In pantheon of toughest NFL quarterbacks, Bears' Jay Cutler is being left on the sideline

No one wanted Jay Cutler on the field as much as the former Chicago Bears linebacker considered the NFL's toughest player of all time.

Yet Dick Butkus isn't among the masses of Monday morning quarterbacks skewering the Bears quarterback.

Cutler left Sunday's NFC championship game at Chicago's storied Soldier Field in the third quarter because of a left knee injury that Bears Coach Lovie Smith revealed Monday to be a sprained ligament. On the sideline, Cutler maintained a mostly passionless expression as a trip to the Super Bowl evaporated with bitter rival Green Bay's 21-14 victory over the Bears.

"For most of you, seems like the story line has been about whether our quarterback is a tough guy. Our quarterback's a tough guy," Smith said to reporters in Chicago. "[He] wanted to win the game as much as anyone."

As outrage descended on football-crazed Chicago and dominated the nation's sports talk, Butkus — who was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, his first year of eligibility — took a step back and assessed how fiercely the public holds NFL quarterbacks accountable for their will and toughness, or perceived lack of same.

"He's still a tough kid," Butkus said Monday. "I think it's ludicrous the amount of people taking shots at him. Nobody knows the extent of the injury like he does. I've been listening to the radio talk on this, and I think it's a little out of line."

Cutler was injured in the second quarter, and sought treatment in the locker room before halftime.

He returned for the first series of the third quarter — with the Bears getting shut out — and then was gone, sidelined for the remainder of the game as backup Todd Collins proved ineffective and third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie came close but failed to deliver a comeback.

Television viewers saw the close-up of Cutler, a man standing alone, looking uninjured and impassive.

Agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Steve Young and Ben Roethlisberger, said Cutler was "caught in an indelible image . . . in what appeared to be a non-emotional expression."

Criticism of Cutler arrived by avalanche, with Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jacksonville Jaguars and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks taking in-game shots on Twitter, and NFL analysts Deion Sanders and Mark Schlereth pounding Cutler's behavior in such an important game.

Jones-Drew wrote on his Twitter account:

"Hey I think the Urban Meyer rule is [in] effect right now . . . When the going gets tough . . . . . . . QUIT," adding, "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee . . . I played the whole season on one . . ."

Brooks tweeted, "Bears fans: I am so sorry, I have to be crawling and can't get up to come off field."

Schlereth railed after Fox television cameras caught Hanie leafing through photos after throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown, with Cutler positioned nearby, lending no insight.

Schlereth also wondered why there appeared to be no medical treatment of Cutler, not even an ice bag to the sore knee. "Did everybody throw in the towel?" he asked. "To me, it says [Cutler] tapped out. I know he's got a sprain and there are varying degrees, but a first-degree MCL sprain by NFL parlance is a boo-boo."

Dr. Alexis Chiang Colvin, assistant professor of sports medicine at New York's Mount Sinai Hospital, said Cutler's retreat from the game is "pretty reasonable if he tried to cut and pivot on that leg.

"You can take medication for pain, but that doesn't treat the symptom, and if the knee is unstable, it's unstable, he shouldn't be in there. If you can't play, you can't play, and only he could tell."

Fans have been merciless, posting a picture of Cutler in panties on the Internet, and bashing him for cutting an uninspiring, statue-like appearance in such a huge game when emotion should be oozing — as it did from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who could be seen spitting blood from his mouth after being struck in the facemask, and kept playing.

Doesn't the NFL demand that? Isn't that why we tune in Sundays?

Terry Bradshaw threw a winning touchdown pass in Super Bowl X to Lynn Swann just as Dallas defensive tackle Larry Cole bore down to deliver a hit that would knock the Pittsburgh quarterback unconscious.

Washington's Joe Theismann spit out three front teeth after being hit in a 1982 game against the New York Giants and stayed in the game.

Y.A. Tittle and Johnny Unitas stamped the NFL's reputation for warrior efforts by failing to yield, bloody body parts and all. And Brett Favre continued the tradition proudly, starting nearly 300 consecutive games despite a long list of injuries.

"I understand the vitriolic acid being spilled because this is a gladiator sport," said Schlereth, who underwent 20 knee surgeries as a Denver Broncos offensive lineman. "Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning and Brett Favre finish that game. That's what bothers guys about [Cutler]. It looked bad. . . . He looked disinterested from the word go. . . ."

ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, who was the winning quarterback in Super Bowl XXXV when the Baltimore Ravens beat the Giants, 34-7, is not surprised by the outrage.

"Did he show the passion, the fight, the will they feel they deserve to see? Is he fighting as hard as he should?" Dilfer asked. "A complete sacrifice of will for your team — passion — is the expectation."

Dilfer recalled the words of former Jets defensive lineman Dennis Byrd, paralyzed after being hit in a game: "The guys who are respected most by the players and fans are the guys whose will overcame their bodies shutting down and their mind saying no. A champion's will pushes through that."

Former Oakland quarterback Rich Gannon, who had five passes intercepted in the Raiders' 48-21 loss to Tampa Bay in Super Bowl XXXVII, noted that Cutler has diabetes, has started all but one game in four years, endured 52 sacks this season and did consult with doctors and coaches at halftime.

"They might have all agreed that if the knee's not feeling better, that with the Bears' offensive line versus those Packers' speed rushers, staying in might have been a disaster," Gannon said.

Butkus, the poster boy for NFL wars, said he was reminded Sunday of his final game in 1973, when he hobbled around the field on a bad leg and "Monday Night Football's" Don Meredith assessed on the air, "I admire his courage, but question his intelligence."

Said Butkus: "I can't imagine Cutler not wanting to play. He had a decision to make: Play and try to be a hero and not do well for my team? Personal pride, or play on one leg?"

Theismann, who endured a horrific, career-ending compound leg fracture in a 1985 Monday night game against the Giants, said the criticism against Cutler is "unfair."

"We are gladiators, but we also get too hung up on macho-ism," he said. "Yes, there's blood in the game, like Rodgers' mouth. I remember breaking my left collarbone and two ribs in the second half of a game against the Cowboys one year and staying in there.

"But if you're talking about an injury to the knees, leg or throwing arm that stops you from doing what you can do, the likelihood of continuing is not there. And anybody who tweets or says something disagreeing with that on TV is full of it. They're not a doctor."

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

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