When questioning Bears, start with QB

CHICAGO -- "If the Bears win, does Caleb Hanie start in Dallas?"

That's what an ex-teammate of Jay Cutler's texted me after Hanie led the Bears' first scoring drive of the game at the start of the fourth quarter.

Crazy, right? But what does it say about Cutler that an ex-NFL player, one who doesn't like Cutler but respects his talent, could think Hanie, perhaps the most anonymous backup quarterback in the league, is a better option for the Super Bowl than Cutler and his million-dollar arm?

Exactly what you think it does.

Of course Cutler starts in that fictional reality, if healthy, but you can't tell me his performance before leaving the game with a vague knee injury augured any hope for his future, or heck, his present.

It's too bad we won't get two weeks to debate the ridiculous notion of Hanie over Cutler. It would have set records for meatball sports talk show callers.

Hanie, as the world found out, couldn't become the modern-day Frank Reich in the Bears' epic 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game. But he did show he had a little Cutler in him, throwing the game-ending interception.

Cutler, the guy we expect to fail, looked terrible against the Green Bay defense, while the Bears' defense looked great (in the second half, at least). Stop me if you've heard that before.

Every good thing the Bears did this season was overshadowed by this game. Every step Cutler took toward erasing his reputation as a talented, career loser was overshadowed by the sight of him walking freely on the sidelines with that knee injury. Current players ripped him on Twitter, a sign of blatant disrespect rarely seen in the NFL.

Of course, those players didn't hear Olin Kreutz say he saw Cutler's knee shaking after a hit in the second quarter. They don't know that he wanted to come back in, but was benched by the team doctors. But it wouldn't have changed anything. Cutler had a limp, but no knee brace. He was 6-for-14 for 80 yards, with a litany of underthrows and overthrows.

Cutler will get his knee examined and go on vacation.

The Bears had a chance to play in the Super Bowl. Instead, four Bears will play in the Pro Bowl.

All season the skeptics have been waiting for this game. In Chicago, the city motto should be: "In defense we trust. Offense? If we must."

One question we should be asking today: What does it say about the Bears' decision-making process that Hanie was a third-stringer all season behind Todd Collins? Collins entered the game in relief of an injured Cutler in the third quarter and went 0-for-4, though he still had a better quarterback rating than Cutler (39.6 to 31.8).

Because while Hanie isn't a real-life Willie Beamon, or the second coming of Kurt Warner, in no way is he Collins' backup. Not in a little place we like to call reality.

And while Hanie (13-for-20, 153 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) did a pretty fine job in the second half, considering the situation, you have to wonder how much better he could have done if he wasn't stuck impersonating Aaron Rodgers all week. You have to wonder what the result would have been if the Bears didn't go with Collins for the second and third series of the third quarter.

Still, Hanie almost made it happen. If you thought it was improbable that the Bears made it this far, how crazy would it have been had Haniemania actually happened?

"This is the league," cornerback D.J. Moore said. "This is how stars get born."

Hanie won't be the hero Monday, but at least people have heard about him now. The happiest guy in America had to be Hanie's agent, right? Now a lot of GMs know his name after watching him fire out passes that Cutler was overthrowing.

In case you're wondering: How much practice time does a de facto third-stringer like Hanie get with the Bears' offense during practice?

"No reps with the offense," he said. "I got a lot of scout team reps in, a lot of throws in."

Imagine how good he would have been running the Packers' offense!

We saw the Collins Show in Carolina and it was dreadful. Collins, who was signed off his couch at the tail end of training camp, might have been good once, but right now, he's a poor imitation of a NFL quarterback.

So why did he play?

"We thought Todd was the next guy that should be up, ready to go," Bears coach Lovie Smith said.

Listen, I'm not here to hate on Lovie, but when his agent presents an extension demand, that sentence should be the Bears' counteroffer. Collins looked terrible against the Giants, worse against Carolina. What did Hanie do to Mike Martz to get exiled to the scout team?

After Hanie led an eight-play, 67-yard scoring drive on his first action in months, he was trending worldwide on Twitter. After a 35-yard scoring pass to Earl Bennett made it 21-14, he was a folk hero.

But in the end, Hanie's game was like the Bears' regular season. Not enough, a tease, a wink.

Hanie was two throws from being a national celebrity. Unfortunately both were interceptions, an unlikely zone coverage pick by B.J. Raji for a touchdown and a game-ending interception by Sam Shields at the Green Bay 12.

No one in the Bears' locker room criticized Hanie for those picks. How could they?

"He did a helluva job," linebacker Lance Briggs said. "He came in under those circumstances to bring us back to within a touchdown. That says a lot. Your action, your play speaks volumes."

Hanie, who shaved off a '70s-style playoff mustache after the game, reflected on his chance.

"It's crazy how it works," he said. "It just shows right there you've got to be prepared for your moment. It might pass you by, if you don't take advantage of it."

This is the NFL. You can't talk about building toward next season because the playoff teams are seemingly thrown in a martini shaker. The Bears had three straight seasons of mediocre-to-bad results after their Super Bowl run. Who is to say how this offseason will shake out?

Yeah, the Bears have some developing weapons on offense, but still no offensive line, no No. 1 receiver.

On defense, they are still promising, but not blessed with youth. The defense played as well as it could play for an entire season. On Sunday, it was no disappointment. After one bad drive to start the game, the defense shut down the Packers in the second half.

With the real leaders of the team flying to the ball in the fourth quarter, all but negating Rodgers, and Hanie unexpectedly keeping his poise and leading the offense down the field, you could feel the chance for a miracle finish. After everything that happened to the Bears this season, every break, every upset, it almost felt ordained a guy like Hanie would lead them.

After all, the Bears are built on overcoming the disrespect of others. Hanie was seemingly disrespected by his own coaches.

But it wasn't meant to be. Neither were the Bears in the Super Bowl.

"We wanted to win a championship and bring another ring to the city," Briggs said. "Our job's not done. Hats off to Green Bay. They'll represent the NFC very well. Next year the Chicago Bears will have their day."

You want to believe his words. You really do.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.