Commentary

Hanie learns reckless won't cut it

Bears threw him into fire, and real question will be how young quarterback responds

Updated: November 28, 2011, 10:00 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- It is said "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics."

For our purposes, that quote should be amended to "lies, damned lies and Brian Urlacher's reactions to bad quarterbacking."

After Caleb Hanie's three-interception performance in Sunday's 25-20 loss, Urlacher said Hanie "did a good job."

[+] EnlargeCaleb Hanie
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty ImagesCaleb Hanie rushed for 50 yards in his starting debut against the Raiders on Sunday.

"He kept us in the game," Urlacher told reporters. "If we play better defense, we win the game. We were in the game late but just did not make enough plays on defense."

No one will ever accuse Urlacher of being a bad teammate. Of all the quarterbacks Urlacher has had to cover for, Hanie certainly isn't the worst. After one start, he's definitely worthy of 54's Cover-You defense.

And I'll give Urlacher credit for a small dose of self-criticism because his standards are so high. The Bears caused "only" one turnover and allowed Carson Palmer to throw for 301 yards. But they held the Raiders to 20 percent conversion on third downs and allowed one touchdown in five trips to the red zone.

That's a pretty good showing, if you ask me. Another Bears veteran feels the same.

"Like I said for the most part, they gave us their best shot, and we were able to hold them to field goals, long field goals," Charles Tillman said Monday. "I was impressed with how we played."

You can't rely on the Bears to rip footballs from opponents' grasps every week. So the Bears' offense has to come through in a more reliable fashion. Where have we heard this before?

Hanie might look like Nick Lachey, but he's filling Michael J. Fox's role as Marty McFly, as the Bears go back to the future. You don't need a flux capacitor to remember how this works.

Watching from afar, the most important thing I took from the Bears' expected but still disappointing loss to Oakland was that the quarterback needs a little work. And by a little work, he needs to condense about four seasons of quarterbacking into the next five games.

Yes, it's always about the quarterback.

Being the eternal optimist that I am, I guess I thought Hanie could catch fire in Oakland. I meant that metaphorically, unless he roamed too close to the stands, which then I meant it literally.

Instead he went down in flames in the first half, tossing three interceptions. He also threw two touchdown passes and a beautiful deep ball to Johnny Knox (his favorite target), but he ended the game on a botched spike.

Lovie When you're playing a player for the first time, there has to be a first part for him to get through, for him to see, 'I can do this.' He had a lot of confidence coming in, but you need to get in the game to really see that. I think he was able to do that.

-- Lovie Smith on Caleb Hanie

The interceptions resulted only in a pair of field goals, but one turned out to be the turning point in the game, and that first-half tape will be valuable scouting material for the rest of the teams on the schedule. Simply put, Hanie didn't look good.

Still, Hanie could very well lead the Bears to the playoffs in the next month as Jay Cutler's thumb heals. But with the evidence we have now, that's definitely not a certainty. All but one game on the remaining schedule can be classified as "easily winnable," but like Hanie's promise, it's all conjecture until we see it actually happen.

An optimist could say that with Hanie's rocky start, the Bears were a touchdown from a win. Or you could say the defense played shutdown ball when it counted, keeping the Raiders out of the end zone, with the exception of one short-yardage run preceded by a 47-yard pass.

I wrote glowingly of Hanie last week, so I'm as guilty as anyone for putting the bandwagon cart before the quarterback, but let's remember that Hanie's starting experience is two years at Colorado State, playing for bad teams with basic offenses.

He's mostly been confined to backward-cap duty during his Bears tenure. It was too much to expect him to play like a veteran, especially when his coaches essentially threw him into the fire.

But just as we weren't afraid to give him the benefit of the doubt based on one half of an NFC championship game, we can't be afraid to pin the blame on Hanie when things go south. This is his chance, for better or worse. He's confident in his quarterbacking ability, but he understands he'll get the scrutiny for his mistakes.

"That's fine; you can't worry about that stuff," Hanie told reporters Sunday. "There have been a lot of quarterbacks who have thrown picks in games. A lot of guys on 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."

While Hanie played like you should have expected, Mike Martz called the game like you should have figured he'd call it. Martz's reputation as an iconoclast remains intact, and the Bears' reputation for being a wildly uneven offensive team is still present and accounted for. That throwback screen that got picked off on second-and-1 at the Raiders' 7-yard line was inexcusable, although Smith won't admit it.

"Of course you're going to get criticized when something didn't work," Smith said. "Next time it will."

The Bears gained 172 yards on the ground against the Raiders but ran the ball only 27 times, and that includes five Hanie scrambles for 50 yards. That's an average of almost 6.4 yards per rush.

Matt Forte gained 59 yards on 12 carries, weighted heavily by a 33-yard run. Marion Barber gained 63 on 10 carries. In three of the Bears' four losses, Forte has carried the ball nine, 10 and 12 times. His low in the other eight games is 16 carries.

Hanie threw the ball 36 times, including 15 in the first half. In the first half, he also ran the ball three times and was sacked twice. With Martz calling the plays, why did we ever think the Bears would lean on the run in this game?

A reporter asked Smith on Monday whether he thought the Bears should have called more running plays, especially in the first half. Of course they should have. But Smith has a Dick Cheney-like tolerance for second-guessing, so the answer was, "Of course not!"

"No," Smith said. "In hindsight, you mean? I think our game plan was good enough to win the football game. I think if we eliminate a couple of the turnovers, and we all know there was that swing there at the end of the half. I like our game plan. We didn't make enough plays. We will next week."

I think the Bears, and Martz especially, wanted to test Hanie early, rather than break him in slowly. In their defense, I agree that this game, a road game against an AFC opponent, was the right time to do so. Now Hanie knows he can't be as reckless when he has no clear play.

"When you're playing a player for the first time, there has to be a first part for him to get through, for him to see, 'I can do this,'" Smith said. "He had a lot of confidence coming in, but you need to get in the game to really see that. I think he was able to do that."

In the Bears' world, there are lies, damned lies and excuses for quarterbacks. We'll see whether the Bears can prove that saying wrong.

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.

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