- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CHICAGO -- Welcome, Jay Cutler, to the biggest game of your life.
That's the reality we're dealing with here: Cutler against the Green Bay Packers, with the playoffs and -- maybe, just maybe -- his future as a Chicago Bear on the line. We're talking immortal legacy here, people.
Of course, that's how Cutler sees it too, right?
"No, it's going to take all of us to win this game," Cutler told reporters Thursday. "This isn't a personal game for anybody in that locker room. It's all of us together."
No one expects Cutler to tap dance for the media or the public, even if he's been more introspective and revealing lately. It's not Cutler's job to worry about the future or treat the media like a psychiatrist. Athletes are trained to live in the present.
But I'm trained at speculating about the future.
The de facto NFC North championship game is 3:25 p.m. CT Sunday at Soldier Field. If the Bears win, they host a playoff game the following week. If they lose, a roller-coaster season is over.
Plenty of familiar faces soon will be gone. Cutler's glowering mug likely won't be one of them, but he's playing for more than money this week.
Even if I hate the L word (legacy), I wasn't kidding. This game is enormous for Cutler when it comes to how he's perceived in Chicago and in the NFL. Perceptions matter, as he surely could attest.
This is as good a chance as he'll have to recoup the respect that has eluded him since forcing a trade from Denver and landing in Chicago.
Now, I don't see how he doesn't re-sign with the Bears, unless they drastically lowball him or his agent goes for Joe Flacco money. They will meet somewhere in the middle. Cutler will get that paper. The Bears will get that Cutler.
But will the fans ever truly respect him? Will his story ever change? He can avoid the public, but he can't avoid the truth. He gets it from the media, he gets it from friends. He tried to deny that he heard the chatter about Josh McCown being a better option than him two weeks ago, but he later admitted what we already knew. He hears everything, he feels everything.
Now, after a season that saw everyone bemoan his absence and then many curse his return, it's downright cinematic that Cutler will have to defeat his bête noire, the Packers, for a playoff berth.
If any team has defined a player's struggles to assert himself as a beloved athlete of Chicago, it's the Packers.
I'll never forget his first game as a Bear in 2009 at Lambeau Field. Playing with a lousy supporting cast, Cutler was at his worst, throwing four interceptions. Then-general manager Jerry Angelo took off his glasses at halftime and stared straight ahead, as if he had just traded a passel of draft picks for Rick Mirer, Vol. 2.
Or how about last season, when he said he invited media coverage from Green Bay, wishing the defensive backs "good luck" against newly acquired Brandon Marshall and friends. After Cutler threw four picks in the Packers' win, Charles Woodson said: "We don't need luck; Jay will throw us the ball."
The Bears have defeated Green Bay only once with Cutler as the starter, or one fewer time than they have with McCown. Aside from the two four-interception games (he's thrown 16 total against Green Bay), the most infamous of these losses was in the NFC Championship Game in 2011, when Cutler couldn't finish the game because of a knee injury, which somehow earned him the scorn of America.
While this game has less at stake than the NFC title game -- I can't fathom the Bears' defense making enough stops to win the GoDaddy Bowl, let alone a playoff game -- it could be either a validation of Cutler's star-crossed reputation or a temporary silencing of the "noise."
Cutler and the Bears honestly addressed the outside "noise" about his return two weeks ago, with ex-players joining the chorus who called for McCown to keep his job over the incumbent Cutler, and that was good practice for the pressure that comes this week.
In his time in Chicago, Cutler has shown he's about as tough as Jim McMahon, and he's mostly succeeded Sid Luckman in the team's woebegone passing records. But he varies from being be-liked to be-tolerated in a city that desperately wanted to love him.
No matter how you judge his career, by the raw numbers or by the talent deficits of his past teammates and coaches, over the course of Cutler's Bears career, he hasn't proven that he's beyond the benefit of the doubt.
There was a very real show of public disrespect when it came time for Cutler to supplant McCown as the starter. Cutler even admitted he approached teammates before his return in Cleveland to gauge their mood about the return.
We're not talking about fans here. He has to eliminate doubt everywhere. His teammates respect his ability and they ride for him in public on a daily basis.
But Cutler needs a win here, more than anyone at Halas Hall would like to admit. He can't go into that postgame media session talking about "It's hard" or "I just didn't make the throws."
Money can't buy the kind of peace of mind that Cutler needs.
You might say there's no sense of Cutler worrying about pleasing fans or improving his Q-rating, but we all know that's not true. Cutler exists in the real world, or adjacent to the real world, if you see him interact with the public, and I don't believe for a second he doesn't care about his place in it.
Cutler wants to be liked, even if he's not quite sure how to realize that want and keep his privacy. He wants to be thought of as a great quarterback. He wants to be thought of as a winner.
He didn't sign up to do a weekly radio show on ESPN Chicago 1000 because he needed the money or wanted to hang out with Tom Waddle. He did it to repair his public image and show some of the humor and charm he refuses to share through the conduits of the day-to-day media. It's worked, too. He should be paying ESPN 1000 for the opportunity. (Make that check out to me, if possible, Jay.)
At 30, Cutler has a great coach/offensive coordinator, two of the best wide receivers in football, a wily running back, a competent line, a beautiful family and enough riches to keep him in plaid suits for a lifetime.
But he'll never have peace and quiet until he wins a big game like this one for the Bears.
We can say it's all about the team, but it's also about Jay Cutler. There's no sense in running from the truth.
Jay Cutler will get paid, but the Chicago Bears' quarterback can't buy what he desperately needs in his career.