By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) Little ruins sports more than lazy analysis, the kind in which you can tell the writer or talker put in minimal research if any at all on the subject s/he’s waxing expert on.
Which makes the years of criticism of former Bears quarterback (I skypoint whenever saying that) Jay Cutler all the more ironic. The laziest knocks on Cutler were regarding his personality, which was usually tied to his on-field performance and assumption that he never cared about failure all that much. The narrative was that he was lazy in the “fire and passion” sense.
No doubt the running lazy jokes of “Smokin’ Jay” and his perceived apathy to everything were easier to make because Cutler didn’t play the media game, didn’t suffer fools who chose to ask eye-roll-inducing questions at every press conference that he dutifully showed up for. Little professional courtesy exists for the athlete who isn’t a robot but also is willfully not colorful.
But now Cutler is the media. Fox has hired him to join Kevin Burkhardt and Charles Davis in the booth for Sunday telecasts. The reflexive national reaction has been to presume a network just hired Eeyore with an attitude to ruin football broadcasts (and ditto some bad local reaction). Because, ya know, TV suits are all about putting a giant Xanax in a booth.
And this is where the laziness with considering Cutler continues, particularly in a sort of trash ego thing among media and fans. If an athlete or coach doesn’t pander in interviews — and doesn’t having mass amounts of wins to make it cute while not doing so a la Gregg Popovich or Bill Belichick — that athlete clearly must be a cactus of a person 24/7. Thinking like this not only centers the offended as worthy of satisfaction but also ignores a lot about an individual like Cutler. It rests on the haunches of easy talking points.
Dan Wiederer, Bears beat writer for the Chicago Tribune and someone who put in work around Cutler on a consistent basis, said in a series of tweets Friday:
A few thoughts on Cutler. In my four seasons covering him, I found him to be insightful, engaging and open to good questions. Cutler hated — I mean HATED — lazy and bad questions. And he showed it. We saw eye to eye on that. Cutler’s dry wit was often under-appreciated and his insight on the game will be good on TV. As far as media rapport goes, Jay wasn’t even as close to accessible as most QBs in this league are. That was his m.o. Had a teammate who genuinely liked Jay tell me this once, “He thinks everybody else is an idiot. That’s the baseline he works off.”
But writers have a right to ask lazy questions and have them massaged by the recipients or something barf. The note about Cutler’s wit is important, too, because it’s a real trait that was too often overlooked while he played. Kristin Cavallari’s Instagrams at his expense, commercials Cutler was in and interviews with people he’s comfortable with on both Chicago sports radio stations are plenty of evidence toward this besides the occasional press conference question that was bad enough to break his ennui facade and draw sarcasm, a list of which was put together by, imagine that, by other local writers around Cutler enough to see beyond his massive affronts to respectable journalism. Cutler’s ability to poke fun at others and himself — and a certain fearlessness of both — will transition well into super-serious NFL broadcasts that usually lack that.
“Obviously, they have been searching to replace Jon (Lynch) and when Jay’s name came up I was like, ‘Wow, that’s not a name I would not have guessed,'” Burkhardt told SI’s Richard Deitsch about the process leading to Cutler’s hire. “But to his credit he reached out to me and we talked a ton leading up to the audition. He asked how he should prepare and what things to look at. I was really impressed by that. He was totally diving in.”
Sounds like a guy likely to ruin your viewing experience, right?
“When we got done,” continued Burkhardt, “I thought, ‘Wow, he can do this.’ I have only known him a short time but I feel like we clicked. Something I look for is the conversational tone of the analyst, whether things feel natural, if they have a sense of when to talk and it felt easy with Jay. For a guy who has never done this and probably never really thought about prior to the last two weeks, I was impressed.”
No no no, what about the moody, abrasive stuff, though? Cutler must be that person in totality.
Cutler has never struck me much as a hypocrite, so his disdain for laziness in media will likely translate to his own new work as media. Even his retirement statement was atypical of an athlete. As an analyst, he’ll hold the viewer to a higher standard because the hell with dumb fans he righteously despised in his playing days. And his football knowledge has long been praised despite being swallowed up by lazier prevailing narratives.
“His ability to know the personnel that’s on the field — I mean, he just walked off the field,” Davis told the Sun-Times. “Just think about him walking into production meetings (with players) now. He’s going to be walking in essentially with his peers.”
It should be noted that Davis is one of the more respected football analysts on TV. No surprise then that Cutler as an interview subject did well with Davis for exactly the opposite reasons so many other writers and talkers chafe with Cutler.
“We may not have been bro-hugging,” Davis said about his prior conversations with Cutler, “but if I asked Jay Cutler a question, I got a thorough answer. And I’ve had plenty of other guys where I’ve asked those questions and I’ve gotten bro-hugged, we had a good time and it was affable, and when I’ve gotten back to my room to put down my notes, I don’t have anything. I always appreciated that about Jay.”
What most suggests Cutler will be great in the booth, though, is that he doesn’t need this broadcasting job. He has his money, he has a young family and a dream life, yet he wants to talk football to a national audience. It’s the antithesis of the Cutler stereotype, which makes it even more compelling and likely to be a fit. For the few of us who never succumbed to the convenient thinking and cigarette photoshops beaten into the ground, Cutler in the booth poses both an opportunity for compelling TV and proving the lazy to be fools.
“Jay Cutler would be on point as an analyst,” Bears guard Kyle Long said. “He’s one of the most cerebral guys I’ve ever played with, one of the most well-spoken guys I’ve played with.
“Whether the public knows it or not, he actually is a funny, nice, cool guy. (Media members) have seen that side of him sometimes. You’ve also seen Jay when he’s having maybe not the best day. Unfortunately, that’s kind of the all-encompassing stigma there.
“But I think if you see him in a suit and he’s got his hair done and he’s got that beard lined up, people will fall in love with Jay Cutler again.”
I only take issue with Long’s use of “again.”
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.