Caleb Hanie, you're up. And this time you have a week to prepare.
With Jay Cutler's broken thumb sidelining him likely for the rest of the regular season, Hanie gets the start against the Oakland Raiders Sunday, his first significant action since the NFC title game against the Packers. He was forced into action in that game when Cutler went out with a knee injury early in the third quarter and led the Bears to a pair of scoring drives but also tossed two interceptions.
So what should Bears fan expect of Hanie on Sunday? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:
Fact or Fiction: Caleb Hanie will be more than just a game manager.
Jeff Dickerson: Fact. He has to be. While the Bears will lean on their defense and special teams, Hanie must display the ability to hurt opposing defenses when they stack the box to stop Matt Forte. If the NFC Championship Game last year is any indication, Hanie is capable of guiding the Bears' offense down the field and hitting on the occasional big play. The offense can't just be along for the ride until Cutler comes back. Hanie needs to contribute, while at the same time protect the football. The quickest way for the season to end is for the Bears to starting losing the turnover battle. It's a fine line Hanie has to walk, but handing the ball off 45 times a game is not a realistic option.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. Hanie plays with such moxie that my prediction is he’ll provide somewhat of a spark. He has a strong arm, good athleticism and leadership skills. Expect the Bears to rally around the fourth-year veteran. With Hanie at the controls, you can also expect the offense to move a little more like a Mike Martz system should. Hanie’s arm isn’t as powerful as Cutler’s, but the backup compensates for that by anticipating throws. You’ll see Hanie throwing more balls before the receivers come out of their breaks than Cutler, who has such a strong arm, he could get away with waiting for a receiver to come open before making the throw. Last year’s NFC title game gave us a glimpse of what we can expect from Hanie. Sure, he threw a pair of costly interceptions, but he rallied the Bears to a pair of scoring drives.
Melissa Isaacson Fact. Even if that was the most prudent thing to do, can you picture Martz having the patience to do that for the rest of the season? From what coach Lovie Smith said, the Bears certainly will emphasize the run and hope Forte can find some air with teams stacking the box against them. But he also said they’re not going to change the offense and even playing on the conservative side, expect Hanie to move the ball down the field with passes he is going to be forced to throw.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. He'll have to try, won't he? Martz doesn't run a conventional offense, and defenses will stacking to stop the run. Hanie is going to have to try to make plays. Whether he makes enough will tell the story of how the Bears finish.
Fact or Fiction: The defense will be able to offset the loss of Cutler.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. If core members of the defense stay healthy and aren't forced to be on the field for 40 minutes every game, the defense will continue to do its part. Its part. Not the part of the offense and special teams. It's going to be a group effort to get the Bears into the postseason, so you can't simply rely on the defense. This isn't 2005 or 2006. The current defense is good, but has still seen its share of breakdowns. There are still issues when it comes to defending the tight end and generating consistent pressure on the opposing quarterback, to name a few. There are weeks when the defense can force six turnovers and win a game virtually on its own. But you can't expect it happen every week for the remainder of the season.
Michael C. Wright: Fact. The good thing is the defense probably won’t have to. But if it comes to that, the unit is more than capable of shouldering the load. The reason for that is the defense’s knack for forcing turnovers. The Bears have forced nine turnovers in the past two games alone, and when the team comes out on the positive side of the turnover margin, they’re 11-1 over the past two seasons. Chicago’s defense also knows how to put points on the board. When they do that, the Bears are 3-0 in 2011, and 14-1 since 2005.
Melissa Isaacson: Fact. They are certainly capable and the urgency will be there. They likely will have more trouble against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers on Christmas Day but barring injuries of their own, the Bears’ defense has the personnel capable of at least keeping the Bears in every other game.
Jon Greenberg: Fact. If the Bears, under Hanie, can't sustain long drives, the defense is going to feel the effects. But given the quality of quarterback the Bears will be facing, the defense and special teams could put Hanie in some prime scoring situations.
Fact or Fiction: As long as Johnny Knox and Roy Williams play like they did Sunday, Devin Hester should be used exclusively as a return specialist.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Hester doesn't need to be exclusively used on special teams, but his role on offense should continue to be limited. But Hester is so gifted in the open field, there must be a way Martz can use him in the passing game. Throw the ball deep to Hester three times a game. How about that? Don't get me wrong, Hester's primary focus should always be on the return game, but he does have 13 career touchdowns on offense. Bennett, Knox and Williams (every now and then) afford the Bears the opportunity to be selective with Hester, not eliminate him entirely at wide receiver.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. No doubt the performances of Knox and Williams make you say, “Devin who?” But at the same time, you can’t deny that Hester’s presence alone changes the way defenses play the Bears. Even if used as a decoy, Hester opens up things for other players because defensive coordinators will always respect his speed, and make sure there’s someone accounting for the receiver deep. Besides that, counting the $1.5 million roster bonus Hester received just before the season, he’ll earn more than $3 million in 2011. That’s not the type of money a team pays a return specialist, which makes it doubtful the Bears ever truly make him exclusively a return man.
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. That sounds good, but the old argument isn’t getting any better. Hester can score whenever he’s on the field, so why remove him for most of the game, especially if teams punt away from him as they logically should? With Cutler out, it is going to be tougher to keep everyone involved, which is a shame because the receiving corps seemed to finally be finding a groove. But that’s all the more reason to keep them all eligible and allow Hanie to find his own favorites.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Hester makes people nervous. If healthy, he should see a handful of passes a game. Hester isn't a No. 1 receiver, but he is a playmaker. Why shouldn't he see some action?
Fact or Fiction: The Bears should keep trying trick plays like fake punts.
Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I love trick plays on special teams, but without Cutler for an extended period of time, the Bears can't risk giving a team good field position if the misdirection fails to work. Tuck the trick plays away for a rainy day in 2012. What the unit needs to concentrate on is punt/kickoff coverage, the return game, and making sure the organization properly replaces veteran long snapper Patrick Mannelly. Every play is critical from here on out, so the Bears can't endure any poor snaps. Mannelly going on injured reserve due to a torn ACL is terrible. Replacing him with someone who isn't prepared to handle the assignment would be criminal. The Bears must get it right at long snapper.
Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Bears special teams coordinator Dave Toub has devised some of the most innovative things I’ve ever seen in the third phase. But man, stop showing this stuff right now; wait until the team actually needs it. Whether it’s the fake punt against the San Diego Chargers or that incredibly tricky punt return on Sept. 25 against the Green Bay Packers, the Bears have put a couple of things on tape for opponents to prepare for over the past six games of the season. You just hope Toub has a few tricks left up his sleeve over the latter part of the regular season and the playoffs. On offense, all I can say about the reverses and running back passes is, “Stop it. Just stop it.”
Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Considering the way it turned out Sunday when they tried it, with Adam Podlesh overthrowing Craig Steltz from the Chargers’ 45-yard line and the Bears leading by 11 with two minutes to go, um, no. Only Corey Graham’s interception made it less dumb. But based on the questionable judgment involved in making that call, there’s no telling how and when it might occur the next time.
Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Stick to the basics. If there's a hole in some team's coverage scheme, sure, take advantage. But no more Wildcat, for all our sakes.