NEW ORLEANS -- Two months later, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith has finally arrived at the technical core of why so many people buried quarterback Jay Cutler with real-time criticism when he sat out most of the second half of the NFC Championship Game.
The Bears officially declared Cutler "questionable" to return after a sprained knee forced him to the sideline. Although that is nothing but a technical term required by NFL rules, it means a player has a 50 percent chance of re-entering. My opinion: It dramatically influenced immediate perception of the injury's severity for television analysts and viewers.
We now know that Cutler suffered a Grade II sprain of his medial collateral ligament, an injury that routinely sidelines NFL players. But that information didn't trickle out until the following day. On game day, the Bears' designation suggested a much less serious injury.
Would something that simple have mitigated the criticism Cutler received during and immediately afterward? Speaking to reporters Tuesday at the NFL owners meeting, Smith acknowledged it probably played a role. He made clear that injury designations were not among his highest priorities at the moment, but I think he, Cutler and the Bears fell victim in this instance.
"You can't worry about the criticism," Smith said. "We're trying to win a football game."
I would be worried if Smith had taken the time during the game to consider whether the public was questioning Cutler's willingness to play. But most of the initial criticism was based on the (erroneous) belief that the Bears' medical staff believed he had a reasonable chance to get back into the game. In that light, it appeared as though Cutler chose not to play as opposed to doctors telling him he was done for the day.
The criticism largely stopped when the Bears revealed the severity of the injury a day later. Jones-Drew, among others, has said he reacted in the moment and would have had a different opinion if he knew how badly Cutler was hurt. That doesn't necessarily excuse his rush to judgment, but it does help explain it.
I'm sure there would have been some questions even if the Bears had immediately declared him out for the game, but I'm willing to bet the volume and ferocity would have been dialed way back. It would have been similar to where we stand now: Only the most ardent Cutler critics really think he was dogging it.
"... A lot of times, we let a small minority supposedly dictate and talk for what everyone is thinking," Smith said. "I don't think everyone thinks that. I think a few guys came out. A few guys took a shot. A few reporters took a shot. You don't see [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Aaron Rodgers questioning Jay Cutler. You have to look at the source a lot of the time. We can't spend much time with those sources. They're out there. I never spend time on those guys out there."
Cutler’s decision to stand on the sideline scowling in full uniform for the rest of the game probably didn’t help matters. And Cutler clearly isn't a popular figure among his peers. But I really think much of this issue generated from the mistaken belief that Cutler could have returned to the game. We know now that, medically speaking, he could not have.
If nothing else, this episode was an exercise in the importance of real-time information. The Bears didn't provide enough. They understandably had better things to do. The cost, however, was steep: Twenty-four hours of brutal criticism until the facts finally came to light.