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Golden opportunity for Bears QB Hanie

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Dan Parr
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Posted Nov. 21, 2011 @ 5:28 p.m. ET
By Dan Parr

One of the first things Bears head coach Lovie Smith said at his press conference Monday was "don't feel sorry for us."

He said the Bears aren't looking for any sympathy, even though his team will have to battle to make the postseason without its starting quarterback.

Smith didn't clarify when QB Jay Cutler will undergo surgery to repair his broken right thumb, which he suffered Sunday when trying to make a tackle during Chargers CB Antoine Cason's interception return.

Smith was adamant, however, that Cutler's injury is not a season-ending one. He said the expectation is Cutler will be ready to return at the end of the regular season. The team's specific timetable for his return isn't clear at this point — some estimates are he'll need 6-8 weeks to recover — but backup Caleb Hanie is the Bears' new starter with Cutler out and he will be for at least the next month or so.

Hanie will make his first career start Sunday, when the Bears visit the AFC West-leading Raiders. Hanie is best known for playing in the second half of last season's NFC championship game after Cutler left the contest with an MCL sprain. He threw a touchdown pass and two interceptions in that game, including one that was returned for a touchdown by Packers NT B.J. Raji in Green Bay's win. Hanie has appeared in two games this season, but hasn't thrown a pass.

Chicago holds a narrow lead for an NFL wild-card spot with six games left.

The PFW Spin

This is the opportunity backup quarterbacks dream about. Hanie, of course, didn't want to see his friend and teammate get injured, but the only way he's going to get a chance to start for a team in 2012 is by taking advantage of the opportunity before him.

Hanie, who was a restricted free agent in the offseason, will be an unrestricted free agent after this season. He's going to have some teams interested in his services if he helps the Bears finish the season strong.

He made some nice plays in the NFC championship game but also made some very costly errors. Until he shows he can take care of the ball and improve his accuracy, there's little chance a team will bring him into training camp with a chance to compete for a starting job.

Offensive coordinator Mike Martz has been very tough on Hanie since he joined the Bears' staff before last season. Martz played Todd Collins ahead of Hanie last season and the Bears drafted Nathan Enderle in the fifth round this year to eventually take Hanie's spot as Cutler's backup. Martz was even hinting in the offseason that Enderle had a chance to unseat Hanie on the depth chart in 2011, although a true competition never developed.

Hanie and Martz have clashed in the past, but Martz, who is also in the final year of his contract, is going to have to build up Hanie's confidence now, and Martz is also going to need to be flexible with his game-planning and play-calling to fit Hanie's abilities. That might mean using more rollouts to get Hanie out of the pocket.

The Bears don't need to scrap the playbook and rewrite it, but Martz has to be as creative as ever to get by with a quarterback with very little experience and limitations. Hanie can't make the same plays that Cutler did. He has a strong arm, but not the loaded rifle that Cutler possesses.

Hanie should see defenses putting an extra defender in the box to try to take away RB Matt Forté even more than Cutler did this season, and he has to show he can take advantage of those situations for the Bears' offense to avoid the complete breakdown some might be envisioning.

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