Maybe I’ve been tamed by a sky that is unfailingly blue, or a breeze that cools the burn on my face while biking along the ocean, or the Negra Modelos at the boardwalk bar as the sun drops over a backdrop of Santa Monica mountains and Malibu surf. But here in Southern California, I don’t understand Chicago’s batshit-apoplectic-crazy reaction to last week’s debacle in Green Bay.
I’m amused by it all, actually, having suffered the city’s perpetual throbbing headache much too long before finally having my lobotomy four years ago.
Come on, these are the Bears. Just as they bond the city after the summer’s baseball border conflicts, they are doomed to irritate and exasperate the civic soul and discombobulate positive expectations and vibes. The names change and rah-rah hope regenerates every year, but inevitably, aggravation overwhelms promise and you’re back to daydreaming about 1985 and wondering when Dan Hampton and Kevin Butler are appearing at an autograph show.
Forget the Cubs, who still will be rebuilding when human beings inhabit Mars and continue to be enabled by a clinically ill fan base that lets Theo Epstein and Tom Ricketts get away with consumer fraud. No, the city’s biggest ongoing tragicomedy is the Bears, who have won one championship in 46 years of Super Bowls, allegedly appeared in one other Super Bowl a few years back—I seem to remember a rainstorm, Bad Rex Grossman and not much else—and have watched even the White Sox and Blackhawks end decades-long futility streaks with titles. As the NFL’s charter franchise in America’s most passionate football town, as the unifying force of an undying fan base that thrives on tradition, the Bears’ track record in defining moments is more than unfortunate.
It’s a sad, predictable folly.
If Tom Kane, from the “Boss’” cable drama, were mayor, he’d have them all executed. Even Rahm might have it in him.
What last week’s bad loss should do is remind one and all to never, ever think any season could be The Year. When it happens, if it happens, let yourself be surprised. As national buzz began to hint at the Bears as a sneaky selection to win the NFC, or, gasp, the Big Game, I cringed. The only time this franchise has clicked under pressure in the post-merger era was 27 years ago. Otherwise, everything has been pretty much a letdown, which makes the city hurt collectively more than it does for any other sport.
I grasp why Bears fans ache. I just don’t understand why they keep blindly going back for more punishment, realizing deep down that it’s coming, like the winter-storm warnings on Tom Skilling’s high-tech doodads.
Preparing for this article last week, I was hoping the Bears would beat the Packers and allow me to share in some rare warm-and-fuzzy glow. But in my 17 years as a Sun-Times sports columnist, topicality and necessity forced me into the corners of harsh reality way too often. This column is no different. I’ll be accused of Mariotti negativity, and some people will complain just so they can have something to be mad about. But so what?
Besides, it may take the heat off another Jay.
The face of Bears’ anguish has been worn by many coaches and players over time. That face these days is pouty and tormented.
On the same day that Derrick Rose spilled the tears of a mature, grounded adult, thanking fans for their support through his knee rehabilitation while voicing remarkable perspective about the teachers’ strike, there was Jay Cutler at Lambeau Field, petulant as ever, having one of his It’s-My-Ego-And-I’ll-Cry-If-I-Want-To pity parties. The contrast was disturbing and revealing—all you need to separate real men and fake leaders. Rose’s injury misfortune gives him every reason to be mad at the world; instead, he used the appearance to think of his blessings and the distressed children in Englewood, the crime-ravaged neighborhood in which he grew up, and others across a troubled city. “It’s truly a blessing with all the stuff that is going on in the city. A kid from Englewood’s got something positive going on,” said Rose, still just 23, turning a sneaker launch event into a showcase for dignity.
Hours later there was Cutler, just months from his 30th birthday, acting half his age as he screamed at his linemen in an attempt to shift blame from where it belonged. This is a player who should be in his prime as a quarterback and leader, but once again, like the team he symbolizes, Cutler choked and disintegrated against a Packers defense that had been bludgeoned four days earlier by the San Francisco 49ers. The game was winnable until Cutler flashed us that constipated look. He really should peek at the replays and see it, because it is the very definition of sour. When a team is struggling, the great leaders never show concern on their face and try to inspire teammates with positive words and actions. Remember John Elway, ball at his own two-yard line, calming his teammates in the Denver huddle before launching the most famous drive in football history? That’s leadership
But when the Bears struggle, Cutler’s sagging body language is death. Learning not a thing from his apathetic look on the bench in the second half of the NFC title game two seasons ago, he took his jerkdom to new levels on the Thursday night national telecast.
When the situation demanded a quarterback to rise above the problems of his offensive line, Cutler decided to embarrass left tackle J’Marcus Webb by giving him a flying chest-bump and telling him, in full view of millions, f-bomb flying, to get his act together. Cutler is not the first quarterback with a faulty offensive line; in fact, the Bears were punishing Aaron Rodgers early, and more than a few quarterbacks are running for their lives this season.
