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Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Four Downs: Angelo's biggest blunder?

By ESPNChicago.com

Caleb Hanie/Josh McCowan/Nathan Enderle
The QB backup plan of Caleb Hanie, Josh McCown and Nathan Enderle doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
The Bears enter their fourth game with Caleb Hanie as their starting quarterback still looking for their first win under the backup quarterback. If Hanie and the Bears can't deliver a victory on Sunday against Seattle, their playoff hopes are all but dead.

Would the Bears' situation be different if general manager Jerry Angelo had acquired a veteran backup quarterback either before the season or when Cutler went down on Nov. 20? Our Four Downs panel weighs in on that and more:

First Down

Fact or Fiction: Jerry Angelo’s biggest mistake was not having a proven backup quarterback this season.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Caleb Hanie's performance in the NFC Championship Game last year earned him the right to serve as the Bears No. 2 quarterback heading into 2011. While Hanie deserves some blame for the Bears' three-game losing streak, he is not the sole reason for the club's decline since Cutler broke his right thumb against San Diego. The Bears' quarterback mistake came when the team failed to sign Donovan McNabb after he was released by the Minnesota Vikings. McNabb would have provided a quality option after Hanie on the Bears' depth chart, an option that does not exist on the 53-man roster.
Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie
Caleb Hanie, left, is 0-3 in place of Jay Cutler this season.

Michael C. Wright: Fact. Sure the Bears drafted Nathan Enderle, but the team needed to acquire someone experienced to compete with Hanie for that No. 2 job. Competition likely would have even made Hanie a better player. Perhaps the lockout affected Angelo’s decision-making process somewhat. Maybe he figured that bringing in someone new with no offseason, no organized team activities or minicamp would be worse than not acquiring someone at all. But the team should have learned from last season’s NFC title game that Cutler isn’t invincible, despite his reputation for toughness and durability. So it wouldn’t have been a bad idea to make a move for a quarterback. Surely the team couldn’t have been convinced that Hanie was a legitimate No. 2 based solely on practice and his limited action in the playoffs last year. But I do understand the team’s thinking on this. More and more around the league, teams are carrying just two quarterbacks on the roster. The Bears started the season with three, and I’m pretty sure they didn’t want to do that.

Melissa Isaacson Fiction. This has been a weakness of the Bears GM since he has been here. But unfortunately, he has made bigger mistakes than that this season like failing to strengthen the wide receiving corps. Roy Williams wasn’t much of an investment, but it still hasn’t exactly paid off like Angelo thought it would. The offensive line is actually over-achieving. Linebacker is thin. Marion Barber had been OK, but if the final analysis says that he cost the Bears a shot at the playoffs, that isn’t OK.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Look around the league. Every so often, there is a T.J. Yates, or a Matt Cassel-type or even Kurt Warner, but there’s also no shortage of awful quarterbacks. It’s mystifying why, in a country that treats football as the official religion, there aren’t enough quarterbacks for the highest level of football. I blame it on the complicated offenses that teams run, and in this case, Mike Martz’s system. Warner was a once-in-a-lifetime type backup. Hanie is more of the reality. Angelo’s biggest mistakes were not paying for better receivers and linemen.


Second Down

Fact or Fiction: The Bears should bench Caleb Hanie.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. With Cutler on the shelf, Hanie remains the best healthy quarterback in the building. Despite all the poor passing numbers, the Bears have been in position to win every game with Hanie under center. Of course, the Bears need better play from the quarterback position, but it's not coming from Josh McCown or Enderle. This is where the Bears need a veteran such as McNabb on the bench in the event Hanie starts to turn the ball over against Seattle. That could work and be a way for the Bears to stay afloat until Cutler is ready to return. But given how the roster stands, the Bears need to stick with Hanie and hope for the best.
Josh McCown
Josh McCown hasn't played in an NFL game since 2009.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. What other options are there other than a rookie (Enderle), and a guy that hasn’t played in the NFL since 2009 (McCown)? If the Bears decide to bench Hanie, it’s my opinion that it would come off as an admission the season is over. Well, there are still three games left to play, and the Bears aren’t out of contention. So the Bears shouldn’t rock the boat now because, believe it or not, Hanie played better against the Broncos than he did in his first two starts. Now, if the Bears end up losing Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, in my opinion, all bets are off. You might as well see what you’ve got in Enderle.

Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. What, and start McCown -- who obviously hasn’t been good enough to this point to convince coaches he has to be in the lineup -- from scratch, where he is bound to similarly struggle for the first few games? The problems with Hanie are no different than with most quarterbacks making their first NFL starts but obviously, there is no room for growing pains. Unless there is a clearly better alternative, however, I say stick with him and hope he -- and Martz -- can pull themselves together while also hoping the defense can continue to put the team in position to win.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. For whom? Hanie is the ugly reality of this season, as we’ve seen how valuable Cutler really is. McCown isn’t going to run the table. Hanie is doing the best he can. Unfortunately, we’re seeing the results of that effort. Reality, in this case, bites.


