Cutler Needs to Care if He Wants to Lead

Edward L. Flom once said “One of the hardest tasks of leadership is understanding that you are not what you are, but what you’re perceived to be by others.”

I find the differing views of Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in the media interesting in this regard.  ESPN writer Rick Reilly threw the first salvo:

“If he’s not The Most Hated Man in the NFL, he’s in the running. His expression is usually that of a man wearing sandpaper underwear. He looks everywhere but into your eyes. It’s a tie as to which he enjoys more — smirking or shrugging.

“It’s hard to say what interests Cutler, but it’s definitely not you.”

I documented the response of David Haugh at the Chicago Tribune.

Bob Legere at the the Daily Harald defends Cutler:

“Does Cutler come off as arrogant and disinterested during press conferences? Absolutely. Does he have any use for the media? Doubtful. Does he fail to look people in the eyes when he’s talking? Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, but he’s getting better.

“Does he limit his accessibility to once a week and after the game? Yup. But he’s not uncooperative. For the record, I’ve gotten a decent answer to every decent question I’ve ever asked Cutler.

“But then again, I wasn’t trying to psychoanalyze him, and I didn’t have an agenda.”

To my surprise, Vikings fan Mike Florio at profootballtalk.com also comes to Cutler’s defense (probably because he dislikes Reilly even more than Cutler):

“Reilly’s effort to paint Cutler in a bad light has backfired like a ’71 Vega, exposing more about Reilly than he ever would want his audience to know. To Reilly, pro athletes should seek out as much attention as possible. To Reilly, pro athletes should lend their names and likeness to any and all companies that will pay them even more money and provide them even more attention. To Reilly, pro athletes should do charitable works in that same spotlight, so that everyone will see it and, in turn, love them.”

Before moving on, I’d like to mention here that both Florio and LeGere miss the main point.  Reilly isn’t just talking about self-publicity and charity work.  He’s talking about how Cutler treats other people.  He documents atrocious incidents with former NFL players John Lynch and John Elway that fit in exactly with Cutler’s personality.  This isn’t just a case of wanting to stay out of the lime light.  It goes much deeper than that.

The fact that Cutler did the charity work is laudable.  It shows that he really is a nice guy.

But beyond that, the truth is that Cutler just doesn’t want to deal with the publicity because he doesn’t like the work associated with it.  He doesn’t do endorsements not because he’s a private guy who like to do things in secret rather than being a self-promoting jerk.  He’s a guy who’s just too lazy to go out of his way to do something he doesn’t want to do.

Then there’s Mark Potash at the Chicago Sun-Times who probably hits closer to the point I’d like to make (though its going to be extremely unpopular amongst the fans I interact with):

“I know, I know. As long as Cutler wins football games, nobody cares that he doesn’t look me in the eye when he tells me he doesn’t have the time to list all the areas of his game that have improved since Week 1. Or that he looks and sounds uninterested whether he’s interested or not. Or that nobody in the Halas Hall press room really knows him. Or that he doesn’t care that nobody in the Halas Hall press room knows him.”

“But before you endorse that popular line of thought, you might want to consider this: How many quarterbacks as awkward as Cutler in public forums have won the Super Bowl? How many quarterbacks as overtly disdainful — purposely or inadvertently — of the media process that molds much of his public image as Cutler have sustained success in the NFL?”

“I don’t think Tom Brady gives a damn about Antonio Cromartie popping off this week or anything Rex Ryan says or does. I think he has better things to do and other things on his mind. But he still spent most of his news conference Wednesday addressing the Cromartie and Ryan issues with substantive answers that at least on paper made it look like he actually cared.

“In reality, what Brady cares about is that other people care about it. Not just the reporters asking the questions, but the people who read the newspapers and websites and listen to the radio and watch television.”

Ryan Leaf and [Peyton] Manning were 1a-1b on everybody’s draft charts in 1998. Maybe it was just a coincidence that the polished Manning is going to the Hall of Fame and the jerky Leaf was 4-17 as a starter and out of the league at 25.”

No, it wasn’t a coincidence.  Potash knows it.  I know it and everyone reading the entry knows it.

Ryan Leaf failed in the NFL because an immature player who didn’t do what he didn’t want to do.  One of those things was prepare for football games.  Another was to make himself into a leader for the people around him – most importantly the players.

Fortunately Cutler isn’t as bad as Leaf.  But he’s got a lot of that in him and its probably limiting his success.  When asked by Reilly to defend Jay Cutler by telling him what kind of guy he is, Cutler “friend” Greg Olsen said this:

“He is what he is.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Its not that I think Cutler’s teammates dislike him like Leaf’s teammates did him.  But it obvious that he’s not exactly friendly, either.  That’s bad if you need to lead a team.

Here’s the key statement in Potash’s article:  “In reality, what Brady cares about is that other people care about it.” Contrast this with the sentiment that Reilly expresses so well:  “It’s hard to say what interests Cutler, but it’s definitely not you.”

In fact, Cutler doesn’t need to care about the media or even the fans they represent.  But he should care that other people care about their questions.  The fact that he doesn’t is an indication of something much more insidious in terms of team performance – if he doesn’t care about you then the likelihood is that he doesn’t care enough about the concerns of his teammates, either, particularly if they don’t directly effect him.  And unfortunately if you are going to be a leader of a group, you have to care about the concerns of the group, not just your own.  That means that sometimes you have to do things you don’t want to do.

The central problem is that, as Dan Pompei at the Chicago Tribune put it so well, Cutler “has very little patience for doing things he has no interest in.”  It is fortunate for us that Cutler is interested in playing football.  But it is highly unlikely that he’s interested in doing all of the things associated with it, particularly – but not limited to – things that involve interaction with others.  I don’t know if this will keep Cutler from winning a Super Bowl with the Bears.  But it does seem clear to me that it might be hurting them.  If he really wants to give himself and the team the best chance to win, I think its a problem he needs to work to overcome.

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