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Lucky for Cutler, Chicago Can Be Forgiving

By Dan McGrath, The New York Times

Mar 3, 2011

Chicagoans are a remarkably tolerant species of sports fan — they have to be, or they wouldn’t turn out three million strong at Wrigley Field every year to watch a fifth-place ball club. That’s a good thing for the unsettlingly blasé Bears quarterback Jay Cutler, who became the football equivalent of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow when a knee injury forced him out of a hyped effort to disrupt the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl run.

Cutler offered some barely coherent mumbles about his disappointment, then split for Los Angeles with his celebrity girlfriend, further offending Bears fans by walking around on a leg that should have required amputation if it had been damaged badly enough to force his removal from a Packers game. But that’s Cutler — on his best days, he has the social presence of a gawky teenager.

Disappearing might not have been good for his image, but it played better than Ben Roethlisberger’s cloying attempts to make himself likable during the week leading up to Super Bowl XLV. Roethlisberger, the hulking Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, sought to distance himself from a night of carousing last April that earned him a four-game N.F.L. suspension. His plastic smile and faux sincerity couldn’t dispel the notion that Big Ben is as creepy as he is talented.

The Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, came across as a neighborly good guy, gaining a “Brett who?” approval rating well before his artful passing delivered the Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay. Between those two extremes is a middle ground for Cutler, and it should be reachable in a city that’s historically forgiving toward its athletes.

In the late 1990s, Albert Belle, Dennis Rodman and Bob Probert called Chicago home simultaneously. Three of the most notorious reprobates in sports, and all three were accepted here, if not beloved, for one reason: they delivered on the field/floor/ice. The White Sox went the renegade route again with David Wells in 2001, and it didn’t work out as well, primarily because of his 5-7 record. Wells won 20 games with the Blue Jays in 2000 and 19 for the Yankees in 2002. Had he been close to that good in Chicago, he would not have seemed so obnoxious.

Fast forward to 2009. Most observers thought Cubs General Manager Jim Hendry was as crazy as Milton Bradley for signing the, uh, volatile outfielder, and Bradley didn’t disappoint — he was booted off the team in mid-September. But the bizarre behavior that got him sent home would probably have been characterized as colorful if Bradley had hit .338 instead of .257.

Now come the Bulls with plans to erect a statue honoring Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen outside the United Center. No chance the bronze figure will be sitting, as Pippen was for the final 1.8 seconds of a playoff game in 1994, pouting because the game-deciding play wasn’t called for him. Pippen would win three more N.B.A. titles as Michael Jordan’s sidekick, effectively obscuring the memory of perhaps the most egregious me-first snit in sports. He’s a Bulls ambassador now.

Jay Cutler is a Bears pariah — and for what? “It’s a cautionary tale for athletes everywhere,” said Kevin Sullivan, a Florida-based media consultant with an extensive sports background who provides media training to several teams and athletes. “Jay Cutler suffered a fairly serious injury, and he got ripped for it,” Sullivan said. “It shows what can happen if you make no effort to engage people. They’re not inclined to pull for you.”

Not inclined to pull for you? From the meathead reaction in Chicago and elsewhere, you might have taken Cutler for the impresario of a dog-fighting ring who handled the disposal of the less-successful combatants. In fact, a contemporary of Cutler with that very blemish on his record is enjoying a glorious rebirth. Michael Vick is wildly popular in Philadelphia, a tough, fickle sports town where hero worship is practically illegal.

“Sports fans are the most forgiving, second-chance-loving people in the world,” Sullivan said, “and Michael Vick is a classic example. If he can come back, Jay Cutler certainly can. He didn’t do anything bad.” Try telling that to the armchair zealots who insist Cutler is through in this town. Sullivan grew up in Chicago. He knows some of them. “If I were advising Cutler,” Sullivan said, “I’d tell him to find a forum to talk about how he feels about all of this. Just say what happened, how disappointed he was, how eager he is to get back on the field. “He has to convey the message that he really did care. He can’t be defensive or angry, even though he has a right to be — he’s been treated unfairly. He should try to get with somebody he has some chemistry or some history with, if that person exists in Chicago. Football season is over; people are moving on. This shouldn’t be a story a month after it happened. It’s time to let the air out of the balloon.”

It’s the Bears. It’s not that easy.

Dan McGrath writes a column for the Chicago News Cooperative

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