Commentary

Hanie learns lessons the hard way

In spite of rough debut, Caleb Hanie deserves another shot under center

Updated: November 27, 2011, 11:48 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

OAKLAND -- Caleb Hanie probably put it best Sunday when he said "It's just not a good time to have a learning experience," after throwing three first-half interceptions in the Chicago Bears' 25-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

And no, it was certainly not the kind of day he envisioned or his coaches planned for or his mother dreamed of. There's just no way to gloss over three picks that lead to two field goals when your team loses by five points.

[+] EnlargeHanie/Cutler
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesJay Cutler's counsel wasn't enough to prevent Caleb Hanie from making a few crucial mistakes in Sunday's loss.

But as the predictable hue and cry goes up for Josh McCown, a guy who was playing for the Hartford Colonials last year and was cut by the San Francisco 49ers in early September, here is one call to give Hanie at least another week or two before we decide he stinks and that the Bears have absolutely no chance to make the playoffs with him under center.

Do the Bears win their sixth game in a row against a depleted Raiders team (they were without their best running back and two wide receivers) with Jay Cutler at quarterback? Most likely, yes. They also could have won with Hanie, and I like their chances to win at least two games over the next three weeks against the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks at home. Sandwiched in the middle are the Denver Broncos with a quarterback who's a lot worse than Hanie and improved his record as a starter to 5-1 on Sunday, because he does what he has to do.

Hanie knows this, which is at least a part of the battle.

"Hopefully, [I'll be] a lot better [next week]," Hanie said. "The guys played great up front; Matt [Forte] and Marion [Barber] ran the ball really well [combining for 122 yards on 22 carries] and they fought really hard.

"I feel a little more comfortable now. It's bad we had to lose because of some turnovers. I'm sure the defensive guys will say, 'We should've stopped them,' but if we don't have the turnovers, we're in great position right there. Hopefully next week it will clean up and I'm sure it will."

Let us first let Hanie off the hook for the things he did not do wrong: He did not commit any of the Bears' four penalties in the first eight minutes of the game and was only responsible for one [on a delay of game in the second quarter] of the seven flags on the day for 61 yards.

And he did not call a pass play on a second-and-1 at the Oakland 7-yard line late in the first half after Johnny Knox had given the Bears their best starting field position of the day with a 56-yard kick return.

That would be the doing of Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz, who despite the very questionable judgment there, actually had a good chance of the play succeeding if not for an outstanding play by linebacker Aaron Curry, who closed quickly on Kellen Davis and tipped Hanie's pass, and linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who intercepted it and returned the ball 73 yards.

It was a devastating momentum changer for the Bears, who fell behind 12-7 on Sebastian Janikowski's fourth field goal with five seconds left in the half. It was also disheartening because in many ways the Bears had outplayed their opponents to that point with 178 total yards to 128 for the Raiders, who converted just 1-of-8 first half third-down chances.

No doubt Hanie looked and played at times like the inexperienced quarterback he is. His first two interceptions were just bad -- one as he scrambled under pressure and threw off-balance toward Forte, and the second on the next series as he overthrew Forte in the flat.

"I was a little antsy early on, a little bit too amped I feel like," said Hanie, who sailed a number of passes high and incomplete.

There were other similarly raw moments for the former undrafted free agent.

On the play right before that second pick, Hanie unnecessarily stepped out of bounds and took an 8-yard loss on a sack when he could have thrown the ball away. He also took an intentional grounding penalty on the Bears' last-gasp play of the game by incorrectly spiking the ball.

In Hanie's defense, his receivers did not do a great job of getting open early on. But aside from that and aside from the one pass that Knox should have been able to stand up straight and catch in the second quarter, he and Hanie demonstrated a chemistry that while not yet at the level of Cutler-Earl Bennett, showed plenty of potential.

This was no accident for Knox, who in addition to his long return, had four catches for 145 yards, a 29-yard touchdown pass and 81-yard completion on a bomb with less than four minutes in regulation that led to a 9-yard touchdown pass to Davis to give the Bears a chance late.

Knox, you may recall, was the one running routes with Hanie in training camp while Roy Williams was still practicing with the first string.

"I thought [Hanie] did a great job," Knox said. "We had some bad plays but he stayed poised. He made a lot of plays for us and this is only the beginning."

Hanie, who finished with 254 yards on 18-of-36 passing (and threw for 175 yards in the fourth) for a 56.9 QB rating, also showed his athletic ability with five runs for 50 yards, including a long of 24.

"It's tough coming in your first game," Bears coach Lovie Smith said of Hanie's first NFL regular-season start. "Just think about starting the season: You have some mistakes you won't have later in the year. But we have a small [learning] curve and we have to get it down as soon as we possibly can. But I saw enough for us to build off of today. And next week you'll see better play from the quarterback position."

It would be easy to write off Smith's comments as typical coachspeak. But in the end, the Raiders crushed the Bears in the game of field position and their kickers set franchise records.

The Bears' offensive line provided enough protection and the defense was stout enough to win some games behind Hanie, providing he cuts down on mistakes. So as much as he does not want to be known as a game manager, he is going to have to take one for the team as far as that is concerned. But this was not an all-timer as far as Bears quarterback meltdowns, not even close, as Hanie would have to fall quite a ways to be another Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel or, heaven forbid, Henry Burris.

"The whole second half, really after the first quarter and those couple of interceptions, I felt really comfortable in there, so we can build on all of that," Hanie said. "It's not just that deep ball to Johnny that gives you momentum, it's all the other stuff. We had opportunities to move the ball and that gives you confidence, and the fact that the guys played great up front and we ran the ball well."

As for the inevitable and in some cases well-deserved criticism that is likely to come his way this week, Hanie had the right attitude.

"That's fine, you can't worry about that stuff," he said. "There have been a lot of quarterbacks who have thrown picks in games, a lot of guys in their first start, and you just can't let it happen again. That's the thing. You just have to build on this game and the good things that came up and learn from the mistakes.

"I'm confident we can do that. I'm not worried about the outside stuff because all the guys inside I know have confidence in me and that gives me a great sense of urgency as far as getting better quick."

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.