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Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Not dead yet

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

It took forever, or close to it, for the Chicago Bears to develop a passing game that was as modern as the times; how quickly they came to depend upon it … and come to miss it at least temporarily now that Jay Cutler's right thumb is busted and he's out until Christmas or so. Can we agree that the Chicago Bears' passing game has never been more sophisticated than it's been this season, especially in recent weeks?

Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher and the Bears' defense know they'll have to improve and get more takeaways to offset the loss of Jay Cutler.

When I asked whether Cutler was playing as well as any quarterback in the league except Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, Ron Jaworski, a man who spends a good deal of his life studying quarterback play, said, "Well, Tom Brady as well. But yes, considering he started the season with a leaky offensive line, Jay Cutler was making more plays, perhaps, than anybody else. His ability to move around in the pocket, to slide and find plays. … There was only one play in the Lions game in Detroit where he could drop back, plant and fire the football."

Then, as Jaworski pointed out, the offensive line began to come together, as did the receiving corps. And it was a beautiful if very strange thing to see the Bears willing and able to go up and down the field with the likes of the San Diego Chargers. Still, it's impossible for anybody who has watched the Bears for any length of time to believe that the team is utterly dependent on something as historically optional as a quarterback … for four to six weeks, no less.

Don't get me wrong, any real hopes of reaching the Super Bowl this year or any time in the immediate future are indeed dependent on Cutler playing at this new level to which we've suddenly become accustomed, a level that gives the Bears a chance to beat the Packers or Saints or anybody else. Cutler, this season, has shown why the club spent all it did to acquire him from Denver in the first place. But the concern today is a little less grand, a little more this minute … like can the Bears beat the Raiders on Sunday and stay on track to earn one of the two wild-card spots in the playoffs?

And the answer is yes, they can. They're not dead yet. As depressing as the news is, their season isn't over. The franchise whose annual passing leaders threw more interceptions than touchdowns for 13 straight years couldn't possibly be that dependent that quickly on a quarterback.

The defense is too good and can be better.

The special teams, from Devin Hester to Robbie Gould, are the best in the league.

Matt Forte can be deployed more creatively, and Mike Martz has the wherewithal to know exactly how to do it. If this comes down to Caleb Hanie replacing Cutler, the Bears will very quickly turn into a disaster. If Hanie plays well, it has to be a bonus, not a prerequisite.

Jaworski, who played in the days when practice time seemed unlimited, reminded me Monday night that backups have no such luxury now. "It's very difficult," Jaws said, "to get the kind of reps you would like to have with the new practice schedules in the new collective bargaining agreement. Remember, there are only four days of pads in these final six weeks of practice. We're talking about two weeks with no pads. The league has cameras to monitor the time you spend on the practice field."

It's up to Martz, who has had two seasons with Hanie, to adjust his offense to Hanie, just as he did to an evolving offensive line and receivers. This isn't Martz's first go-round prepping backup quarterbacks under pressure. He did it when Kurt Warner had less experience than Hanie, did it when Marc Bulger had to replace Warner. Look, Martz may not be an artiste, but he knows quarterbacks and how to make them capable operators of his offense.

While Martz is figuring that out, the defense will have to simply make up its mind to be 10 percent better than it already has been. Forget the yards allowed. All defenses allow yards these days; it's how the game is set up. The Bears know there will be an even greater premium on forcing turnovers and even scoring off them. Same goes for special teams and giving Hanie short fields (or no fields after returns-for-touchdowns) to work with.

One thing that ought to help Hanie is that the Bears aren't the kind of franchise to run around looking for an A-list celebrity quarterback to come in and start warming up in the 'pen. For that, big credit has to go to GM Jerry Angelo. In fact, this is as good a time as any to apologize to Angelo for jumping the gun with harsh criticism earlier this season, criticism that turned out to be at best premature and at worst, well, misguided and stupid.

Results in the past five weeks suggest heavily that Angelo picked the right players to play the offensive line, that Mike Tice is doing one helluva job getting exactly out of those players what Angelo thought was possible. A really bad start led many of us to jump the gun, as well as Angelo not playing the fame game. I'm talking about "celebrity football." The free-agent game that backfired so many times on the Washington Redskins and that seems to have gotten the best of the 2011 Philadelphia Eagles.

The lesson here is simply: Just because we haven't heard of 'em doesn't mean they can't play. And conversely, just because we have doesn't mean they can play. Cutler, while he is shifty within the pocket and accurate on the run, particularly rollout plays, isn't Aaron Rodgers. That Bears line again allowed no sacks Sunday. This comes up now because although Hanie isn't a sexy backup, he might very well be just the right one. Please, can we dispense right away with any talk of Brett Favre coming in? Can we not assign any meaning to the fact that Cutler and Favre both are represented by agent Bus Cook? The Bears are far too conservative, far too averse to drama and "distractions" to want the circus that comes with Favre, who, when we last saw him, also couldn't play.

Caleb Hanie
Caleb Hanie needs only to bridge the gap until Jay Cutler returns, and having receivers like Earl Bennett will help.

The goal here doesn't need to be a spectacular one; the Bears need Hanie to be a bridge player, to get the Bears from Thanksgiving Sunday to Christmas night (hopefully). And if Angelo's choice of backup QB is as good as his selection of offensive linemen, the Bears could be okay.

One thing working in Hanie's favor is that the receivers have come just as far as the offensive line. I'd make the case that the Bears' passing game has been better the past five weeks than it's ever been. Remember, in the championship season of 1985, Jim McMahon threw 18 touchdown passes and 11 interceptions and amassed just 2,400 yards. The Bears' passing game then wasn't nearly as thorough or as diverse or sophisticated as it's been in recent weeks.

Johnny Knox and Hester are certainly burners who can get open deep. (Isn't it crazy that Knox falling down could cost the Bears so much?) A healthy Earl Bennett can get open, seemingly, wherever Cutler needs him to be, especially on intermediate routes. The screen game, featuring Forte, can be killer-dangerous. Even Roy Williams, who seemed to be a waste six weeks ago, was becoming valuable as that big target a quarterback can use as a security blanket when he needs a first down or a last option. The question is whether they can remain the assets they were, say, Sunday against the Chargers.

If they can, there's every reason the Bears should beat the Chiefs (another team that has lost its starting quarterback) and Seahawks at home, and either the Broncos or Vikings on the road. That would give the Bears 10 wins and very, very likely one of the two wild-card spots in the NFC.

Jaworski, having watched the Bears evolve offensively in recent weeks, said of the passing game, "They had become a lot more precise. Roy was coming along. Passing games require a rhythm, and it was coming. Things were becoming more refined."

The job, for now, should Hanie and Martz and the defense and special teams and Forte and the receivers be up to it, is to win enough games even under difficult and trying circumstances to get to the playoffs and find out what's possible with this newfound resource the Bears have never really had at their disposal.

Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.