Don't wave the white flags yet. This thing isn't over.
The loss of Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler to a thumb injury is obviously a substantial blow to the team. Cutler was having arguably the best season of his career and was getting better as the year progressed. He's been smooth in the pocket, avoiding the rush and still delivering down field. He has fit balls into tight windows from tough angles with outstanding accuracy.
During the recent five-game win streak, the Bears have scored 30 points or more in four of those contests. Matt Forte has been very good over that stretch but it's been Cutler's ability to move the ball consistently through the air, to a group of mid-tier receivers, that has fueled the offensive explosion.
And now, he's out.
He'll have surgery soon, as early as possibly tomorrow, but the initial estimates for his return are around six to eight weeks. The Bears (7-3) have six game left on the schedule, so it's possible he could return for the playoffs – assuming the club makes the postseason. Coach Lovie Smith said today he believes Cutler will return before the end of the regular season. Obviously, we'll have to wait and see.
QB Caleb Hanie
Don McPeak/US Presswire
For now, the Bears will go forward with Caleb Hanie as the starting quarterback. Hanie has been with the team since signing as an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State in 2008. In his three-and-a-half years as a backup in Chicago, he's attempted just 14 regular-season passes. He saw time in the second half of last year's NFC Championship game, replacing Cutler after he was lost to a knee injury. Hanie completed 13 of 20 passes for 153 yards and a touchdown. He also threw two costly interceptions, one of which was returned by B.J. Raji for the game-winning touchdown.
It's hard to gauge how effective Hanie can be for Chicago going forward, but that won't stop us from trying.
Hanie is a strong-armed, athletic signal caller. He can make all the necessary throws of an NFL quarterback, from the quick out to the far sideline to the 50-yard fly pattern. He can extend plays with his feet when protection breaks down and is dangerous as a runner. He's shown great leadership, both on the field and in the locker room, and is regarded as a winner. Hanie plays with a lot of fire and emotion, and his teammates have a lot of respect for him.
Inconsistency is his biggest issue. Hanie has a knack of putting together five to six great passes in a row and then throwing an awful interception on the next attempt. He too often tries to be a gunslinger, attempting to thread the needle to receivers in traffic. He also has a tendency to stare down his intended receiver. He can get flustered under pressure and will throw the occasional boneheaded pass. His field vision isn't the greatest either.
Changes on offense
The Bears will obviously need to lean more heavily on Matt Forte going forward. The onus falls on the line to keep the running game viable in the face of opposing defenses looking to shut down Forte. The pass protection also needs to improve, as Hanie will not be able to move the ball in the face of constant pressure, as Cutler has done all season. Expect opposing defenses to stack the box and force Chicago's passing game to beat them. Teams are also going to turn heavily to the blitz in order to rattle Hanie and force him into quick decisions, which means more max protection is likely. Expect Mike Martz to dial up a number of screens to take advantage of some of those blitzes. Martz will also need to scale back on the five- and seven-step drops and find ways to get the ball out of Hanie's hands quickly. In general, the whole offense needs to be scaled back.
What to expect
The offensive line is key here. They have to be able to open running lanes against eight- and nine-man fronts. A sound running game will take pressure of Hanie. Still, from a player with so little experience, expect some growing pains and bad interceptions. Yet from what I've seen of Hanie, I believe he can be effective enough to help this team win three to four games the rest of the way. He's in his second year in Martz's system and feels comfortable with what he'll be asked to do. He becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season, so this is his audition for not only the Bears, but also the rest of the league. My gut tells me he's up to the challenge and Chicago will be a playoff team this year.
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Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.