BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- No stranger to criticism, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler wasn't sure how to react to the barrage that hit him during the NFC Championship Game.
He was under siege, and this time, the biggest shots weren't coming from the opponent. Instead, they were coming from cyberspace.
Cutler's toughness had never been questioned, yet current and former players were calling him out for sitting out most of the second half of a 21-14 loss to the eventual champion Green Bay Packers in the NFC title game last season because of a sprained ligament in his left knee.
"That's all new," Cutler said Friday, after reporting to training camp. "That's never been an issue for me. I've never been questioned about it. I didn't really know how to react to it. I know that anyone who has played with knee (injuries) should never question that. I know the guys in the locker room aren't going to. You can't get caught up in that stuff. ... You're going to have to take it as it is and move on."
Between the injury, the criticism and the hubbub over his split with ex-fiancee Kristin Cavallari, Cutler was constantly in the headlinesm even if he mostly said little. Now, he can keep his mind on football and the season.
For the Bears, that means finding a way to build on an unexpected run that they mounted just when it looked as if their season might be coming apart. For all their struggles, particularly on the offensive line early, they still won the NFC North with an 11-5 record and came within one game of the Super Bowl for the first time since the 2006 team made it before a disappointing finish.
The shots, though, were just starting.
Cutler said his knee is better, but he basically shrugged off the critiques of his toughness Friday. Smith and players again defended him, though.
After all, no quarterback took a bigger beating than Cutler, and the NFL-leading 52 sacks he absorbed barely told the story. He was constantly pounded behind a struggling line, particularly early in the season. A nine-sack first half against the New York Giants left him with a concussion that sidelined him for a game in early October, and the Bears hit their off week with three losses in four games.
Smith added: "As far as the questions about Jay, we've cut all those off. They shouldn't even come up anymore."
There are more pressing questions, anyway, like how a reconfigured roster will mesh.
Cutler has a new target in Roy Williams. The tight end spot received an overhaul, with Greg Olsen being traded to the Carolina Panthers, and there's a new punter in Adam Podlesh. The biggest issue at the moment is six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz remaining unsigned, and teammates were lobbying hard to keep him.
"His presence, I can't really put it into words," safety Chris Harris said. "He's well respected. He's one of the most respected guys on this team."
Perhaps no one else has more vested in that situation than Cutler.
"He's the glue up front, tells everyone what's going on," Cutler said. "He's a guy I'd love to have. At the same (time), I don't make those decisions, so we'll just have to go with what we have."
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press