Quitness For The Prosecution: Finding the NBA’s Jay Cutler

Around Christmas time, I was playing NCAA Football on PS3 against my boy from college. I was at his house, on his system, on his game … and I stomped him. At some point in the fourth quarter, frustrated and getting done in by the Legion of Hokies Doom, he yelled “F*** this!” and tossed his controller against a wall.

Crazy? Yeah. Awkward? Definitely. Scary? Almost. But hey, at least he left no doubt that he really cared about the outcome. If only Jay Cutler had heard this story, maybe he would have acted differently yesterday and wouldn’t be the national sports pariah of the moment.

I’m just about done with this whole sports media thing. The latest headache-inducer began Sunday afternoon, while the Chicago Bears were in the process of losing to the Green Bay Pacers in the NFC Championship game. Cutler, the Bears’ starting quarterback, injured his left knee in the first quarter and had to leave for good in the third quarter. He should have actually left. Because by the time the game was over, Cutler’s sideline demeanor and decision (whoever made it) to stop playing — and the fact that he wasn’t limping enough for some people’s taste — was being bashed by a legion of NFL players, fans and media. Essentially, the charge was that Cutler bitched out of the biggest game of his career.

While today’s revelation that Cutler suffered a torn (or sprained) MCL hopefully snuffs out the accusations that he was faking/milking an injury, there is still ill will toward Cutler by jersey-burning fans in Chicago for not showing enough “fire” and “emotion” while his team went down. As ESPN football analyst (and former Super Bowl-winning QB) Trent Dilfer put it, “It’s the fact that he didn’t show the demonstrative behavior most players would have shown.”

I will say this much: I didn’t like how Cutler seemed to let third-string QB Caleb Hanie burn in the frying pan by himself, as the veteran never appeared to (at least on camera) stand by the youngster’s side and offer counsel during the biggest game of his career. Almost every time I saw Cutler after he was sat down, he was …. well, sitting down. But then again, his knee was hurt, and I know from my days playing football that your body gets A LOT colder when you’re not playing as opposed to when you’re on the field. So making a cocoon out of yourself on the bench in 10-degree weather is kind of understandable.

But the whole “demonstrative behavior” concept is what annoys me, especially when people take one moment and turn it into a smudge on a player’s entire career. We went over this earlier in the NFL season with Arizona Cardinals QB Derek Anderson, who was “caught” laughing and smiling on the bench while his team was getting molly-whopped in a Monday Night Football game. But haven’t we all had a day that was going so badly all we could do was laugh? And what is Anderson supposed to do, keep a twisted mean-mug “game face” on for the entire four-hour MNF production? Read More>>

Bringing it to basketball, it becomes a more prevalent situation because we can always see a basketball player’s face and reactions. They’re closer to us in the arena and more visible on TV. Every look, every smirk, every scowl, we see it all. And how many times have we gone over this Cutler-like argument with Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Dwight Howard. How many times do we let one brief action spark 1,000 sports columns? How many times have we taken one small glance to draw one big conclusion?

Athletes absolutely pay attention to what the media says — and their colleagues say — about them, so the Cutler fallout now makes you wonder how genuine some of their actions are. Do certain players slap on the “sad face” with extra pout in the final stages of a loss, remembering the criticisms Vince Carter has drawn for smiling in the same situation? Do certain players practice their intense facial expressions, remembering how Dwight Howard is constantly accused of having too much fun on the court? Do certain players run around hacking unnecessarily when a game is essentially over, remembering how LeBron was accused of quitting in the playoffs?

And now after watching Cutler dominate the sports networks today, will certain players make sure to put an extra limp on their next injury, and add an extra temper tantrum to their act when they’re told they can’t play?

If there is any NBA player who can understand what Cutler is going through, it’s Carter. Ever since he fell from his perch as the NBA’s golden child (Blake Griffin before Blake Griffin), Vince has been under more scrutiny than Barry Bonds‘ medicine cabinet. Whenever he gets hurt, his toughness is questioned. Whenever he breaks out that classic s***-sandwich face, his motivation is questioned. Whenever he takes a fadeaway jumper instead of attacking the rim and jumping over a 7-footer, his heart is questioned.

Vince became the X-factor in a disastrous equation: He pissed off a rabid Toronto fan base, he moved to the media-scrutiny capital of the world in New Jersey/New York, and he offended the sensibilities of highlight-hungry fans who saw his potential to become an NBA Jam version of the next Michael Jordan.

So despite scoring over 20,000 points in his NBA career, making eight All-Star and two All-NBA teams, and averaging 23.3 points, 6.2 boards and 4.5 dimes in 56 playoff games, Vince Carter’s credentials as a Hall of Famer still come into question because critics try to make tangible arguments regarding intangible factors like “heart” and “hunger” and “will to win.”

It’s moronic. Nobody reaches the all-star, all-world athletic level of Vince Carter or Jay Cutler without an intense drive and more heart than the majority of us could find inside of our chests. Anybody who really played sports knows Carter and Cutler have laid their guts out in empty gyms and practice fields and isolated weight rooms for 15-20 years to become stars in their respective sports.

But what does that matter when the cameras are on? When the world is watching, Vince and Jay, you’d better mean-mug and yell and cry and stomp and limp to prove to us that you care. Or you can at least throw a Playstation controller.

* Follow Austin on Twitter @AustinBurton206
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