Fair or not, a defining day for Jay Cutler

CHICAGO -- Cyberspace buzzed Sunday with talk of the single-worst thing you can say about a player in a team sport.

Did Jay Cutler quit on his Chicago Bears teammates in Sunday's NFC Championship Game?

Moments after the game, I suggested we table that discussion until we heard from the participants and knew all of the facts about Cutler's left knee injury. Let's just say that postgame interviews didn't do a lot to clear up the question.

Speaking to reporters, Cutler said he suffered the injury -- the details of which he did not specify - on the second-to-last series of the first half. (The final play of that drive was a sack by Green Bay Packers cornerback Sam Shields.)

Asked how the knee felt, Cutler said: "It hurt."

Asked why he played the first series of the third quarter and then left for good, Cutler said: "We gave it a go that first series but couldn't really plant and throw, so they kind of pulled me."

Asked to clarify if he or the Bears' medical staff made that decision, Cutler said: "Yeah, I was going to keep playing. But they made the decision giving Todd [Collins] a shot would be better for the team."

Cutler said he hoped the injury wouldn't require surgery but will have an MRI on Monday.

I think it's awfully hard to speculate that Cutler didn't want to continue playing because his team was down 14-0 and he had completed only six of 14 passes to that point. The question is not whether Cutler tapped out. It's whether, in the NFC Championship Game, Cutler should have insisted on continuing to play regardless of the pain and debilitation involved.

Although we don't know the exact nature of his injury, we do know Cutler stood on the sidelines for the remainder of the game. If there was medical fear of, say, a torn ligament, it's more likely he would have been on crutches or in the locker room to limit swelling.

I'm not a huge fan of the macho attitude that compels players to push through debilitating injuries, but it's clearly a part of football at the professional level. Everyone is dealing with one kind of injury or another, the thinking goes.

As a result, a number of current players criticized Cutler via Twitter during the game. One was Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, who tweeted:

"All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one ..."

Based on the hits we've seen Cutler take this season, I think we can all conclude he is a pretty tough guy. But barring some surprise discovery in Monday's MRI, I fear this episode could define Cutler's career for a long time. Fair or otherwise, San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers set the bar by playing an entire 2007 playoff game with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

Two Bears players, center Olin Kreutz and linebacker Brian Urlacher, suggested Cutler sprained his MCL. Urlacher said "it’s easy to talk [expletive] about someone when you’re sitting on your couch watching their game" and added: "He's one of the toughest players on our football team."

Was he on Sunday? Unfortunately, that question will hound Cutler for years.