NEW ORLEANS -- Cutler-gate swung wide open once again Tuesday during the coaches breakfast at the NFL owners meetings as Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith adamantly defended quarterback Jay Cutler regarding questions about his toughness.
Smith said he spoke with Cutler before the lockout and prior to the quarterback's recent trip to Kenya and described Cutler as being in good spirits and "excited" about the prospect of returning to the field to orchestrate Mike Martz's high-powered system with a year of experience at his disposal.
"We didn't come out and check the body or nothing like that, but he's fine," Smith said. "I talked to Jay just before he went on his trip to Africa. His spirits are high, in a good mood, you know. [He's] excited about everything.
"It's an insult for us to even answer the questions whether he's tough. It's no issue. As far as Jay coming back, Jay's fine. I have talked to him, not of course lengthy, [but] since the season. He's fine and can't wait to come back and for us to finish the job this year."
Smith also shrugged off perceptions that the team may have exaggerated the extent of Cutler's injury, which was later diagnosed as a Grade II MCL sprain. Cutler sustained the injury in the second quarter of the NFC Championship Game loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers.
"You know, growing up, this is how I was taught. In the old days of football, I was told you never lay down on the football field," Smith said. "If you can walk off, don't let the opponent see that you're injured.
"So when you're a legitimate tough guy, you know what you do? When you're hurt, you find a way to walk off, not trying to let anybody see that you're really hurt. So I think people are searching. Shame on those people who led that charge is what I would say. Wherever they are, shame on them. We have to move on from that. We don't have any issue about any of that stuff."
When Cutler initially suffered the injury, the team announced in the press box that the quarterback would be questionable to return. Cutler came back for a series in the third quarter, but he was unable to continue. The team never announced that Cutler would be out for the remainder of the game, which likely played a role in some of the harsh criticism levied at the quarterback and the club's handling of the situation.
"You can't worry about the criticism. We're trying to win a football game. He's hurt at the end," Smith said. "Just like any player, when you're hurt, you go in. You try to do what you can to see if can come back. You try to come back. That's what he did. What else could you have done? It's the biggest game of the year. Since he's a tough guy, when most people wouldn't have tried to come back, he did. To me, the story should have been how tough a player Jay Cutler really is. He was hurt. He just wouldn't take that. He still tried to go back out there and help his team win.
"First off, a lot of time, we let a small minority supposedly dictate and talk for what everyone is thinking. I don't think everyone thinks that [Cutler isn't tough]. I think a few guys came out. A few guys took a shot," Smith added. "A few reporters took a shot. You don't see [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."
Smith said that he received countless letters from Bears fans defending Cutler, and criticized the media and the quarterback's peers for turning a simple, yet severe injury into a firestorm of controversy.
"I got so many letters about Jay, defending Jay after the season," Smith said. "We finished up a little short. We played the Super Bowl champs as well as anyone and Jay was a big part of why we were able to make that turnaround."
"[Woodson] walked off and he was standing on the sideline. Donald Driver walked off, and he stood on the sideline," Smith said. "But we're not questioning them. I never question them. Totally off base for that to happen."
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.