Cutler might be victim of his toughness

In light of recent developments, it’s become abundantly clear the NFL needs to strip Madieu Williams of the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award and hand it to Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Joking aside, though, can we now finally put a lid on questions about Cutler and what transpired in the club’s loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game?

Having gone off the grid since the team’s season-ending loss -- a controversial affair, in which NFL peers and others endlessly questioned his toughness -- Cutler resurfaced, fresh from a charitable endeavor in Kenya, and spoke with the Chicago Sun-Times in advance of his scheduled involvement with the “Fun Run” in Naperville, which will benefit NCO Youth & Family Services.

Cutler said exactly what everyone should have expected him to say: It bothered him that “people questioned my toughness and desire to play.” Those milling around the locker room in the aftermath of the Bears' Jan. 23 loss to the Packers already knew that based on the way Cutler’s chin virtually hit the floor when asked to comment on criticism made by peers about his perceived lack of toughness.

Having taken a career-high 57 sacks (including the postseason and a concussion-inducer against the New York Giants) over the course of a brutal 2010 campaign, Cutler couldn’t believe his NFL peers were going there and that we in the media, who saw firsthand the punishment he took all season, were actually questioning him about it.

The way Cutler hung his head that day when asked the question told me everything I needed to know. Perhaps everything should have stopped there.

The problem, though, is the whole situation isn’t going away anytime soon, especially with the NFL lockout threatening to pluck away part of the 2011 season. Until Cutler laces up the cleats, plays lights out, carries the Bears to the ultimate stage and delivers a spell-binding performance, the events of Jan. 23, 2011, will always lurk in the background when the quarterback’s name is mentioned.

Admittedly, it’s a story we’ve beaten to death. Interestingly, though, in some ways Cutler might actually be a victim of his toughness, judging from an exchange I had last month at the NFL owners meetings with Bears coach Lovie Smith.

I mentioned the team’s handling of the situation -- from the coaching staff to the public relations department -- playing at least a small role in how everything developed into a firestorm, and Smith explained that getting information to the media was the last thing on his mind during that chaotic episode.

Look, no matter how highly we in the media regard ourselves, Smith is right on the money in that respect.

“Mike, OK, it’s a championship game,” Smith said. “What should be your priority?”

I answered: “Winning.”

“Yeah,” Smith responded, “and not worrying about the information y’all are getting. It’s about our football team. We knew. OK, Jay went in at halftime, and he’s getting treatment, and there’s a slim chance he can play. What do you list him at?”

I answered and simultaneously asked: “Questionable?”

“What else do you do, Dan [Pompei]?” Smith asked, turning to my colleague from the Chicago Tribune. “What do you list him? At the time, though, for me, personally, I didn’t know that he would be able to come back. So we came back out there on the sideline right away. You saw. We were getting Todd [Collins] ready. We didn’t know that [Cutler would try to return]. That’s why I say this is the wrong story.

"Now, what were we supposed to do, [say] ‘Hey guys, we’re behind 14-0 or whatever, trying to win the biggest game in the history of our franchise, let’s worry about what everybody is thinking about with our quarterback.’ That’s the last thing we’re doing.”

I can’t fault Smith’s logic there, although Cutler ultimately wound up being hurt most by how things transpired.

“We were trying to win a football game,” Smith added. “To me, as far as handling it better … what did we list him at? I heard a lot about, ‘Well, you listed him as questionable.’ What do you list him at? That’s a technicality. You know, it’s really simple: He didn’t go back into the game. He’s out, simple. There’s nothing else. In the future, I guess there’s a protocol you have to go through when you get hurt.”

But is there, really? Or did we all make that the case?

Either way, unfortunately, it’s not going away. And the truth is my fingers cramp at the thought of the inevitability associated with again addressing the issue.