|Hanie has struggled in two starts but there are no plans to bench him. Just the opposite, in fact. (US PRESSWIRE)|
By Ryan Wilson
Heading into Week 14, the Bears are the No. 5 seed in the NFC, ahead of two other teams with 7-5 records: the Falcons and Lions. Three weeks ago, Chicago was playing like one of the conference's top two or three clubs but that all changed the moment quarterback Jay Cutler broke his thumb against the Chargers.
In the two games since, backup Caleb Hanie has thrown six interceptions, been sacked 11 times and the Bears have gone winless. Going into Hanie's first start, the conventional wisdom was that offensive coordinator Mike Martz would be wise to give the ball to running back Matt Forte 30 times a game, give Hanie easy, high-percentage throws (think screens and slants -- or as they're called in Denver: Tebow specials), and let the defense take care of the rest.
Yeah, that didn't happen. (Exacerbating things: Forte injured his knee last Sunday and will be out 2-4 weeks). Good news: Martz later blamed execution, not the play call for one of Hanie's worst interceptions -- a screen pass thrown back across the field that didn't go quite as planned.
Now, with four games remaining (at Denver, Seattle, at Green Bay, at Minnesota) and a tenuous hold on a wild-card spot, Martz says that he will be more aggressive with Hanie.
The Denver Broncos have won their last five straight games and hope to make it six as they host the Chicago Bears on Sunday afternoon. Who has the advantage in this matchup? Jason Horowitz and NFL.com's Pat Kirwan preview this game.
“He did a lot of good things in that game [vs. the Chiefs],” Martz said, according to the Chicago Tribune's Bradd Biggs. … “I don’t think [Hanie] is any different than any of our coaches on offense or players so he did some really good things in there and he’s making progress and I am encouraged by a lot of things in there. When you go back and look at that, there’s reasons for everything that happened. He’s not making mental errors, he’s sharp with everything so he’s learning under the gun so to speak.
“We’ve got to get him into the game a little bit earlier, probably a little bit still too conservative with him. He’s capable of probably more than what we’re doing with him. So, we’ll be a little bit more aggressive with him.”
Hanie will get that chance against the Broncos. You might have heard that they're playing well lately. Still, despite all the praise we're heaping on Denver's defense, they're only middle of the pack according to Football Outsiders' metrics (17th overall, 22nd against the pass, 10th against the run). Unfortunately, the Bears' offense ranks 25th (25th in passing, 17th in rushing).
Whatever happens Sunday, this much is certain: head coach Lovie Smith won't bench Hanie.
“That’s going into the game expecting something bad to happen,” Smith said. “That way of thinking, we just don’t have that. I’m looking at Caleb Hanie going into that game having success and doing a lot of good things and leading us to a win. We spend most of our time concentrating on that.”
If Chicago can finish the regular season 2-2 they'll make the playoffs. If they can't muster two wins, there's a good chance the Lions will sneak into the last wild-card spot and the Bears will be on the outside looking in.
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