Caleb Hanie almost pulled off a miracle.
But almost wasn't quite good enough, as the Chicago Bears went down 21-14 to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game, ending their dreams of going to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV.
Hanie woke up Sunday morning with no expectations of being asked to play. As the backup to the backup since the bye week over Halloween weekend, the third-year pro out of Colorado State had been content to fill the meager role asked of him lately at Halas Hall: scout-team quarterback.
"I did finish out the game in Carolina," Hanie said in the interview room after the loss, referring to his mop-duty against a bad Carolina team back in Week 5, "but once the bye week came and went, I was back slated at No. 3 in the rotation."
Todd Collins, who was signed during the preseason after Hanie hurt his shoulder, started at Carolina because Jay Cutler had to sit out a week with a concussion. The 16-year veteran was positively awful, completing just 6 of 16 passes and being picked off four times, yet he survived a short-lived demotion to No. 3 and was again Cutler's immediate backup a few games later. After Cutler's return, neither Collins nor Hanie had seen so much as one snap since the 23-6 win over the Panthers.
Asked why he had to go back to third string after what transpired at Bank of America Stadium earlier in the year, Hanie offered a simple explanation.
"Todd had more experience than I had," he said. "I think it was a simple as that."
But even as just the third quarterback, Hanie made a point of always being mentally prepared should he need to play.
"Jay is a durable guy," said Hanie. "He never seems to get hurt, so I didn't feel the call for my services would be imminent."
But Cutler did go down, reportedly with a knee injury just before halftime. Even Bears coach Lovie Smith seemed uncertain as far as knowing exactly which play put Cutler on the bench. Smith offered no better answer than "some time toward the end of the second quarter." Cutler went to the locker room at intermission to get checked by team trainers. He came back to the field at the beginning of the third quarter and played one series that went three-and-out.
At the 8:50 mark in the third quarter, Collins put on his helmet and entered the huddle.
Collins led the Bears for two ugly-looking series, misfiring on all four of his throws and nearly getting intercepted twice. One of them, as a matter of fact, was originally ruled an INT and had to be reversed by a replay challenge.
Then Hanie came into the game with 57 seconds left in the third quarter, asked to save a game Chicago was losing by a score of 14-0.
The team seemed visibly energized and had a chance to drive for the tying score with about six minutes left in the game, until a Hanie pass indented for Matt Forte went straight into the waiting arms of defensive lineman B.J. Raji. The 337-pounder returned the pick 18 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.
At 21-7 and with the third stringer now needing to make up a two-score deficit after his mistake, all seemed lost for the Midway Monsters.
"Raji dropped off the back side as Matt came in," Hanie said. "I never saw him until Raji had the ball."
But Hanie countered with a 35-yard catch-and-run to Earl Bennett for a score, capping off a ridiculously efficient four-play drive. His first career TD pass brought the Bears to within seven points once again, with 4:43 of life still pumping through their veins.
Aaron Rodgers and Co. couldn't put their rivals away, going three-and-out on the next series and giving the ball back to Chicago with 2:53 left. Driving toward the Green Bay end zone, a questionable intentional-grounding call on Hanie put the offense behind the eight ball at first-and-20. Hanie reloaded but was intercepted by Sam Shields at the Green Bay 12, ending the Soldier Field faithful's hopes of a tie and a shot in overtime.
"Just trying to force it in there on fourth-and-5," he said. "I looked at Earl first on the sideline and didn't think I could pump it in there for the first [down]. I'll go back and look at it on tape. Maybe I could have had him. After that, just trying to make a play."
As disappointed as Hanie was in himself for not being able to pull a rabbit out of his hat under impossible circumstances, he felt worse for Cutler not being able to finish what he started.
"I felt so bad," said Hanie. "I felt bad for Jay. After all, he's led the offense all season. I felt bad for the team. We were so close. We were fighting all the way. It was my first real game action since Carolina, and I just couldn't get it done."
And although Hanie was hard on himself, Smith had a more favorable view of Hanie's efforts in the second half.
"Jay went down near the end of the first half," he said, "then Caleb stepped in during the third quarter. They were fighting for the win all of the time after losing Jay. I was really impressed that Caleb was able to keep the offense in the game mentally. We were in the position that we had to see what he was able to do. He filled the role well."
Where Hanie will go from here on the Bears' depth chart remains to be seen. There's a long offseason ahead and quite a bit of game film to watch before anybody is able to come to a valid conclusion. It was clear, at least Sunday in the biggest game of the year, that Collins had no business being out there. His NFL career is likely over. Hanie, on the other hand, looked like he belonged.
If he'd been able to emerge with a victory, the debate would be beside the point – and the Dallas native would be a cult hero in the Windy City for the rest of his life.
But even with the loss, Hanie's desire to eventually become a starter in the NFL could certainly be reality one of these days. If not in Chicago, then maybe with another franchise down the road.
For the time being, however, Hanie is willing to perform whenever his coaches ask.
"I never imagined today would end up as it has," he admitted. "I'd dreamed about this, I'd envisioned it, but it never was like what happened today. I tried my best."
And it was almost the stuff of legends.
Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
Not a Goat, Hanie Almost a Cult Hero
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