Commentary

The future is at Hanie's fingertips

With everything to prove, Bears' backup signal-caller embracing his opportunity

Updated: November 23, 2011, 10:22 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- With a winsome smile and an easygoing mien, the Chicago Bears quarterback met the media on Wednesday.

No, Jay Cutler wasn't in a good mood because "Dancing with the Stars" is finished. Caleb Hanie made his starting quarterback news conference debut Wednesday, eschewing his role as Cutler's caddy.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler, Caleb Hanie
Andrew Weber/US PresswireCaleb Hanie has spent two years backing up Jay Cutler. He'll take the reins to the Bears' offense on Sunday.

Instead of the usual battle for answers, the Hanie debriefing was more of an amiable firing squad, as a packed house at Halas Hall took aim at the Bears' new starting quarterback.

Hanie almost made a bad first impression by being 10 minutes late. Was he busy getting some sage advice from Jay Cutler?

"He pretty much gave me media advice, how to charm the media," Hanie said to laughter.

If he can improv like that on the field, Hanie should be fine this Sunday against Oakland, one of the toughest tests left on the Bears' soft closing schedule.

With Cutler in Colorado getting thumb surgery and Kyle Orton failing at his grand scheme to go from Denver to Chicago, Hanie, a former Colorado State quarterback, just wants to make sure when he goes back to Colorado to face the Broncos that he's still the starter of a playoff-bound team.

The 26-year-old Hanie, an unrestricted free agent this coming offseason, is at a career crossroads. He's the guy with everything to prove and millions of dollars riding on how he does as Cutler's Air Apparent the next six weeks.

Who wouldn't want to be Hanie right now? The future is literally at his fingertips. Ask anyone with gray hair, possibility in your 20s is a wonderful thing.

"It's a great opportunity, but I'm not too worried about down the road," Hanie said. "I'm trying to focus on what the Oakland Raiders do. They've got a lot of athletic talent on the other side of the ball. I just got to worry about this week. But it is a great opportunity."

What's that old saying about luck? It's when opportunity meets preparation. Hanie's preparation has been mostly mental as he watches Cutler do his Cutler thing.

Like most backups, Hanie gets no reps with the first team in practice and he's thrown 14 regular-season passes in his career.

His last two Colorado State teams, in 2006-07, were 7-17. His greatest accomplishment to date with filling in for Cutler, and replacing Todd Collins, in last year's NFC Championship Game. Before that game, he was as anonymous a backup as Richard Bartel.

Playing a quarter and change against Green Bay, Hanie went 13-for-20 for 153 yards, throwing one touchdown and two interceptions, the last one sealing the Packers' 21-14 win. Given the circumstances, it was a pretty good performance.

"He did a helluva job," linebacker Lance Briggs said after that game. "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, a nice guy by every metric, has locker-room cred, for sure. But his past goes out the window this Sunday, and he's hoping to erase any perception he's a "game manager." Basically, he doesn't want to be labeled Kyle Orton Lite. He has mobility and experience in the Mike Martz system, so you'd think Hanie has a chance to make some starting quarterback plays.

"I definitely don't want to be known as a game manager around the league," he said. "Because I feel that like just submits you to backup role or fill-in role the rest of your career. I'm going to try and make plays. I'm not going to play scared. I'm not going to play ultra, ultra-conservative. But I'm not going to play dumb."

With no offseason mini-camps to keep the momentum rolling, Hanie had a rough preseason, and has been Martz's whipping boy for the past two seasons. He said he's grown from the experience. Of course, what else is he going to say?

"You have ups and downs, just like any good marriage," Hanie said. "You have some bumps in the road. But Mike has been great this season. I think riding me hard, first off last season and whatever, it's been nothing but helpful. Sometimes you're reluctant to take that criticism and stuff like that. Looking back on it, it's always a good thing."

Martz praised Hanie to reporters Wednesday, noting he only pushed the young quarterback because he saw his potential. He's the Mr. Miyagi of offensive coordinators, apparently.

[+] EnlargeCaleb Hanie
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireHanie's only meaningful NFL action came in last season's NFC Championship Game when he performed admirably under tough circumstances.

"In my mind he's a starter in this league, he's just waiting for his opportunity," Martz said.

Martz said Hanie needs to work on being more decisive and getting the ball out quicker. The usual stuff, you know.

"He can run our offense, yeah," Martz said. "The only thing with Caleb that you have to watch with a guy who hasn't played much is you just have to be careful about how many things you want to do each week. We have a few things in, but we'll be very careful of that. But he's fully aware, and can execute the things we've been doing. We're pleased; real good day of practice today. He's been preparing himself for this for a long time, so we think he's more than ready for this."

While Lovie Smith and Martz express nothing but confidence in Hanie, their actions, as Briggs would say, speak volumes.

Besides Martz's regular harangues, the Bears have selected quarterbacks late in the past two drafts. Last year they brought in Todd Collins when Hanie got injured in the preseason. Third-stringer Nate Enderle offers no threat. I'm not sure new Bear Josh McCown does either. So the Bears are essentially stuck with Hanie.

"I talked to Lovie this morning and he said whatever veteran quarterback we bring in, you don't need to worry about it, you're our guy," Hanie said.

When Orton was still a possibility, Hanie said it didn't matter.

"It won't affect my confidence at all," he said. "I know where I am in this offense. I know what I'm doing in this offense. I've been waiting for this opportunity."

Could Hanie be bad enough that new Bear Josh McCown could get a look? Let's hope not.

Could Hanie be bad enough that the Bears miss the playoffs? Of course. No one will put this season on his shoulders, but let's not pretend he has a lot of pressure to succeed.

Nothing is certain, except that quarterbacks coach Shane Day will continue to get his public tongue-lashings.

"Of course," Hanie said. "I always love yelling at Shane."

Hanie and Cutler are different in pretty much every way, from personality to ability, except they can both make plays with their feet.

"Our offense built around being mobile in the pocket, making accurate throws and getting the ball out quick, while at the same time protecting the football," he said. "I think that plays to my strengths."

Roy Williams said Hanie's passes are softer, more catchable, perhaps, than Cutler's bullet throws. Few people can throw harder than Cutler.

Williams added that it'll be interesting to see how mental reps translate into performance.

When the news of Cutler's injury hit Sunday night, the mood soured dramatically in a town that lusts for the Bears. But with a strong running game, and an advantageous defense, Hanie could be the guy to carry Chicago to the finish line. He doesn't have to be a game manager, but he doesn't have to be The Guy either.

"We don't need him to be a rah-rah guy, we don't need speeches," Williams said. "We just need him go out there and hand the ball off and throw it. That's all we need."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.