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Cutler stung by questions about his toughness, desire to play

Jay Cutler says the left knee he sprained during January's NFC Championship Game against the Green Bay Packers has "felt fine for about six weeks," but he acknowledges the criticism he absorbed for leaving with the injury affected him.

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"I was gone, and I stayed away from it all," the Bears quarterback told the *Chicago Sun-Times* on Thursday. "But I can't say it didn't bother me that people questioned my toughness and desire to play.

"I think I've been through a lot here in Chicago, and I would have loved to play."

The five-year NFL veteran told the newspaper that the Grade II sprain is "one of those things that heals on its own."

That Cutler left the game after one second-half series under his own power helped spark a firestorm of pundits and fans questioning his toughness. The Bears lost 21-14, allowing the NFC North rival Packers to advance to, then win, the Super Bowl.

Cutler told the Sun-Times that players who pointed fingers "can think what they want," and he said he appreciates the teammates who came to his side.

"Those are the guys you are with a lot of the time," he said, "and those guys didn't flinch. I've got to thank them for that," adding that he would be fine "as long as the guys in my locker room have my back."

Bears coach Lovie Smith sounded off last month on the persistent speculation about Cutler's injury.

"I don't think any player should have to go through that because it wasn't warranted at all," Smith told the Sun-Times at the NFL Annual Meeting in New Orleans. "He was injured; he couldn't play. It's an insult for us to answer the questions on whether he's tough."

Smith pointed to the NFL-high 52 sacks Cutler absorbed and that the quarterback tried to return to the game after halftime.

Cutler also said Thursday that Bears players were keeping in touch, but "not in a huge rush" to gather for workouts. If the NFL lockout continues into May, "we're definitely going to have to make something happen," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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