Playoff Success Defines a Quarterback

Rodgers viewed as a winner; Cutler still has doubters.

Rodgers viewed as a winner; Cutler still has doubters.

By Ralph Vacchiano

Aaron Rodgers was Jay Cutler once. Maybe not quite as hated, certainly not by other players, but there was a time when nobody was sure what or who he really was.

It was in the summer of 2008, while the city of Green Bay — the state of Wisconsin, really — was still mourning the “retirement” of legend Brett Favre. Packers fans were sure their hero was being pushed out for the new, golden-boy quarterback. They weren’t convinced he was the real deal.

And he really ticked them off when he said this to Sports Illustrated about his relationship with those fickle fans:

“I don’t feel I need to sell myself to the fans,” Rodgers said then. “They need to get on board now or keep their mouths shut.”

You know what the difference is between Rodgers then and now? It’s the same as the difference now between Rodgers and Cutler. Wins. Performance. Success. That’s everything in the NFL, especially when it comes to how someone — particularly a quarterback — is perceived.

For Rodgers, that was just his cocky nature.

Cutler? He’s apparently a wimp.

“I think any young quarterback who gets this opportunity, there is a ladder that you have to climb,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, after his quarterback, Rodgers, helped his team beat the Bears 21-14 in the NFC championship game on Sunday. “You have to first show that you belong as a starter. You have to win big games. He is a 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown-a-year quarterback. He is definitely in the upper echelon as far as the way he plays statistically.

“The next step is to win playoff games. He has accomplished that now. Now he gets the challenge to be a Super Bowl champion. To me, it’s the process and the progress of a young, talented, special individual who has taken full advantage of his opportunities.”

Left unsaid by McCarthy is that Cutler hasn’t. He has a big arm, was a first-round draft pick, had a 4,000-yard season and was thought of highly enough that the Bears traded their own quarterback (Kyle Orton), two first-round picks and a third-round pick to get him. He’s even won a big game or two, too.

None of that, though, has shielded Cutler from some stinging, personal criticism. It started two weeks ago when a national columnist did a hit-and-run attack on his personality, sparking a week-long debate in Chicago about how aloof and prickly Cutler was (or wasn’t).

Then the worst came on Sunday when he committed the apparently unforgivable crime of leaving the NFC Championship Game with an injured knee. Never mind that, against doctors ordered, he tried to play one last series. Never mind that sitting out wasn’t his call. Never mind that it was later revealed he had a Grade II sprain of his MCL — an injury that normally sidelines players for 3-4 weeks.

All anyone could see was that he was able to walk and pedal a bike on the sidelines, but he wasn’t able to play.

The criticism didn’t just come from boozed up fans, either, or anonymous punks on the internet. Via Twitter, like a plague, it came from NFL players like Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew, Cardinals lineman Darnell Dockett and safety Kerry Rhodes. And it came from former NFL players-turned-analysts like Deion Sanders and Mark Schlereth.

Worst of all, it came before the game was over, before any of those “experts” watching from home knew the extent of the injury, before it was revealed Cutler had a badly sprained MCL.

From Jones-Drew: “All I’m saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee. … I played the whole season on one…”

From Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel: “If he was my teammate I would be looking at him sideways”

From former Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks: “HEY there is no medicine for a guy with no guts and heart”

And on and on and on the assault went, until it was relayed to Cutler’s teammates in the Bears’ locker room after the game.

“Bleep them,” said Bears center Olin Kruetz. “It’s bleeping stupid. I could see (his knee) wiggling when he was walking back in the huddle.”

It didn’t matter, though, because of one undeniable fact: Cutler isn’t perceived as a winner. In the same circumstances, Tom Brady would never have drawn such fire. Neither would Peyton Manning. Everyone would’ve even forgiven Rodgers had he sat out, too.

Why? Because Rodgers has done what Cutler hasn’t. He carried the Packers through the first two rounds of the playoffs, first out-dueling Michael Vick in Philadelphia and then lighting up the top-seeded Falcons for 366 yards and 48 points in Atlanta. He was even on fire in the first half of the NFC championship game.

Cutler? The lone postseason win of his NFL career came one week earlier against the 8-10 Seattle Seahawks. He was outstanding in the game and, for a few days, everyone forgave him for being somewhat petulant and boring. They did that because he won.

Once he was a loser again, all bets were off.

So Rodgers will sit at a Super Bowl podium all next week and no one will remember how whiny he seemed nearly three years ago. Cutler’s rebound likely won’t be so quick. Even though his coach and teammates had his back, too many ignorant fellow players and voices already labeled him a quitter. At this point, the only way to make that a footnote in his history is if he leads the Bears to the Super Bowl next year.

Just ask Rodgers how big a deal that is for a reputation. It seems that Vince Lombardi was right. Winning is everything … at least as far as perception is concerned.

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