You may remember Caleb Hanie from such recent failed action adventure football movies like “Jay Cutler Is A Dirty Wimpy Man,” or comedies like “Fat Man Dancing With A Football.” Now he’s ready for his most daring role yet: NFL starting quarterback.
An undrafted free agent signed by the Bears in 2008, Hanie’s thrown only 14 career regular-season passes, completing eight of them. But we first met Hanie during his appearance in last January’s NFC title game, a surprise showing made possible by Jay Cutler’s MCL sprain, and Todd Collins’ inability to throw a football.
Hanie entered the game late in the third quarter, so he hasn’t given us much of a sample size to use as a tool to tear him apart. But since all we have is just over a dozen regular-season pass attempts, we’ll take that tiny sample size and shamelessly examine it, sifting through the sparse numbers with the same intensity as foreign creatures combing the desert.
In that title game that the Bears lost 21-14 to the eventual champion Packers, Hanie essentially played one quarter (he replaced Collins with 57 seconds remaining mark in the third quarter), and he was handed the keys to a heavily-struggling offense that was trailing by a touchdown. His numbers tell a good, but not great story, as Hanie completed 13 of his 20 pass attempts for 153 yards and a touchdown (good), and he also threw two interceptions (not great).
What’s overlooked in those numbers, though, is Hanie’s sense of calm almost immediately after entering his first career playoff game against a hated rival. He was eased in, with Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz calling four runs during Hanie’s first six plays. Then on his ninth career pass attempt in a game that decided one of the Super Bowl participants, Hanie dropped back and connected with Johnny Knox for a 32-yard completion.
We’re not fond of anything that involves poetry and wax around here, or anything that involves overly saturated, unquantifiable couch potato scouting. But hell, if we’re going to hail Tim Tebow as a guy who just wins games, then throwing a clutch pass minutes after entering your first playoff game should earn some serious street cred, right?
Of course, Hanie didn’t win the game, making him at least partially responsible for the city-wide burning of Cutler jerseys, and a car salesman who temporarily lost his job. But even in losing he gave Chicago a brief glimpse of a quarterback who can manage a game, letting his running back and defense do the heavy lifting while he gets out of the way.
And that’s what Hanie needs to do now over the next six games. He needs to do his best Alex Smith impression while deferring to Matt Forte, whose 926 rushing yards is only 93 yards behind league leader LeSean McCoy. Combined the next three teams on Chicago’s schedule (@Raiders, vs. Chiefs, @Broncos) are giving up an average of 126.8 rushing yards per game, with the Raiders and Chiefs both 25th or lower in rushing defense.
Beyond that, running will be tougher for Forte against the Packers, Seahawks and Vikings, but those first three games will give Hanie time to build confidence and develop some chemistry with his top receivers. That should prove especially useful when he faces the poor secondaries fielded by Green Bay and Minnesota.
The Packers are one of only two teams allowing more than 280 yards per game through the air, and they’ve also given up 46 passes of 20 yards or more. The Vikings are only marginally better with their 259.4 yards per game, a number that will only get worse now that Antonie Winfield is done for the season.
In his press conference earlier today Bears head coach Lovie Smith continued to express optimism about Cutler’s injury, saying he expects Chicago’s regular starter to be back before the end of the regular season, most likely with 1-2 games left. He also said that the Bears will pursue a veteran free agent to serve as Hanie’s backup and/or safety net.
But for now Hanie’s the man, and if he needs extra motivation he can look at his contract, which doesn’t exist at the end of this season. Hanie will become a free agent, and any future career aspirations he has beyond clipboard holding ride firmly on the next six games.