unless they've just been chopped into an angry, helmet-wearing torso, players are expected — and they expect — to stay on the field until it’s physically impossible. No bloody stumps? No wildly spraying arteries? No problem, then.
Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler didn’t get that page in his team handbook. He checked out of Sunday’s NFC Championship after suffering an injury that we now know was a Grade II MCL sprain and, since then, he’s been accused of being weak, gutless and the worst kind of quitter this side of France.
A surprising number of current and former players, including Derrick Brooks, Maurice Jones-Drew and Mark Schlereth, logged in to Twitter to eviscerate Cutler in 140-character increments, each of them typing poorly punctuated variations of Deion Sanders’ sentiment that he “never questions a players injury but [he does] question a players heart.”
Even former Chicago Blackhawk Jeremy Roenick joined the chorus, adding “I’m upset abt […] Cutler’s performance. All I’ll say is he sure is no hockey player.” (Great observation, J-Ro, since sometimes hockey players sit out six weeks after breaking a finger. Like you did.)
Cutler’s injury wasn’t the reason that he became Soldier Field’s version of the Fail Whale. It was because, to some of us watching from the comfort of our Rooms-To-Go furniture, Cutler didn’t look injured *enough*. He didn’t limp, didn’t hobble, didn’t borrow a pair of training room crutches.
And what about his facial expressions? Surely a man in SO! MUCH! PAIN! would be wide-eyed and open mouthed, like he’d fallen out of an Edvard Munch oil painting. But he didn’t. He wasn’t. And that was enough for everyone with wi-fi access to question every body part but his knee: his empty head, his missing heart, his obvious uterus.
Since then, local and national reporters have kept the non-troversy going. His teammates have constantly defended him and a number of fans have abandoned him, even burning his jersey since nothing shows your displeasure like incinerating $80 worth of nylon.
But … seriously? Seriously?! Where are the written rules for how you should react to an injury, to adversity, to season-ending disappointment? Who established a list of appropriate emotions for watching a third string nobody with a whopping eight career completions try to lead your team? Who decided what facial expression you should make when you spend your first career NFC Championship planted on the sideline like a parka-covered lawn gnome?
What happens next time, when another injured player decides he'd rather leave the field than spend the offseason doing his best FDR impression? Teams — and individual athletes — have kept countless PR professionals out of the unemployment line, hiring them to wear sharp suits and write even sharper "personal statements" for their troubled clients. Are they going to show up on the sidelines, too, whispering stage directions from somewhere behind the Gatorade cooler? "Psst! You'd better start wincing or frowning or flopping! Ever watched Italian soccer players? Act Italian before the camera fin ... NOW! DO IT NOW!"
It’s just not fair to judge players for the time they spend standing several feet from the field. We’ve discovered that too little emotion is unforgivable, but earlier this season, another player was skewered for showing too much. Remember Arizona Cardinals quarterback Derek Anderson, the comedy mask to Cutler’s Sunday afternoon tragedy face?
In late November, the then 3-7 Cards were riding a five-game losing streak and were enduring a Monday night dismantling by an equally craptastic San Francisco team. During the 4th quarter, Anderson was spotted on camera laughing — laughing! — with a teammate and was called out during the broadcast by announcer Jon Gruden.
A local reporter confronted Anderson during the postgame presser, which lead to a meltdown that quickly reached “double rainbow” levels of immortality on YouTube. Anderson was forced to defend himself and, eventually, to apologize, all because he didn’t continuously snarl while the Cardinals got their asses kicked.
Perhaps this is a rule that needs to be added to the NFL’s next collective bargaining agreement: at all times during gameplay, players are required to display the kind of sullen, slightly uncomfortable facial expressions you see in the audience of an Ashton Kutcher movie.
Or maybe that rule is just for Anderson, who hasn’t ever been embraced by the Arizona semi-faithful, both because he has a reputation for being difficult and because he isn’t Kurt Warner. If Warner, the Patron Saint of the Deep Ball and of Brittle Bones, was caught giving his most Crest-tastic smile during a late-season loss, he would’ve been praised for keeping the team’s spirits up.
Maybe Anderson could send Cutler an e-card, since the public’s (and players’) kneejerk reaction was less about his knee and more because he’s seen as a jerk. Cutler has spent his five-year career being defined with adjectives like ‘aloof’, ‘arrogant’ and ‘all-around Douchecake’. He’s not wholesome like Brees, not glam like Brady, not a walking endorsement like Manning and not a mobile morality play like Vick. He’s just Jay Cutler and, for some reason, that’s not enough.
Knowing that, he would’ve been criticized regardless of what his reaction was or what his demeanor wasn’t. If he’d crumpled to the field, clutching his knee, Kerrigan-style, while shouting “WHY MEEEE? WHHYYYYY MEEEE?”, he’d be a different kind of soft, the kind that should’ve just rubbed some dirt on it and kept going. But if he’d stayed in the game, played hurt and delivered several more INTs to the Green Bay defense, he would’ve been selfish.
So what happens now? Although Gigglegate might be a footnote for Anderson — whose career is probably a footnote too — this is another dent on Cutler’s already banged-up image. Will he endure offseason surgery just to quiet the critics, throwing his IV-studded arms up to say “LOOK! I TOLD YOU I WAS HURT!”
No, he’ll probably keep his head down, say nothing, share nothing and continue wearing a bad reputation that doesn’t quite fit.
Sometimes, you can’t win. Especially when your team can’t either.