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Bears' mishandling of Cutler controversy raises questions

This figured to be a fairly long offseason for Bears quarterback Jay Cutler.

Presumably, it wouldn't seem a whole lot shorter for Bears coach Lovie Smith.

Cutler might be hearing persistent questions about his toughness, but for the time being, he isn't the one answering them. That thankless task belongs to Smith.

It is thankless because no coach ever wants to be in a position to publicly address the worst sort of perception that anyone could have about one of his players, least of all his starting quarterback.

Is there any reason to doubt Cutler's toughness? That was among the questions Smith faced during one of the several head-coaching news conferences held during the NFL Scouting Combine.

"No," Smith said. "Just to kind of hit Jay one last time -- no. There's no question about Jay's toughness or anything like that."

That might have been a perfect place for the topic to be dropped, but it wasn't.

Understandably, Smith isn't happy that people are still picking at the scab that was Cutler, in full view of cameras, standing on the sideline with a knee injury through the second half of the NFC Championship Game. Cutler's detached/disinterested facial expression did nothing to help garner any sympathy from numerous outraged fans, media and even players around the league. With a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, Cutler, in the eyes of so many critics, needed to look, well, a lot more hurt or a lot more concerned. At the same time, he carried the burden of having done very little (completing only six of 14 passes for 80 yards, with an interception) against the Packers while third-stringer Caleb Hanie made a sudden name for himself by giving Chicago's offense a much-needed spark.

It would make sense for Smith to still be stewing over the 21-14 loss and then watching Green Bay go on to win Super Bowl XLV. It would make even more sense for him to be tired of all of the negative discussion about Cutler since that day.

Maybe that was why he refused to let go of the subject and add the following: "For guys to even challenge that or question that don't know what they're talking about, don't know him ... he's as tough as any quarterback in the league. Really, I've said enough about him."

Or, perhaps, a little too much.

The fact Smith felt compelled to come to Cutler's defense at all could easily be interpreted as something other than a head coach wanting to look out for the best interests of one of his players. Smith would have sounded more convincing about his support for Cutler if he quickly and abruptly brought the matter to a close, or treated it as if the mere issue had no merit and, therefore, didn't justify anything more than, "There's no question about Jay's toughness."

The same goes for Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz. He, too, was at the combine. And although he didn't have a formal session with media (that's only for head coaches and general managers who choose to make themselves available), Martz did tell the *Chicago Tribune*: "I don't know why people want to dogpile this guy. I don't get it. He's a tough guy. He wants to do everything right.

"That last game, he didn't play as well as he can. That happens. Why does Brett Favre throw five interceptions in a playoff game? It happens.

"We're all going to have to learn to let it go. He's a young player learning how to play. And he had never been in that environment before in his career, and he'll deal with it right next time."

For the time being, Cutler doesn't have to deal with much of anything, at least where the public is concerned. As is the case with most players, he is able to make himself scarce in this traditionally quiet time of year for offseason team activity. If labor talks fail to produce a settlement any time soon and no offseason workouts are held, Cutler might very well avoid any sort of media exposure for weeks, if not months.

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Not so with Smith.

He will continue to be a primary face and voice of the Bears, who have given him a two-year contract extension that runs through 2013. Labor uncertainty notwithstanding, he is doing what you would expect a coach whose team finished on the doorstep of the Super Bowl to do: Talk up the mission of taking the next step.

Inevitably, that means addressing an offense that let the team down last season, ranking 30th in the league overall and 28th in passing, and came up woefully short in the NFC title game.

"I'm excited to get back out there for all of our guys being in the (Martz) system a second year," Smith said. "Just like from the first game to the second game of the season, you see a lot of improvement. We're expecting the same thing, and there's no reason not to.

"There's a couple of areas we need to improve, but I think the core is in place, starting with our quarterback, Jay Cutler, leading us. I wouldn't want any other quarterback except for Jay. Excited about him going into that second year with Mike (Martz) and seeing those improvements on the offensive side."

At this point, however, Smith might not have a great deal of company in that excitement.

Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.

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