CHICAGO -- Jay Cutler does indeed have a knee injury -- a sprained medial collateral ligament, the team announced on Monday -- providing at least some explanation for why the Bears quarterback played only one series in the second half of Sunday's NFC title game, prompting critics to question Cutler's toughness.
"MCL sprain. That's what the injury was," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "We knew that. We had an idea at the time that that's what it was, and that's what we're saying now."
The Bears didn't disclose the severity of Cutler's sprain, but the Chicago Sun-Times reported it is a Grade II tear. According to ESPN.com injury analyst Stephania Bell, who has not examined Cutler, all sprains could be tears since there is some form of tissue damage.
How badly Cutler was really hurt and whether he should have played anyway was hotly debated after the Bears quarterback left in the third quarter of a 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers.
"If things had gone our way and we had made it to the Super Bowl, it would have been questionable if he could have gone in," Smith said.
In the aftermath of the Bears' loss, even Chicago legend Mike Ditka wondered about the severity of Cutler's injury, while teammate Brian Urlacher vehemently defended the quarterback.
"I don't know if anybody can play the game when they're not 100 percent or not well," Ditka, an ESPN analyst, said on "Mike & Mike In The Morning" on ESPN Radio. "I can't speak for Jay Cutler. I can't speak for anybody.
"Myself, I would have had to have been paralyzed to come out of the game. I don't want to say that word. I would have had to be completely knocked out to come out of that football game."
Cutler was shown standing on the sideline, prompting many to believe that he might not have been hurt that badly. He wasn't effective Sunday, completing 6 of 13 passes for 80 yards and an interception in the first half. He tried to play in the third quarter, but after a three-and-out series, he left and did not return. He finished with a passer rating of 31.8.
"Jay was hurt," Urlacher said. "I don't question his toughness. He's tough as hell. He's one of the toughest guys on our football team. He doesn't bitch. He doesn't complain when he gets hit. He goes out there and plays his ass off every Sunday. He practices every single day. So, no, we don't question his toughness."
Cutler tried to test the knee by riding a stationary bike on the sideline, where he remained throughout the game.
Smith said Monday that Cutler "wanted to go back in."
Shortly after the game, fans began calling sports talk shows to question Cutler's toughness. Some players around the league were doing the same via Twitter.
Arizona's Darnell Dockett posted on his Twitter account: "If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room! #FACT."
Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew added his thoughts with tweets from his account saying: "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee... I played the whole season on one..."
Later, Jones-Drew said his Twitter message had been an attempt at humor.
"I threw out this joke and the backlash came in," Jones-Drew told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Monday. "I tried to make it right, but it backfired."
Jones-Drew said he was rooting for Cutler and the Bears on Sunday, and acknowledged the knee injury was serious enough to leave the game. He also said he had received death threats from Bears fans.
Bears general manager Jerry Angelo condemned the talk and even took a swipe at the players' union, which is in negotiations with the league over a new collective bargaining agreement.
"I think it's crap," he said. "I thought they were a union. If that's the way they unionize themselves, they got bigger issues than the one that they have with the owners. I'm very disappointed. That, to me, is dirty pool."
Smith was asked if he was surprised by players ripping Cutler.
"Surprised. I haven't seen it before," he said. "Seems if you're in that fraternity, you'd be stepping up for your fellow man. Especially when you don't know. You don't know what was going on.
"As far as Jay, Jay didn't take himself out of the game. If you're going to attack somebody, you should be attacking me. As a head football coach, and our medical staff, we're the ones ... he wanted to go back in. He was injured and went back in in the second half. So I see it as the complete opposite of how it's being portrayed right now."
Smith had no idea why players would criticize Cutler.
"You have to talk to them about that," he said. "I just know what was going on. We don't have any problems with Jay Cutler and what he brings to the table."
Urlacher had his own theory on the players' reaction.
