Monday Morning Quarterback: Bears-Raiders (11.27.11)

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Caleb Hanie had a rough, first NFL start by throwing three interceptions and struggling with his accuracy.
Caleb Hanie had a rough, first NFL start by throwing three interceptions and struggling with his accuracy.

One truth can be told following the Bears’ 25-20 loss to the Raiders on Sunday.

Jay Cutler has to be one of the most unappreciated quarterbacks in the league, not only around the country but especially right here at home in Chicago.

Bears fans can be a fickle bunch sometimes and the outpour of criticism heaped upon Cutler after he was unable to complete last year’s NFC championship game was egregious and uncalled for. Rather than fans questioning his toughness and his body language, they should have been appreciating his talent.

It’s true what they say about not knowing what you have until it’s gone and Bears fans are probably missing Cutler even more this morning. Watching the Raiders game yesterday brought back memories of Bears teams from the past: all defense and special teams and very little offense.

The irony is that the Bears had a season-best 401 yards of offense, but the Bears benefitted from a handful of big plays that were more fortuitous than skill. Hanie heaved up what amounted to be a Hail Mary toward the end of the game that Johnny Knox caught for an 81-yard gain. Scratch Matt Forte’s 33-yard run and Marion Barber’s 21-yarder and you’re looking at 266 total yards.

Hanie looked rattled from the beginning, which is understandable considering he was making his first NFL start and in a hostile environment, nonetheless. He threw three interceptions in the first half, two of which led to field goals and one of which killed a drive at the end of the first half which swung momentum back to the Raiders. If not for a super defensive effort, though, those turnovers could have been even more costly.

The Bears turned to their run game, as expected, to help alleviate some of their struggles with Hanie behind center. Between Forte and Barber, as well as Hanie’s 50 yards on 5 scrambles, the Bears racked up 172 net rushing yards. Barber outshined Forte by hitting the holes harder and picking up 63 yards on 10 carries compared to Forte’s 59 yards on 12 attempts. The one-two punch, however, will be a vital component moving forward if the Bears are going to win enough games in Cutler’s absence to make the playoffs.

As the game progressed, Hanie looked more comfortable, was able to get out of the pocket and make plays on the run and move the chains. Credit the offensive line for giving him better protection as the game wore on and allow him some time to throw. The biggest problem was simply that Hanie is no Cutler. His throws were errant, his decisions were questionable — although Cutler can make a few poor ones, too — and aside from that prayer that he threw to Knox late in the fourth, there was never a moment where the Raiders feared that he’d beat them through the air.

For as much blame as Hanie deserves for costing the Bears a game they realistically could have won, a share of the blame has to be given to the defense for ultimately losing the game. Sure, the defense played well and was stout deep in its own end of the field, a major reason why Raiders kicker Sebastian Janikowski set a franchise record with six field goals. But a costly, untimely mistake by cornerback Tim Jennings was the turning point in the game.

After a Robbie Gould 53-yard field goal drew the Bears to within five with about seven minutes to play in the game, the defense needed to come up with one stop to give Hanie and the offense a chance to go win the game. On third-and-four at midfield, Jennings — who had played terrifically up until that point — was beaten down the sideline by Raiders receiver Louis Murphy for a 47-yard completion. On the next play, Michael Bush, barely touched, scored on a three-yard run.

That was a backbreaking series of plays which essentially ended the game. The fact that Hanie heaved one up for Knox for an 81-yard gain followed by a Kellen Davis touchdown two plays later only toyed with Bears fans hopes because the chances of the Bears offense scoring on a second-straight touchdown drive were slim to none.

The Bears defense did the offense a favor by stopping the Raiders on a three and out and giving the offense the ball back with 1:01 remaining, but a beautifully-placed punt by Shane Lechler pinned the offense at the 4-yard line and that put an end to any hope of a comeback. Although visions of Brian Griese’s 97-yard, game-winning touchdown drive against the Eagles in 2007 danced in my head, I had no choice but to dismiss the possibility. Griese was a seasoned veteran, not a skittish, erratic, fourth-year undrafted player making his first start.

Lechler’s punt prior to that final Bears drive was just one of the many plays he made and the Raiders overall special teams effort was the story of the game. Lechler had a booming, 80-yard punt at the beginning of the fourth quarter that flipped field position and foiled any attempt by Devin Hester to score a return touchdown there. Janikowski was accurate and drilled all six field goal attempts and the Raiders coverage units smothered the Bears return game, save for a 56-yard kickoff return by Knox. The Raiders special teams and Hanie’s ineptitude were the biggest keys to their victory over the Bears.

Although disappointing, the loss wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Bears. I had been flip-flopping on my prediction all week and eventually went with my heart over my head when I projected a Bears victory. However, in my original assessment following Cutler’s injury, I had this game marked in the loss column, so the Bears are no worse off than I thought they’d be at this point. They now have three very winnable games coming up against the Chiefs, Broncos and Seahawks before they have to travel to Lambeau Field to face the unbeaten Packers.

The Bears need at least two wins over the next three weeks to get to 9-5, but a sweep and a 10-4 record would be ideal.

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