Loss of Jay Cutler Won’t Bring Chicago Bears’ Collapse

Jay Cutler is not Peyton Manning, but the Bears are not the Indianapolis Colts, so Chicago can breathe easier over the prospect of Caleb Hanie playing quarterback for the time being.

Manning, long thought to be indestructible, has not appeared in a game this season, felled by a neck injury that threatens to end his Hall of Fame career. In his absence, the Colts have disintegrated from contender into N.F.L. doormat. The totality of the collapse has underscored Manning’s value to the team, prompting some to suggest he should win his fifth M.V.P. award even if he doesn’t play a down in 2011.

The Cutler Effect will not be as dramatic. The Bears are a lesser team without Cutler, no question — the enigmatic quarterback has been a Pro Bowl-worthy performer for most of his third season in Chicago. But even if it’s Hanie at the helm, the Bears are still a playoff contender. Call it the Urlacher Effect.

The team’s aging but still stout defense will keep the Bears in games, motivated by a collective, contagious, now-or-never urgency that starts with Brian Urlacher in the middle of everything. At 33 and in his 12th pro season, Urlacher is playing the smartest, toughest football of his career.

The Bears can control games by running the ball, augmenting Matt Forte’s efforts with a low-risk, keep-it-simple passing scheme that limits Hanie’s vulnerability to mistakes.

And their special teams are capable of winning games, especially against opponents who flaunt their misguided machismo by kicking the ball to Devin Hester.

“We’ve got some things in place,” Coach Lovie Smith said while delivering the grim Cutler prognosis last week. “Don’t feel sorry for us.”

It was hard not to feel at least a pang for Cutler. The grousing over his mechanics, his facial expressions, his body language and all the other perceived imperfections that he brought from Denver had finally subsided during a five-game winning streak that stamped the Bears as a playoff contender.

As General Manager Jerry Angelo maintained in defending the hefty price he paid for Cutler, a franchise quarterback is a common characteristic among the N.F.L.’s elite teams. Cutler surely looked the part in last Sunday’s dismantling of San Diego, precise with his throws and confident in his decisions in decisively outplaying former A.F.C. West rival Philip Rivers.

“As much effort as he puts into it, Jay Cutler deserves to play well,” Smith said.

And not that he had to, but Cutler emphatically refuted that silly criticism of his toughness that arose when a knee injury forced him to leave last season’s N.F.C. Championship game. For 40 yards, Cutler fended off a convoy of blockers bent on taking him out and tried to make a touchdown-saving tackle on a San Diego interception. How many quarterbacks do that in the fourth quarter of an 11-point game? Cutler got hurt playing the game like a football player. Somewhere, George Halas was smiling.  

We can’t be sure if Papa Bear was still smiling after watching Caleb Hanie practice last week, but Hanie, a 26-year-old Texan from Colorado State, is the man for the moment. Pro football is a violent, dangerous game, even for quarterbacks, and Hanie is hardly the first N.F.L. second banana forced by circumstance to become the guy. There was Earl Morrall for Bob Griese with the 1972 Dolphins, and Jeff Hostetler for Phil Simms with the 1990 Giants, among many others.

In 1991, the 49ers lost Joe Montana in training camp and Steve Young nine games into the season, and went 5-1 with third-stringer Steve Bono as their starter. They had Bono coached up and ready to play, sure, but they also had a roster full of Hall of Fame talent and an offensive system that changed the game.

There’s no Jerry Rice or Ronnie Lott on hand to help Hanie with the heavy lifting, but he should be fine against a favorable, A.F.C. West-heavy schedule that Virginia McCaskey might have drawn up to spare her Bears further hardship.    

The offensive line had been in an injury-induced state of flux before Cutler got hurt, and Earl Bennett, his security-blanket receiver, was down five weeks after a brutal hit in the New Orleans game nearly caved in his chest. The early-season schedule did the Bears no favors, and they looked out of it after a thumping in Detroit left them with a 2-3 record just over a month ago.

But while Detroit was losing four of its next six games, the Bears turned their season around, just as they did last year. It seems more legitimate this time, too — no Tyler Thigpens or Jimmy Clausens lining up as the other team’s quarterback.

It’s time for some of us to own up, paraphrase Dennis Green and acknowledge that the Bears are not who we thought they were: an 8-8 team. That would require losing five of their remaining six games, and that’s not happening against teams with a combined 21-29 record once 11-0 Green Bay is removed from the equation.

More to the point, the Bears are pretty good, even with Caleb Hanie playing. He’s not Jay Cutler, but neither is he Rex Grossman, their last Super Bowl quarterback.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org

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