"Nothing like jealous people who are sitting home watching," Urlacher said. "Players around the league you said, right? Yeah, love jealous people when they're watching our game on TV while their season is over."
In a postgame show on Fox, Urlacher again defended his quarterback when told fans were critical.
"Who cares what they think?" he said. "That's my response to them. They are not playing in this game. Jay was hurt, obviously. There's no reason for him to be out there if he can't get it done. He was obviously hurt pretty bad or he would have played.
"For them to question his toughness is stupid to me."
Cutler said he injured his knee on the second-to-last series in the first half and then aggravated it on the next series.
"We gave it a go that first series [in the second half], but I really couldn't plant and throw," he said. "So they kind of pulled me.
"I was going to keep playing. But they made the decision that giving Todd [Collins] a shot would better suit the team."
When told players were questioning him, Cutler said: "No comment on that."
Sunday, Packers players were surprised Cutler didn't come back.
"You know if he doesn't come back it had to be serious, not to come back and play in this game," Charles Woodson said.
Bears center Olin Kreutz was not surprised, and he said he could see Cutler's leg shaking during a huddle in the second quarter.
"I didn't even think he was going to finish the half," Kreutz said. "When he came back to try it again, that amazed me. It was shaking right after he took the hit and walked back in the huddle. It was swinging like this [waving his hand back and forth].
"So I knew one of his ligaments probably went. I can't remember exactly what play it was. I know it was the second quarter. I remember him walking in the huddle, and I saw it shaking like this. I said, 'Ah, man.'"
Kreutz also shot back at Cutler's critics on Twitter.
"I don't know what somebody might have said, but that's just ignorance," Kreutz said. "They should turn that [expletive] Twitter off."
Smith said Sunday Cutler was disappointed.
"He was hurt, and he couldn't go," Smith said. "Trainers, doctors and all, they are the ones who really made that decision. As far as Jay he is like everyone else; he was disappointed he couldn't go out and play to help his team win."
Smith wasn't happy when asked again about Cutler not returning.
"He hurt his knee and he was out, all right? There's nothing else for me to tell you on that," Smith said. "I don't know exactly when it happened. He couldn't go, and we moved on. Let's go to some other questions, how about that?"
Bears receiver Rashied Davis also supported Cutler.
"You know yourself better than anybody, and Jay is a very tough guy. You've seen it," Davis said. "For him to go out of a game, something had to be wrong. I don't know what it is, but Jay is a pretty tough dude."
Even Green Bay defensive lineman B.J. Raji said he also thought the criticism was "pretty wrong and a lot times it has a lot to do with jealously."
"We hit the guy pretty hard, we broke out some different angles, all different places on the field," Raji said. "I mean, he is a warrior. Any time a player has the longevity that he has had in this league you are a tough guy."
Ditka said that some of the criticism seemed too much and that Cutler must have been hurt pretty bad to miss such a big game.
"I don't know. I feel it's very unfortunate when the whole country comes out and says ... I get texts from people, I couldn't believe them. I said, 'You people are demented,'" Ditka said on ESPN Radio.
"I don't think you can take yourself out of a game unless you're really hurt. A game of that significance for the Chicago Bears playing the Green Bay Packers for the chance of playing for the Lombardi Trophy. To me, that's pretty significant."
Cutler has been a lightning rod of controversy since coming over to the Bears in a trade with the Denver Broncos before the 2009 season. Cutler's first year with the Bears was disastrous as he threw 26 interceptions and Chicago finished 7-9.
But Cutler improved this season, despite an offensive line that yielded the most sacks in the NFL. And despite the constant battering he took, Cutler missed only one game after suffering a concussion.
"Jay led us to 12 wins," Smith said. "We had a heck of a year. Finished short but we had a heck of a year. He's our quarterback and has done a lot of great things for us. I can't wait for our future together with him leading our team."
ESPNChicago.com Bears reporter Michael C. Wright contributed to this report. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.