Sunday, January 23, 2011

Wait 'til Next Bear Year (and why Caleb Hanie made me proud)

Photo Credit: John J. Kim, Chicago Sun-Times
Well, except for losing to their most hated rival in one the biggest home games in Chicago football history and thereby failing to reach their third Super Bowl, this is a season of which the Bears should be reasonably proud, especially given the low expectations--mine included--going in.

And in a perverse way, excepting that it ended without a ticker tape parade, it has also been a season that should have made Bears fans exceptionally happy. Because the defining elements for many Bears fans--again, myself included--are:

1) Rooting for the Bears through thick and thin
2) Complaining about the front office, coach and starting quarterback
3) A perpetual sense of disbelief, whether in how well or how poorly the team is playing

Today's NFC Championship game, in which the Packers beat the Bears 21-14, was a pretty good--or bad--microcosm of all of the elemental emotions Bears' fandom entails.

Wearing my Urlacher jersey and watching with my friend Dave, I wanted nothing more than for the Bears to punch their ticket to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV--and I honestly wouldn't have been too surprised had they beat the Packers--yet all season I've had the nagging feeling that they weren't as good as their record.

After I predicted the Bears would only win 4 games in 2010, and they then barely won their opener against the lowly Detroit Lions in a game they should have lost, the Bears wound up going 11-5 and taking the NFC Central. During the season, friends pointed out that the Bears mostly beat losing teams, but they did defeat the Packers (in one of 2 regular-season games), the Eagles and the Jets. Yet even as they put together an impressive record, their losses included some terrible clunkers, such as against the Giants, Redskins and Patriots.

Photo Credit: John J. Kim, Chicago Sun-Times
So throughout the season, all three elements were pretty well fulfilled, as fans relished the team's solid playoff push, but--while wondering if it might be a mirage--also spent a good amount of time ripping Coach Lovie Smith, Offensive Coordinator Mike Martz, GM Jerry Angelo and on up the ownership hierarchy.

Many fans may have been satisfied with franchise quarterback Jay Cutler, who on the surface seemingly vindicated himself after an atrocious 2009 campaign, but I still found his decision-making rather suspect. He seemed to throw too many silly interceptions and, though I would be silly to say this really matters all that much, I've been disappointed with his off-the-field demeanor.

Rick Reilly's recent negative column about Cutler on includes too many outdated attributions to hold much water with me, but Cutler has always appeared mealy-mouthed and arrogant in post-game interviews and I've heard direct accounts about how he has been less-than-polite in his interactions with fans, even kids seeking his autograph. None of this is enough for me to hate Jay, or to demonize him, but I've never really liked him, on or off the playing surface.

Funny thing is, while many callers to sports radio after today's game are bashing Cutler and questioning his manhood for leaving the game due to an as-yet-clearly-defined knee injury, I actually think it is unfair to take him to task for that. I don't remember any other cases of him begging off the field, even in games where he got sacked on nearly every play, so I'm willing to take him at his word. What I have a greater problem with is the seven Bears' offensive possessions while Cutler was in the game, which ended in 6 punts and one interception. Plus, there were at least two throws that should have resulted in Bears' touchdowns, but Cutler overthrew his receivers. Superstar quarterbacks can't do that in big games, and in earning $22 million this season Cutler certainly has a salary to put him in that category, if not the pedigree.

Photo Credit: John J. Kim, Chicago Sun-Times
Other than Smith's stupid--and potentially catastrophic--decision to initially insert Todd Collins rather than Caleb Hanie for Cutler, I actually think Jay leaving the game was the best thing that happened to the Bears today. He couldn't get anything going and, after Collins failed miserably--justifying ire aimed at Angelo for making him seemingly the best backup option--third-stringer Hanie, pumped some life into the team, drove them to two touchdowns and had the Bears in position to potentially tie the score within the last minute of a game in which they were badly outplayed.

In fact, the 16 minutes for which Caleb Hanie was at the helm today were my favorite of the Bears' 2010-11 season. Up until then, the Bears lethargic performance today had me perpetually on the verge of posting my sarcastic Facebook comment asking, "When do pitchers and catchers report [for Spring Training]?" But Hanie kept proving rumors of the Bears' demise to be premature, bringing the score to 14-7 and then 21-14, even after throwing an interception that was returned for a 4th Quarter Packer touchdown. In a game the Bears didn't otherwise look like they had any business winning, Hanie made me proud. Although he ultimately fell short and threw a final interception to seal it for the Packers, after a "successful" season full of elements #2 and 3 above, he almost single-handedly justified my commitment to #1.

I don't know if I would want Hanie to be the Bears starting quarterback next year, and even had he pulled a miracle and led them past the Packers, Cutler probably would have been the right pick--on most levels--to start the Super Bowl (in which the Packers will now play the Steelers). But I also don't think I want Cutler to be the starter next year, although he almost certainly will be. Not because I think he "quit," but because Caleb Hanie showed far more than Cutler what may have been possible.

In fact, it's not with anger but enhanced expectations that I wouldn't mind the Bears starting anew in 2011, with no Cutler, Smith or Angelo. Otherwise, "next year," we might not even be lucky enough to get a repeat.

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