Next Opponent: Putrid Passing

Chicago's passing game is a mess entering the Christmas night matchup against the Packers. Quarterback Caleb Hanie has been ineffective, and now the Bears don't have a deep threat with Johnny Knox out for the season.

As if the Chicago Bears' vertical passing game wasn't challenged enough by the loss of quarterback Jay Cutler a month ago, it is now without deep threat Johnny Knox for the remainder of the season, and Devin Hester's availability is iffy.

Knox had surgery Monday morning to stabilize a vertebra in his lower back that was injured when he was bent backward in a collision with Seahawks defensive end Anthony Hargrove.

"It was a brutal hit that he took," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "But just looking to the future, it looks bright for him to play and to get back out there (next year), so we're encouraged by that."

That was the extent of the good news emanating from Halas Hall on Monday, while the question of who would start at quarterback was left open for debate.

"Right now, Caleb Hanie is our starting quarterback," Smith said when asked who would lead the Bears on Sunday in Green Bay against the Packers. But he added, "None of those decisions have been made. With any of our positions, we evaluate the video, which we're doing right now, and on Wednesday, you'll have an idea."

It's difficult to imagine the passing offense getting any worse, since it has generated less than 90 net yards in each of the past three games.

Backup Josh McCown says he's ready to run the offense after less than four weeks with team, but having spent the 2006 season with the Lions in offensive coordinator Mike Martz's scheme.

Rookie Nathan Enderle appears to be strictly an emergency option.

"This isn't a tryout period," Smith said when asked if he'd like to see the fifth-round draft pick get a shot. "We're trying to win a football game. So, the guys that give us the best opportunity to do that will be on the field."

After the Bears decide who will play quarterback against the Packers, it will be interesting to see if the lucky winner has anyone to throw it to down the field.

Knox has the highest average per catch (19.6) in the NFL, and he was the Bears' best downfield threat, even though he had just two touchdown catches this season. Hester has been in and out of the lineup for weeks with ankle injuries and illness, and he was even replaced on some punt returns Sunday.

Even when healthy, Hester has had virtually no role in the offense, often playing just a handful of snaps, as he did Sunday. In four of the last six games, he has failed to make a single catch, and in those six games, he has a total of four receptions for 47 yards.

So, who's going to stretch the opposing defenses, which are overplaying the run with extra players in the box?

"Fair question," Smith said. "We've lost some of our firepower out there with Devin, the best returner in the history of the game. He knows how to make you miss, he stretches the field it's on record. Johnny has (also) had that role for us. So we're missing those guys. But, when you're down a few players, you have to adjust what you do and find other ways to move the ball down the field. You just don't have to do it going vertical always, and that's what we have to do.

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