LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Jay Cutler finally got some protection.
The Chicago Bears rushed to their quarterback's defense on Monday, blasting current and former players who in Twitter posts questioned his toughness for sitting out most of the second half of Sunday's 21-14 NFC championship game loss to Green Bay with a knee injury.
"I think it's crap," general manager Jerry Angelo said. "I thought they were a union. If that's the way they unionize themselves, they got bigger issues than the one that they have with the owners. I'm very disappointed. That, to me, is dirty pool."
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew and Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett, along with former players like Deion Sanders and ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth, were among those criticizing Cutler on Sunday.
To that, coach Lovie Smith said, "Our quarterback's a tough guy. ... It's pretty simple what happened yesterday. Before the half, Jay hurt his knee. He showed a lot of toughness to continue to play with it."
Smith said Cutler sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee late in the first half and would have been questionable for the Feb. 6 Super Bowl had the Bears beaten Green Bay. He also emphasized the team and medical staff made the call to lift the quarterback, who played the first series in the third quarter before standing on the sideline.
Cutler underwent an MRI on Monday and was at Halas Hall. He did not make himself available to the media and declined comment on the criticism after the game.
His coach and teammates had plenty to say, though. They were particularly peeved about a series of Twitter posts by current and former players ripping Cutler.
"I'll just tell you this, the one thing I know about Jay Cutler is he's tough," said third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie, who led a late comeback bid. "Another thing I know about him is he's going to stand up for his teammates. He didn't want to let his teammates down. So if he could have been on the field and been productive for the team, he would have done it."
Receiver Earl Bennett, Cutler's teammate at Vanderbilt, called the criticism "very unprofessional."
Defensive tackle Anthony Adams labeled it "garbage" and "unfair."
And tight end Greg Olsen said, "I think it's insane. I think anyone who's ever watched us, that would probably be the last thing anyone's ever questioned."
Yet current and former players alike were doing just that.
Jones-Drew, who played the first 14 games with a partially torn meniscus in his right knee before shutting it down, posted two comments about Cutler. He first compared the quarterback to former Florida coach Urban Meyer, who resigned in December, then wrote: "All I'm saying is that he can finish the game on a hurt knee ... I played the whole season on one."
"I threw out this joke and the backlash came in," Jones-Drew told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on Monday. "I tried to make it right, but it backfired."
Jones-Drew said he was rooting for Cutler and the Bears on Sunday, and acknowledged the knee injury was serious enough to leave the game. He also said he had received death threats from Bears fans.
Dockett posted, "If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!"
Schlereth wrote, "As a guy how had 20 knee surgeries you'd have to drag me out on a stretcher to Leave a championship game!"
And Sanders had this to say, "Im telling u in the playoffs u must drag me off the field. All the medicine in pro lockerooms this dude comes out! I apologize bear fans! ... Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart."
The way the Bears see it, Cutler doesn't owe anyone an apology. They think he's owed a few, in fact.
"I can't even believe I'm sitting here talking about Cutler's toughness," Angelo said.
Cutler is often criticized for his demeanor, along with his decisions during games. But his toughness? That's a new one.
No one took a bigger pounding this season.
The league-leading 52 sacks barely reflected the number of hits he absorbed. He was constantly under pressure, particularly in the early going, and even when he runs, he'll often take the tackle rather than slide. He did it again at least once against the Packers.
"We're in a perception business," Angelo said. "I certainly didn't like what was said. I take that personally, too. He's our quarterback. We wouldn't have been where we're at without him, and I want that to be made clear. We stand by him."
Green Bay defensive lineman B.J. Raji said he also thought the criticism was "pretty wrong and a lot times it has a lot to do with jealousy."
"We hit the guy pretty hard, we broke out some different angles, all different places on the field," Raji said. "I mean, he is a warrior. Any time a player has the longevity that he has had in this league you are a tough guy."
AP Video Journalist Robert Ray contributed to this report.