Quarterback Jay Cutler of the Chicago Bears on the sideline in the third quarter after leaving the game with an injury against the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game at Soldier Field in Chicago Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
The Bears, and the NFL, tightly control access to players. And when you've got someone as naturally reticent as Jay Cutler around, that makes him even harder to know.
All roads lead back to Jay Cutler's defensive, aloof personality when the concept of why his football manhood was questioned NFL-wide by fellow players and, by translation, fans who don't have the whole story.
And maybe the Bears talented-but-flawed quarterback is what his is -- Mr. Personality (Not!). But I'd like to see a few enterprising media members try to find the story behind the story if the Bears would simply let people get in Cutler's speaking range more than twice a week.
Tightly-choreographed access to top players and coaches is the standard operating procedure of a tight-sphinctered NFL, but never more puckered up than with starting quarterbacks. There is no sitting around the bench or locker, or lolling around the batting cage as in baseball. The Bears are merely following pro football's media-relations blueprint in limiting exposure of its star players to group interviews or press conferences at rigidly-controlled times.
During the season, Cutler has a regular Wednesday press conference. Then he talks after games, again to the largest group possible.The team will offer up the logic that if a quarterback was available for interviews daily, he'd never get any work done. Other than some very occasional guest shots on ESPN 1000, where he has some kind of relationship with an on-air personality, that's all we see and hear of Cutler, period. There is no way to corral him one on one to take the measure of Cutler the person or even Cutler the quarterback-still-in-training. He is far less accessible than a mega-star like Michael Jordan, many levels of stature above Cutler, in his prime.
Five years ago I wrote the book "Baseball and the Media." In the process of amassing interviews, I detected a common trend. Athletes would never release their "A material" to avoid controversy or conflict in the group interviews through which they were increasingly funneled. The Cubs' Mark Prior even suggested he'd utter "C material" in his post-game sessions -- innocuous, cliched responses.
I always advised newcomers to covering sports, particularly baseball, that the right way to get to know athletes is not go to them all the time asking for an interview. Half your conversations with them should be off-the-cuff chats about anything under the sun, not limited to their sport. That way, the athlete takes the measure of the reporter, realizing the reporter relates to him as a person and has working knowledge of the athlete's craft.
But if Cutler is never available in the locker room or after practice, never accessible one on one, the personality that surely belongs to the Santa Claus, Ind. product will never come out. Following the Prior formula and perhaps exhibiting the usual uncomfortable nature speaking before a big audience, the Wednesday-Sunday utterings come off at the very least bland and disinterested, at the worst standoffish and arrogant. And thus we only see one perceived side of Cutler.
One or two enterprising types might have gotten through to Cutler in his two seasons in Chicago had he been available other than the group shots. That's a big problem with Bears coverage in general. There are only small windows to talk to players at practice, with the main access a lunchtime open locker room which the majority of players are savvy enough to limit their exposure. Any available Bear is immediately descended upon by a pack of media, including camera operators wielding their equipment like battering rams. Although this is on-line where language standards are looser, I cannot exactly repeat the vulgar nickname, related to a swine's passion sessions, describing these media scrums that desperately seek sound bites. Still, if a patient reporter stuck around long enough through all these carefully-rationed access times and managed to chat up an available player, a rapport could be forged. That's the way it works in a baseball locker room.
If I'm not mistaken, the only real one-on-one relationship between a big-time Bear and a reporter appears to be Brian Urlacher's rapport with the Tribune's Vaughn McClure, which provokes envy of McClure among his colleagues.
But such relationships are increasingly discouraged. Now I've heard instances spreading to other sports where team handlers frown on reporters contacting players at home via phone.
You hope the Cutler affair registers even a blip among the handlers and their bosses. No amount of media training would change him to "Gabby" Cutler. But keeping his access down to the bare minimum has not served the quarterback well. And it certainly has not benefited his consuming public well given how so many will believe every tweet recorded about him without an accurate Cutler personality profile from which to draw the accurate story.