CHICAGO -- The frightening, ever-present reality of the National Football League was illuminated Monday night when Detroit Lions defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh slammed Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to the ground.
It was a legal assault as NFL rules and behavior go. But at first glance, it felt criminal. We're in an enlightened age now, the era of empathy. Suh celebrated the hit, and it felt like a heel playing to a wrestling crowd. A good football play, as most people called it, although Brandon Marshall later tweeted, "What u did to Jay wasn't cool. Great players don't have to do that."
It was late in the second quarter and the Bears were winning when Suh caught up to a scrambling Cutler, pinned his left arm, and stuck his right elbow between Cutler's left shoulder and neck as he drove him into the ground. As you might expect, Cutler landed hard.
"I thought I was gone," Cutler said. "But when he got ahold of me, I knew at that point, I knew it wasn't going to end well."
With that deadpan delivery, Cutler paused for the laughs from the assembled media as a painful but meaningful Monday night drew to a close. Cutler had every reason to force a smile through bruised ribs, because the Bears improved to 5-1 with the 13-7 victory over the Lions.
It was already an ugly game. A Cutler injury would have made it grotesque.
After the hit, trainers tended to Cutler. It took several breathless minutes before he jogged off the field for Jason Campbell. Cutler came back a play later, to thunderous applause, to throw an incompletion and make way for an Adam Podlesh punt. It was a ceremonial return.
Detroit then went on a solid drive before shooting itself in the foot, which was a theme all night. At the end of that series, the Bears got the ball back on a Lance Briggs forced fumble in their red zone.
With 1:22 left in the half, the Bears ahead 10-0 and the ball on the Bears' 17, Cutler went to the locker room to have his ribs examined. When he came out to warm up for the second half, more applause.
Asked later whether he took a painkiller, Cutler said, "We did some stuff back here with the doctors."
"I feel all right right now," he said. "I think later in the week is going to be a little bit difficult, but I'm all right right now."
He was mumbling as he said this. Sometimes I wonder how any of these guys form sentences after a game. It's fair to say Cutler gutted it out in the second half and once again proved he's a Tough Quarterback. Can we get that verified yet?
He didn't look good as the Bears nursed their lead. He bounced some easy passes; he made a few good throws. In all, he completed 16 of 31 passes with one touchdown, a nice 7-yard pass to Marshall on the team's first possession. He was sacked five times. It wasn't an elite performance, if you're into that type of designating, but once again, the Bears didn't need him to be Aaron Rodgers. The consistently amazing defense took advantage of a sloppy Detroit offense and, as usual, made its own luck, recovering three of Detroit's six fumbles and getting an interception in the fourth quarter with Detroit again in the red zone.
No one will criticize Cutler's pedestrian numbers. No one should, anyway. Cutler, who typically is such a closed book that he wouldn't even want to admit this game was on a Monday, acknowledged he was limited by the injury.
"It was on my right side, so throwing was a little bit tough," he said. "I missed some throws. I wasn't feeling exactly 100 percent but we had to fight through it. The way our defense was playing, we were just trying to drag out the game."
Cutler ran well when he had to, picking up 34 of the team's 171 rushing yards. Matt Forte continued a solid, if unspectacular, start with 96 yards on 22 carries. On the Bears' first possession, he broke off a 39-yard gain that ended at the Lions' 7. The next play, Cutler scrambled right and connected with Marshall for the touchdown. Cutler credited offensive coordinator Mike Tice with the call, but Marshall said it was Cutler's eyes.
"I was supposed to run behind the line of scrimmage and get in the flat," he said. "With those wide nines Detroit plays, [the defender] got upfield and got in my way, so I had to find the hole. So I shot up the field. Jay's eyes lit up so I knew I was open. He told me to stop right there with those eyes, and we scored."
Because this was a nationally televised game, the ghosts of Cutler's NFC championship past were bound to come up, even just in our minds, just like every sideline spat in the league is now compared to Cutler yelling at his lineman or snubbing his offensive coordinator. Cutler is a divisive figure, and he will deal with those specters until he gets back to a conference championship and performs like a franchise quarterback. That's life. He doesn't take pains to correct his image. He gave his tickets to the family of the Bears fan killed in Jacksonville, Fla., meeting with them before the game. The team's sideline reporter tweeted it out before the game, but Cutler didn't have his PR people broadcast it.
"We wanted to reach out and bring them to the game," Cutler said. "It's a tough situation. There's nothing I or anyone can say that can really ease their pain or bring anybody back. Hopefully we were able to let them have an enjoyable time for three or four hours."
Here's the deal with Cutler. I'm no cheerleader for the guy. In fact, I enjoy the jokes and memes about his peevish personality. But I've never, not for one snap, doubted his toughness or his potential. For all this talent, which is prodigious, Cutler isn't a perfect quarterback and his public persona will never rival that of Tom Brady or other role model, Gil Thorp types. But he can be the type of quarterback who takes the Bears back to the Super Bowl. He can make history.
Cutler didn't prove he could carry the Bears like a franchise quarterback on Monday night. The injury wouldn't let him, and maybe he wouldn't have anyway. But by playing the second half through pain, he showed everyone he's a "football player" in every freighted sense of the phrase, and sometimes that's all a guy can do. Show up and take some hits and keep going.