CHICAGO -- The only thing older than the Bears-Packers rivalry is the Bears' failure over most of that time at quarterback. Great linebackers, running backs and linemen the Bears have plenty of; quarterbacks are another matter entirely. And perhaps never has there been more despair in Chicago over quarterback incompetence than in the wake of the loss to the Packers in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. Forbidding the mention of the name Jay Cutler may be the best way to cope with winter. Only a Bears quarterback could stink out the joint and then get worse while sitting on the sideline.
Look, you're not going to read in this space any suggestion from me that Cutler's knee injury wasn't serious enough to send him to the sideline or that Cutler was a complete baby for not going back on the field with a trip to the Super Bowl at stake. But any credible analysis of the NFC Championship Game, especially of the Bears' performance, has to start with Cutler, the pivotal figure in the game whether we're talking about his first-half incompetence or his second-half absence.
The absence, without question, infuriated more people. In 30 years of covering professional football I've never seen a front-line player crushed by his peers the way Cutler was Sunday in real time. Granted, communicating via Twitter is still relatively new, and we're now privy to unedited thoughts in a way we've never been previously.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks, a future Hall of Famer, tweeted, "I have to be crawling and can't get up to come off the field. Josh Freeman would not come out. Meds are available ... " A few minutes later when the Bears sent their third-stringer, Caleb Hanie, in to the game and Cutler was therefore ineligible to return, Brooks tweeted, "There is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart."
Another future Hall of Famer, Deion Sanders, said, "I never question a player's injury, but I do question a player's heart."
Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett tweeted, "If I'm on the Chicago team Jay Cutler has to wait 'til me and the team shower [and] get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room."
Mark Schlereth, the former lineman and current ESPN analyst, said via Twitter, "As a guy [who has had] 20 knee surgeries you'd have to drag me out on stretcher to leave a championship game."
And Maurice Jones-Drew tweeted, "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one."
Brian Urlacher, precisely because he's a great teammate, passionately defended Cutler's toughness in his postgame news conference, answering a question about the issue by saying, "Jay was hurt. I don't question his toughness. He doesn't bitch and complain when he gets hit." And Urlacher shot back about the players expressing their opinions via Twitter, "jealous guys, sitting at home watching on TV."
But what sticks out is that Brooks, Sanders, Dockett and Schlereth have all played in the Super Bowl. All but Dockett won at least one Super Bowl. Expanding the picture even more, it's clear Cutler has a credibility problem, and not because he's not popular with the media. Those tweets are a small sample of what was communicated about Cutler and his failings during the NFC Championship Game.
A lineman who played more than a dozen years and won multiple Super Bowls told me after the game that he was stunned Cutler was standing on the sideline, not on crutches, receiving no treatment while his team played on. And, the player said, what made it worse was that Cutler didn't appear to be counseling his backup, Todd Collins, or Hanie. And this all came on the heels of Mike Martz telling ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg that criticism of Cutler's fundamentals, specifically his footwork, is "fair... You can't go through a lifetime with those kinds of habits and fix them in one season." Martz revealed that Cutler is still doing footwork drills twice a week, every week, and said the quarterback is working "diligently" and that "he'll get there."
But we don't hear those Peyton Manning-like stories about Cutler, how he comes early to practice and stays late and works systematically and demonically at getting better. What we hear, even from teammates in both Denver and Chicago, is that Cutler is an arrogant, pouting player who rates himself quite highly. It's a characterization that is believed totally throughout the league, through almost any pro football circle you wander into. And because it's believed wholly that Cutler is a guy with a big arm, an overrated sense of himself and little if any heart, precious few people in Cutler's own fraternity had any sympathy for him during the game.
It will be interesting, from what we know of Cutler, to see if he even notices.
A former quarterback who wears a Super Bowl ring, who has studied Cutler's entire career in the NFL, told me before he left the field Sunday, "The sad thing is that if he embraced working on the monotonous details of quarterbacking he could be great."
And all this testimony is important why?
Because the Chicago Bears still don't have a quarterback worthy of the defense, worthy of the special teams, worthy of the effort put forth by the team in almost every other area. And that's the reason the Packers are going back to the Super Bowl instead of the Bears, because Aaron Rodgers is all the things Cutler is not, from preparation to performance. It's of great credit to the Bears that they got so close to the Super Bowl, having to go to the bullpen for the third-stringer, given the disparity between Rodgers and Cutler, or for that matter between Cutler and the other final four quarterbacks, Ben Roethlisberger, Rodgers and even young pup Mark Sanchez.
It's hard for those of us who've grown up following the Bears to not wonder how many more championships the franchise would have won if the club played year in, year out with a competent quarterback. I'm 52 years old and have followed a team whose top quarterback, by passer efficiency, is Erik Kramer. It's a team whose best quarterback (Sid Luckman) has been retired 60 years, whose best receivers (Johnny Morris and Harlon Hill) have been retired 47 and 50 years, whose all-time leading receiver (Walter Payton) is a running back who has 170 more receptions than the franchise's No. 1 wide receiver.
All of that is because the Bears can never find/develop/acquire the right quarterback, which is directly attributable to bad management. The Packers have gone from Brett Favre to another All-Pro, Rodgers, while the Bears have a second-stringer, Todd Collins, who isn't any longer fit for the NFL. For Collins to be the second-string quarterback ahead of Hanie is an example of egregiously poor decision-making as it concerns the position of quarterback, only the most important position in all of sports.
Sunday's NFC Championship Game is like so many other games I've watched all my life, when Dick Butkus and the great defenses of the 1960s would be undermined because the Bears couldn't muster any offense, when the 1980s defenses would be left hanging because there was nobody to back up the best modern-day quarterback the Bears have had, Jim McMahon, when he was injured. Now, Urlacher and Lance Briggs and Julius Peppers get to find out how great defense -- and that's what the Bears played against the Packers after Green Bay's first drive -- can be undermined.
The Bears are never the ones to draft and develop an Aikman or Manning or Roethlisberger, or wisely trade for a Brees. Hell, the Bears can't even come up with a Matt Ryan or a Joe Flacco. They gave two first-round picks and two other picks and a player for Jay Cutler, who at his best constantly has the metropolis holding its breath, looking at games through spread fingers, praying to God he doesn't screw it up by throwing it to the other guys. And at his worst, he looks for the perfect pass instead of moving the chains and managing the game and thinks his arm is stronger than John Elway's, which is both stupid and immaterial.
Before Cutler was hurt and his heart was questioned, he missed passes to Devin Hester (one crossing pattern, one deep ball) that 20 quarterbacks in the league would have made. Actually, Hanie completed essentially the same pass to Johnny Knox that Cutler missed to Hester.
So, the Packers go to Arlington, Texas for the Super Bowl with their wonderfully effective and creative Rodgers, who in contrast to Cutler is a delight. The Bears, after this particularly bitter loss, will leave even their most loyal constituents angry and resentful. Just maybe, concerning quarterback, the Bears will now go back to the drawing board, though the result is likely to remain the same as it has always been.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.