Reports of Bears' demise exaggerated
Jay Cutler's injury notwithstanding, Chicago can make playoffs with Caleb Hanie
LAKE FOREST -- Contrary to Twitter reports, the flag in front of Halas Hall was not at half-mast Monday morning. The Bears' season is not dead, though it felt like that Sunday night after news trickled out that Jay Cutler had fractured the thumb on his throwing hand, requiring surgery and very possibly sidelining him for at least the remainder of the regular season.
Calls were immediately placed to Kurt Warner and Marc Bulger (by reporters, not the Bears). Orthopedic surgeons were consulted. And at least one major newspaper in town went to work creating elaborate graphics of the human thumb with multi-colored comparisons to other famous broken thumbs in football (see: Ben Roethlisberger and Matthew Stafford).
But after a decent night's sleep, things looked slightly more hopeful on Monday morning.
"Don't feel sorry for us or anything like that," said Bears coach Lovie Smith.
Actually, Smith instructing us to soldier on and to let them do the same had little or nothing to do with raising hopes. The Bears are only slightly more forthcoming with injuries than the NHL, where you only get large regions of the anatomy identified. But if we are to believe the Bears coach, the news was certainly better Monday than it could have been.
Smith said Cutler would have surgery as soon as possible and then later dropped the little nugget that "the plan is to get him back later in the year."
Later in 2011 would amount to just under six weeks, which would be terrific. It also would be -- unless the surgery is to stitch on a band-aid -- a tad optimistic.
No, the better news is that the 7-3 Bears, presently carrying a five-game winning streak, can still make the playoffs with Caleb Hanie.
Though Mike Martz actually preferred Todd Collins to Hanie for a good part of last season -- not something Hanie wants to put on his resume -- Hanie was able to step over Collins' prone body eventually last season and show enough moxie in the NFC Championship game to convince anyone that he can drive a team downfield.
Now all the Bears have to do is run the ball better than they have the last two weeks, play more consistently on defense than they have all year and hope more teams are as dumb as the Lions and Chargers and Panthers when it comes to punting to Devin Hester.
Urlacher was refreshingly candid in his reaction to Cutler's injury -- "devastating," "horrible" and "stinks" were just three of the descriptions he used. And he was just as realistic when it came to discussing what must happen now.
"Our mindset right now is we're going to have to carry this team," he said of the team's defense. "Not to take anything away from our offense right now, but our mindset is we have to play better and get more takeaways and put them in better field position to be able to be successful. We can do that. We've done it in the past. We've just got to do it again. No more mistakes from us.
"We didn't play well [Sunday]. We can't have those mistakes this late in the season. So we've got to play better, and hopefully our offense can pick it up when it has to."
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Potentially, they are better equipped on offense to absorb the blow this season. And though the defense was more dominant overall last season and not so vulnerable to the occasional gashing in the run game, this group has accounted for four touchdowns and is capable of carrying the Bears to three and possibly four wins in their remaining six games. That should be good enough to get them a wild card with tiebreakers over Atlanta, Tampa Bay and, if necessary, Philadelphia.
"In my mind," Urlacher agreed, "we're still a defensive team and [on] special teams, we can score at any time, which is a good thing. We run the ball this year better than we have in years past, so that helps our whole situation when you can do that and turn to a guy like Matt [Forte] and your offensive line and say, 'Hey, we need to run the football. Run the football.' "
Yes, RUN the football. Run like the wind, though it will not get any easier with teams likely to stack the box and then some.
Is Hanie as talented as Cutler? No, though we do not know how much better he can get. What we do know is that Cutler has improved significantly this year not so much because he has taken over and won games for the Bears but because he has cut down on mistakes, particularly in the red zone.
When he confidently spoke of his sharply thrown touchdown pass between two defenders to Kellen Davis on Sunday, Cutler said of his thinking: "It's a window [and] I know I'm going to fit it in there. I've never questioned it and I never will."
But he has improved his judgment on what that window size is for him, and no longer tries to squeeze passes into a space a football should not go.
Hanie will obviously have to know his limitations as well, and presumably Martz already does.
Kyle Orton's name was brought up Monday as an example of a Bears backup quarterback who replaced the injured starter and didn't kill the season. The rookie fourth-round draft pick came in at the start of the 2005 season after it became painfully apparent that Chad Hutchinson was inadequate as a replacement for Rex Grossman in the preseason, and while it was not particularly pretty to watch, Orton ended up leading the Bears to 10 wins under his leadership -- a team rookie record -- along with five losses.
The Bears asked Orton to do what they will now hopefully ask Hanie to do. That is, hand off mostly, complete makeable short- to medium-range passes and let the defense and special teams do the rest.
Smith said the team is looking for a veteran backup, not even mentioning the possibility that he could bring in a veteran starter, admitting, "There's not that many floating around." It can't be long before Brett Favre calls. But seriously, that's the point. There is no capable veteran starter sitting around and waiting to take a team to the Super Bowl.
While the anticipation for Hanie is understandably underwhelming, this doesn't have to be a disaster.
"He's got some ability," Urlacher said of Hanie, still being refreshingly honest. "He runs really well. He's going to be able to move around the pocket a little bit, maybe do some different things with that. A little [Tim] Tebow offense, maybe. Who knows? But he'll have a chance to show us what he can do. These games all matter for us, so they're big situations, just like the NFC Championship was for him last year."
Smith said neither the offense nor the team goals will change for the Bears' new quarterback. He can only hope the results won't, either.
"I would say Caleb is pretty excited about the opportunity," Smith said. "When you're the backup, you want to get a chance. Not under these circumstances, but you want to get an opportunity to prove [what] you can do. He realizes what's at stake. We have a good football team, and he's going to do his job to keep it moving."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com and ESPN 1000.