Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Chargers (11.20.11)

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Caleb Hanie, you're up.
Caleb Hanie, you're up.

All seemed to be right with the Bears immediately following their 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday. They had just won their fifth-straight victory and in convincing fashion, too. The defense was taking away the ball, Devin Hester broke off a few nice returns, and the offense looked like an actual, modern NFL offense while completing downfield passes.

All of that changed within a couple hours when word leaked that Jay Cutler broke the thumb on his throwing hand, an injury that will require surgery and could keep him out 6-8 weeks, if not the rest of the season.

Suddenly, the Bears’ once-promising season now looks doomed, and the story of the day was not their victory over the Chargers, but what their future looks like without Cutler.

It was a good game, we can admit as much. After a slow start, the offense picked it up by scoring a pair of touchdowns in the second quarter, one by Marion Barber and another by tight end Kellen Davis on a perfectly placed ball by Cutler. Sigh…

In the third quarter, Cutler dove in the end zone from a yard out on a quarterback sneak — insert sad face here — and later connected with Johnny Knox in the back of the end zone on a 24-yard touchdown strike — gulp!

Cutler was getting protection from his offensive line — and has been for quite a few games now — and the Bears finally resembled what a good offense in today’s era of football looks like. They were completing passes down the field, such as the 42-yard strike that Cutler and Knox connected on two plays before Culter’s rushing touchdown. They also responded quickly following a third-quarter Chargers touchdown, which is what good offenses will do and what the Bears would need to do to beat a high-scoring, quick-strike team like the Packers.

You can forget about all that now. Exit Cutler, enter Caleb Hanie, the local legend in these parts, and for what reason? Because he made a few plays in the NFC title game last year against Green Bay? The guy is not an NFL starting quarterback and for good reason.

Cutler is due to undergo further tests Monday on this thumb to get a definitive timeline for his return — if at all. Maybe the sun will shine on the Bears and Cutler’s time away will be less. Say, 4-6 weeks. The odds are better, though, that he’d be placed on season-ending injured reserve.

Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that Cutler is gone for six weeks. That would mean he’d miss the remaining six games of the regular season and could possibly be ready for the playoffs, although he’d be rusty in his return.

The one problem with that scenario is that the Bears actually have to make the playoffs in order to see Cutler again this season. That’s a tall task especially considering the Bears (7-3) have several teams hot on their trail including the Lions (7-3), Cowboys/Giants (6-4), and Falcons (6-4). The Bears likely would have to go 10-6 to have a shot at the playoffs, which means they’ll need to go at least — keywords: at least — 3-3 to make the playoffs, unless all those teams completely fall flat.

So, let’s break down their remaining schedule to try to find three wins.

The way I see it, the Bears have two games that appear to be solidly within the win column and two games that look to be losses at this point. They can probably beat the Chiefs and Seahawks at home and should probably lose to the Raiders and Packers on the road. That leaves the Broncos and Vikings, two teams that aren’t very good but will have the benefit of playing at home. The Bears would need to win at least one of those games.

(Side note: It’s too bad Cutler won’t get to show up his former team in Denver. I would have enjoyed that.)

The bright side is that of the six remaining teams on the Bears schedule, only the Packers have a Top 10 passing offense (ranked No. 3), which is the one area of concern for the Bears defense. Against a team that passes well, the Bears offense would have to respond in kind, like they did yesterday against the Chargers, and I’m not sure Hanie can do that. Can the Bears ask him to make necessary throws when trailing in the fourth quarter?

The Raiders are ranked 19th in passing offense, but they’re showing signs of improvement with Carson Palmer at quarterback. The Seahawks (No. 24), Chiefs (No. 28), Vikings (No. 29), and Broncos (No. 31) cannot seem to move the ball through the air, meaning those games will probably be low-scoring slugfests fought primarily on the ground.

Therein lies another problem. Many of the optimistic Bears fans out there — I’m usually one of them, but I’m also a realist — will argue that the Bears are primarily a run team and that Pro Bowl-bound Matt Forte can lead them to the playoffs.

Not the way he’s been playing the last two weeks.

Forte rushed for 64 yards against the Lions two weeks ago and 57 yards against the Chargers. He averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in those two contests, and that was with a healthy Cutler and an effective passing attack. If teams were scheming to stop him, and did so effectively when the Bears had the threat of a passing game, why would Forte play better with Hanie throwing wobblers?

This year’s Bears were arguably the best team under head coach Lovie Smith, surpassing even the 2006 team that went to the Super Bowl. The team is deeper and more talented now than it was back then, with the exception of the offensive line. Now, we get to see what the Bears are really made of. No team can truly overcome the loss of its quarterback if that quarterback is worth the uniform he puts on each week, but the good teams can stay competitive in the absence of their signal caller.

So the question that remains is, can the Bears play .500 ball for the next six weeks?

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