It’s been a strange last twenty-four hours as I was forced to bail on the Bears game Sunday night half way through the 4th quarter for a dinner reservation.  I saw Johnny Knox make a 360° fingertip grab in the back of the end zone and the Bears salting away a victory with a sustained drive down the field.  A little lobster bisque and a slice of mahi mahi later, and I came home to a team and football world in turmoil.  Jay Cutler is engaged to Kristin Cavallari again… and also happens to have broken his thumb.

As someone who watched Cutler keep the Bears in the game and then put it out of reach with his arm, I was as surprised as anyone to learn of his ailment.  Reports have surfaced that the injury occurred as early as the 2nd quarter meaning that the whole passing barrage that was the 3rd quarter was done with the broken digit (and one would assume a painkilling injection at halftime).  All accounts indicate that during his attempted tackle after Antoine Cason’s interception in the 4th quarter the thumb took another beating, either actually breaking the appendage or making a bad problem much worse.  Even if this was the point at which the injury occurred, Cutler took 15 more snaps afterwards, completing two of four passes, successfully avoided Philip River’s handshake after the game, held a press conference, and headed home before anyone of us had any idea the injury had occurred.  That’s pretty cool.  In a game where Roy Williams reminds us every time he does anything that could be interpreted as “good,” it’s refreshing to see the boy, who has grown into the leader of men on offense, not draw attention to his own heroic feats. 

One has to believe that as Cutler drove home from Soldier Field last night, no one in the media the wiser of the condition of his thumb, he had to have a smile on his face.  For all those who questioned his toughness and his leadership eleven short months ago in the NFC Championship game, Jay had one digit that I’m sure was working just fine. 

Speaking of that game against the Packers back in January, as I’m sure you’ve been reminded, a young fellow from Colorado St., who didn’t even receive the courtesy of being drafted by an NFL team, stepped under center in Cutler’s stead and more than kept the Bears in the game.  In fact if it were not for a 4th and 3 end around call to Earl Bennett we could be having an entirely different conversation today.  Caleb Henie is of course the quarterback that I speak of, and it is on his shoulders that the remainder of the Bears season rests. 

Technically that’s not fair to say as I think despite what the Bears may say publicly, significant steps will be taken to alleviate as much of the weight of the season from Caleb as possible.  Get ready for a Back to the Future-type trip to 2006 when rookie Kyle Orton took the reins from an injured Rex Grossman before Week 1, however the responsibility for the team’s success fell more squarely into the lap of the defense and the special teams.  The next six weeks one could argue are going to be an effort to get back to the roots, and the true core of what Lovie Smith, and to a greater extent Bears football is all about. 

This is not to say that the offense will become totally inept.  For the past four years, the Bears pre-season has been filled with concerns over learning new playbooks, adapting to new coaches, and the 1st team offense being rather underwhelming.  In the meantime, outside of a handful of games this August, Caleb Hanie has been the bright spot once the starters were removed.  I recall the year that Hanie came out, back when I was in my mid-twenties and had time to follow such things, that ESPN’s famous draft guru Mel Kiper was asked which undrafted players had an opportunity to shine in the league, and he pointed straight to Hanie as a project that would need time to develop but had the arm to play in the NFL.  After four years of development, now is that time Caleb.

So what do we have in Hanie, the man whom we’re supposed to hitch our faith to for the next six to eight weeks?  I can go on and on about his stature and willingness to scramble.  His mentality is to make a play and we the fans are going to have to ride the waves of jubilation and hand wringing that come with it.  More importantly, I like the moxie the kid brings to the table.  It didn’t get much press at the time but a hidden gem of that NFC Championship game was the comedy of the Hanie-stache.  For those who don’t recall, when the Bears took the field that cold winter’s day, our third-string quarterback wearing jersey #12 was sporting a pretty sweet trash-stache for what one could only assume was for comedy’s sake.  Think about it, you’re the third string quarterback in a championship game.  There’s no way that you’re expecting to play so why not have some fun, make a bet with your friends back home, and try to stand in the background on the sidelines attempting to get your ‘stache on national TV.  Lo and behold three quarters later that same third string quarterback was called on to save the day.  Hanie ended up going 13 of 20 for 153 yards in 16 minutes of game time.  Despite two of those incompletions going for interceptions, no one who watched that game had anything but praise for the slightly creepy third quarterback that took the field that day.  By the time the postgame press conferences came around, Hanie was clean shaven and the only one disappointed in his performance.  How cool is that that, A) he grew a trashy womb broom in the first place, and B) consciously knew that he needed to shave it before unexpectedly having to meet the media afterwards.  There had to be some great jokes to lighten the locker room as he furiously scraped that fur biscuit off of his face before taking the podium.  That’s a guy that I can get behind for six weeks… 

As long as it’s only six weeks.  It’s certainly disappointing to have Cutler go down right as the offense is hitting its stride (three straight games of 30+ points) but that’s ok.  There’s never a good time to lose your starting QB.  With that said however, now might be as good of a time as any.  With upcoming games against a good but not great Oakland team, and then certainly winnable games against Kansas City, Denver, Seattle, and Minnesota (with Green Bay tucked in there on Christmas), I think the Bears are through the worst of their schedule and are in a spot where any more than three wins and they’ll be playing in January again. 

Now is actually a good time to provide the team a little extra motivation and focus for a string of games that really don’t have a lot of personal meaning.  This injury provides free incentive for Hanie to prove he can play in the league; Forte to show that he can carry a team and is worthy of a contract; the offensive line to gain extra focus to protect the new guy; and for the defense to lock down and prove once again which side of the ball really wears the pants in these parts.  These kind of challenges are actually good for football teams caught in the monotony of a seventeen week schedule.  You don’t think the Packers gained something last year as their injuries piled up and the public wrote off their chances?  It’s these type of hurdles that can actually make football teams come together when there’s a solid foundation (which I would argue the Bears have) as opposed to unravel like a young disorganized group would. 

In a best case scenario, Hanie takes the situation by the balls and runs with it.  The Bears win three to five of the next six games and there actually is some degree of a debate as to who should start the playoff game when Cutler returns.  In this scenario Hanie becomes the hot commodity this winter and the Bears can have a solid backup in place for years to come (assuming they sign him as he will be a free agent) or they can trade him for valuable draft picks a la the Eagles and Kevin Kolb.  If Hanie fails then the ball is in Forte and the defense’s court which is not necessarily a new phenomenon.  The Bears are built to win with defense, special teams and a running game.  Anything we gain passing-wise is just a bonus.  That’s why Sid Luckman still holds all of the Bears major passing records since the 1940s. 

If I had my druthers, obviously Cutler still plays and the team continues to roll, but I’m not looking at the current situation as a bad thing.  Call me an eternal optimist but it seems like football teams need obstacles to overcome.  Be it the Packers and their injuries last year or Doug Williams coming back from injury to regain the starting role of the 1986 Redskins during the playoffs to win the Super Bowl.  These hiccups can be a good thing, now it’s up to the man with the mouth merkin to do his part and make sure the team doesn’t skip a beat.