Third Down

Fact or Fiction: Kahlil Bell should get the majority of carries over Marion Barber.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. Bell needs more carries, but not the majority of the attempts. Barber ran for 108 yards and a touchdown in the loss to the Broncos, so to remove him from the game plan this week might be a rash decision. Three brutal mistakes in the span of two weeks should result in Barber losing playing time, but Bell has never been a featured back in the NFL. Can he handle 20-25 carries in a game? Will he be productive? If the Bears were totally out of it, I'd bench Barber, but the playoffs remain technically within reach. Barber can still be the No. 1 running back with Bell taking on an increased role.
Barber
Marion Barber's two mistakes might have cost the Bears the game in Denver, but he rushed for 108 yards and a touchdown.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. Barber’s miscues (three big ones over the last two games) are inexcusable for a seven-year veteran. But the team has to go with Barber’s experience in the heat of battle. Besides that, I’m not sure Bell is built for 20-plus carries. Barber pounded the Broncos for 108 yards on 27 attempts, and his style wears down opponents. But I’d like to see Barber’s attempts come down some and have Bell’s increase. Bell gives you that elusive, home run element that Barber doesn’t demonstrate consistently. So while Bell -- who actually speaks with the media, win or lose -- deserves more carries, I don’t think he should get more than Barber. I understand Barber has played a role in costing the Bears two games in a row. But he’s also part of the reason the team was in striking distance in those games.

Melissa Isaacson: Fiction. Why? Because of Barber’s boneheaded moves from last week? If you don’t trust him anymore, you cut him, you don’t reduce his carries. And while Barber never was a featured back, he can still gain 100 yards as he has proven. Giving Bell more carries wouldn’t be a bad idea, if only to keep defenses off balance. And if Bell continues to earn it, give him more carries.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. Barber was running hard all game until his late meltdown cost the Bears the win. Even after that game, and skipping out on his duties with the media, Barber can be very effective, and he and Bell should be sharing the carries. Bell should be getting around 10 a game, though, if not more. Let’s see what he can do.


Fourth Down

Fact or Fiction: Jay Cutler made Earl Bennett.


Jeff Dickerson: Fiction. I have no idea what's happened to Bennett the past three weeks, but he can still play regardless of who's lining up at quarterback every week. Sure, Bennett is Cutler's preferred target, especially on third down, but it's not as if Bennett depends on Cutler to be an NFL receiver. Cutler and Bennett spent just one season together at Vanderbilt before the quarterback was selected in the first round of the 2006 draft, which means Bennett had two highly productive years in college after Cutler left school. It's difficult on the receivers when a team is forced to turn to its No. 2 quarterback. Just look at Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis. He caught at least 100 balls from Peyton Manning in three of the past four years. This year he's made 56 receptions through 13 games. That's simply life in the NFL.
Earl Bennett
Earl Bennett has caught two passes for 10 yards in three games without Jay Cutler.

Michael C. Wright: Fiction. But it sure looks that way, doesn’t it? Bennett caught 14 passes for 251 yards in the last three games that Cutler played. In the three games Cutler has been out of the lineup, Bennett has caught just two passes for 10 yards. A big part of Bennett’s lack of production is the fact teams are now gearing up to shut him down. Because of his unbelievable chemistry with Cutler, Bennett has been an integral part of the offense, despite being a supposed lesser talent. But make no mistake, Bennett is a self-made guy. If you look at a lot of the receptions he’s had over the past two years, many of them have been short-to-intermediate passes that Bennett turned into big gains. So in a way, I think both Cutler and Bennett make one another. It’s just a shame that Hanie doesn’t look Bennett’s direction more often.

Melissa Isaacson: Fact. Not a bad theory. While Bennett is certainly a pro’s pro, Cutler has brought out the best in him, often finding Bennett on second and third options because he simply did not trust his other receivers. Because the two developed a rapport at Vanderbilt, they had a headstart and Cutler made it possible for Bennett to become the go-to receiver he has become. Would he have achieved that under any other quarterback, or been rewarded with a four-year, $18 million contract (as he was earlier this month)? Not likely.

Jon Greenberg: Fiction. It’s not Bennett’s fault that Hanie isn’t very good. He’s not even getting looks, because Hanie can’t handle the pace of an NFL game. Earl is probably getting overpaid in his new deal, but he could be a solid option on any team. He just can’t get the ball.