But the difference between Rodgers, the reigning MVP, and Cutler, looking more and more like the next Jeff George, is that Rodgers has built up enough cred to admonish a teammate, as he did in the fourth quarter when receiver James Jones ran the wrong route. When you’re Jay Cutler, you should address such matters in the locker room, behind closed doors, unless, of course, you want the world to know that the loss wasn’t your fault. Yes, he was sacked seven times, and new general manager Phil Emery should be scolded like the deposed Jerry Angelo for allowing such a leaky line. But when you’re also throwing four interceptions, and some of the sacks are partially your doing because of indecision and lack of agility, you have no business dragging down others to make yourself look better. Fact is, technically, Cutler must get rid of the ball quicker and be a better clinician in this age of no-huddle offenses, prolific passing, and rabid blitzing.
Nuance is what he lacks. Is it too late, at 29, to discover it? And are Lovie Smith and the new offensive coordinator, Mike Tice, tough enough to get in his face when Cutler has run over so many coaches before them? We’ve seen no signs of anyone challenging him. His crappy attitude may be too far gone for help.
Nor did Cutler do himself any public-relations favors afterward. Only compounding the madness, he seemed to dare the Bears to trade him, which comes four years after he dared the Broncos to trade him. “I care about this,” Cutler said in the press conference. “This isn’t just a hobby for me. I’m not doing this for my health. I’m trying to win football games. When we’re not doing the little things or things the right way consistently, I’m going to say something. If they want a quarterback that doesn’t care, they can get someone else.”
Don’t think that hasn’t crossed some minds at Halas Hall. In the offseason, Emery addressed one of the blind spots that helped lead to the long-overdue firing of Angelo: He traded for Cutler’s favorite receiver, Brandon Marshall, and landed a draft-day steal in Alshon Jeffery. Finally entering the 21st century with two tall, talented receivers, the Bears looked ready to break the second-longest-running curse in Chicago sports that continues to leave Sid Luckman—who played in a leather helmet—as the team’s all-time franchise passer. Cutler was so jacked, he used his press conference earlier in the week to issue a challenge to the Packers’ defensive backs to play aggressive, man coverage. “Good luck,” he said. “We’ve got some dudes that, if you’re gonna get up in their face, even our speed guys are gonna get around them, and our big guys are gonna throw and go. So we invite press coverage. We invite man. If we get that type of game, our guys outside have to make some plays for us.”
Broadway Joe, meet Wrong Way Jay.
Now, Cutler becomes a national topic for the wrong reasons. As Fox analyst and Hall-of-Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw told WSCR-AM, “I like him, I think he’s a great talent. I do not like—I’m telling you I’ll go right on the record—I do not like calling out my linemen and bumping them and screaming and hollering because you’ve got all these cameras watching. Tell everyone, say I stunk, I stunk the joint up and it wasn’t my night.”
Webb, meanwhile, used his Facebook page to react. “There is nothing like having a bad game, but when you have it, you have to deal with it correctly,” wrote Webb, possibly referring to Cutler.
The opinion of Adewale Ogunleye may reflect a widespread locker-room attitude that Cutler is an insufferable baby. Also on WSCR, the former defensive end ripped Cutler for screaming at the linemen, suggested former Bear Olin Kreutz wouldn’t have stood for the outbursts and said Brian Urlacher better take charge. “If you live in a glass house, you can’t throw any stones,” Ogunleye told the station. Powerful stuff from a guy who only retired recently and still talks to former teammates.
Where is Lovie, you ask? If he doesn’t move quickly to stop dissension and right the wrongs, the Bears will be looking for more than a new quarterback.
Meanwhile, opponents will renew their joyful efforts to get inside Cutler’s cluttered head. Think the “good luck” comment isn’t going to stick around a while? “We understand that Jay is excited about his new weapons, but it’s the same old Jay,” Packers star Charles Woodson said after the game. “We don’t need luck. We just need to be in position. Jay will throw us the ball.”
Same old Jay. That doesn’t fly in today’s NFL, which demands immediate dividends from even the youngest quarterbacks. Robert Griffin III, at 22, showed remarkable maturity in a debut that put Cutler’s circus act to shame. No one is asking him to be Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees. But in his seventh NFL season, he should be on the level of, say, a Matt Schaub. He’s far from it. Jay Cutler remains the NFL’s biggest enigma and baby.
Chicago is tired of waiting for him to grow up. Some try to justify his don’t-give-a-damn act as cool, saying he triggers memories of Jim McMahon. Sure, right. McMahon was a leader who sacrificed his life—literally, if you read last week’s Sports Illustrated article on his concussion-wracked mental state—for his team and its Super Bowl run. Cutler’s bravado is a farce, the defense mechanism of an insecure guy who wants to be loved and respected and won’t admit it. I remember talking to him in a Nashville bar once; he was cordial and fun. But once he’s in the public eye, he is programmed to shift into asshole mode. At this stage of life in a scrutinized profession, he should be beyond such pettiness.
Living in Los Angeles now, after all those years of getting mad at the Bears in print and on radio, I tried the other night to tap into my old irritability. Near my place in Venice is a music dive called O’Brien’s, which transforms into the local Bears bar on game days. Transplanted Chicagoans pile in, take seats, order pitchers and unhealthy food, and hope as only Bears fans can hope.
“Come on, Jay!” a fan in an Urlacher shirt implored in the second quarter.
By early in the fourth quarter, the sentiment had changed. “Fuck you, Cutler!” the same guy yelled, and a mass exodus began, the buzz of alcohol and faith replaced by a familiar reality.
The Bears still suck.