Will Bears' momentum end with Hanie?
It is the nature of the beast that NFL head coaches are public pragmatists when the subject turns to injuries.
No matter how much their stomach is churning at news the starting quarterback's throwing arm has been severed in a lawn-mowing accident — or, in the case of the Chicago Bears, had his right thumb fractured while confronting a defender on an interception return — the collective mindset of the fraternity is to do anything but reflect panic. In a society that's chock-full of excuse-makers, NFL coaches rarely reach for the panic button, unless maybe the audience is their owner and they're trying to squeeze one more season's worth of paychecks out of the guy.
Among the score of things for which Chicago coach Lovie Smith deserved accolades on Sunday evening was his ability to remain calm amid the news that quarterback Jay Cutler had sustained a broken thumb on his throwing hand during the 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers, to adopt an impenetrable Alfred E. Neuman (what, me worry?) countenance for the media, even if he wanted to swan-dive into nearby Lake Michigan, to act for all the world — or at least that section outside of the home team's locker room — like there was nothing wrong.
Alibis are for losers, a lesson Smith has learned well, as he exhibited Sunday evening. If what the media saw on Sunday evening was Smith's best poker face, well, the Bears' coach ought to abandon his day job, head to Vegas, and seek out a spot at a table for a round of Texas hold-'em.
One of the most admirable qualities of NFL head coaches, and certainly of Smith on Sunday, was to remain stone-faced even as the foundation is crumbling.
There was a reason why Smith was so inordinately long in proceeding to his postgame interview. Even by the relaxed standards of the league's public relations guidelines, which not so long ago mandated a "cooling off period" of 12 minutes after the game, the wait for Smith to arrive was nettlesome. And now, all the media members who cooled their heels waiting for Smith to make it to the podium know why: Bears officials were busy dealing with the news of Cutler's injury, rehearsing their public stance (which, it turned out, was to say nothing), privately girding for the possibility that the resilient franchise will play its final six regular-season games with a guy at the helm who has never started an NFL contest and whose NFL resume includes 14 regular-season pass attempts.
On the matter of injuries, Smith characterized the Bears' boo-boos as "bumps and bruises," noted his club "came out of the game in pretty good shape," and managed to purposely overlook the fact that the quarterback who has started all but one game since he arrived from Denver via a 2009 trade will have his right thumb splinted and that the injury could require surgery. Smith's default position can be that no one inquired specifically about Cutler, and that's true. Next week, some resourceful member of the Chicago media might query Smith on the postgame status of all 46 players who dress for the game.
On Monday morning, Smith did confirm Cutler's right thumb was fractured.
In his Sunday night remarks, Smith espoused generically about the "next man up" philosophy that he gleaned from his mentor, Tony Dungy.
Problem is, at quarterback, the next man up is Caleb Hanie.
A fourth-year veteran, and one-time undrafted free agent from Colorado State, Hanie has appeared in two contests this season, as a mop-up guy. He has yet to throw a pass in 2011, a goose egg that will disappear next Sunday when Hanie makes his first-ever start, at Oakland against the first-place Raiders. Hanie's most notable claim to fame is that he replaced the injured Cutler and the ineffective Todd Collins for the fourth quarter of last year's NFC Championship Game loss to Green Bay.
Hanie performed admirably at times in that tension-packed arena, completing 6 of 14 passes for 80 yards, and leading the Bears to the Packers' 29-yard line with a chance to win the game late. But his two touchdown drives were matched by a pair of costly interceptions — one of them famously (or, if you're a Bears fan, infamously) returned for a pick-six touchdown by Green Bay 350-pound nose tackle B.J. Raji, of all people — and he was markedly scattershot at times.
Certainly, the Cutler injury points out yet again the significance of having a solid backup quarterback on the roster, a luxury the Bears don't possess. Last season, the Bears attempted to address the shortcoming by adding Collins. Pushing 40 at the time, and with enough inactivity to suggest Chicago add an industrial-sized vat of Rust-Oleum to its equipment purchase order, Collins was hardly the answer.
Chicago won a game against Carolina in which Collins threw four interceptions in his lone regular-season start, when Cutler was concussed, but the fact he was yanked from the NFC title game in favor of the callow Hanie spoke volumes.
Just how loud the 7-3 Bears can be for the rest of the season, whether the franchise can even make the playoffs now that the petulant Cutler will be sidelined for the rest of the campaign, remains to be seen.
Entering the Monday night New England-Kansas City game, in which Tyler Palko will make his first league start for the Chiefs in place of an injured Matt Cassel, 12 quarterbacks who opened the regular season as backups for their respective clubs had started at least one game. Their cumulative record: 16-29. And that included the beyond-odds 4-1 mark of Denver's Tim Tebow and the three-game resurgence of Miami's Matt Moore.
In Chicago, some fans and the media have long wondered what the team might be like minus the off-putting Cutler, whose demeanor and body language sometimes hint at a guy who would rather be throwing refuse onto a garbage truck and earning union wages than to be tossing passes and banking millions of dollars. On Monday morning, the term "Be careful what you wish for" leaped to mind.
The Bears have demonstrated plenty of grit and gumption the past month and a half, and now they might need every ounce of both those qualities to reach the postseason.
On Sunday evening, as Chicago cornerback Charles Tillman donned his headphones and prepared to exit a Bears locker room where players were apparently under strict orders to not reveal the Cutler injury, there was plenty of talk of resilience. Said Tillman, whose strip-and-recovery of a Ryan Mathews fumble in the third quarter may have been the signature play of the game: "We've overcome adversity. You don't like to have it, but we've gotten used to it. We refuse to lose."
The calculated and collected, don't-blink public facade of Smith aside, the Bears will have to pay more than lip service to that attitude now, and it won't be easy.
Like most of the members of his celebrated fraternity, Smith doesn't make excuses and treats injuries as if they are an unavoidable function of the game. But he can't avoid the fact that, with the loss of Cutler, the occasionally offensively challenged Bears will have to somehow find a way to make plays. At a two-thumbs-up time, riding a five-game winning streak, the Chicago season may have gone thumbs-down on Sunday evening.