Without Cutler, Martz must save Bears’ season

In 1999, Mike Martz, then the offensive coordinator in St. Louis, watched his starting QB, Trent Green(notes), go down with an injury. He inserted a former grocery store bagger named Kurt Warner(notes) and the rest is history.

Bears QB Jay Cutler is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season with a broken thumb.
(AP)

So, Caleb Hanie(notes) to the Hall of Fame?

The Chicago Bears, where Martz now works, lost quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) to a broken thumb Sunday. Hanie will be his replacement.

Head coach Lovie Smith said Cutler should be out until late December at the earliest. The stakes are high. The Bears are 7-3, on a five-game winning streak and Cutler had been playing great. Now the entire season – more specifically hope for the postseason – rests on Hanie, the third-year, undrafted free agent out of Colorado State who never started an NFL game but did deliver a dramatic relief appearance in the past NFC championship game.

“Don’t feel sorry for us,” Smith told reporters on Monday. “We have a lot of things in place. We’re going to miss a great player for a period of time. But offensively we’re going to rely on our running game a little bit more. We have a great defense and special teams.

“You know how we win football games around here.”

The big question: Does Martz know how they win football games around Chicago?

As much as the focus is on Hanie, the most critical member of the organization is the man calling the plays.

Martz is often hailed as an offensive genius – and he’ll need every bit of it now. He needs to find a way to get Hanie to manage the game well enough to keep the Bears in playoff contention.

Caleb Hanie

The best news is that Martz appeared to change things up even under Cutler. The coordinator is known for his open, throw-it-all-over-the-field system. Yet this Bears season didn’t take a turn for the better until they began calling a more balanced attack, one that featured more rushing from Matt Forte(notes) and even safer passes.

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As good as Cutler has been – and this has been one of his most effective stretches of his six-year career – it wasn’t like he was bombing it all over the field and the Bears were reliant on his brilliant accuracy.

Chicago lost three of its first five games. In those defeats, it averaged 40 throws against just 16.3 rushing attempts. In its seven victories, including those last five games, they’ve passed an average of 28 times and run 31.4 times. That’s a lot of Forte, who’s become an MVP candidate by handling everything asked of him. And that’s a lot of balance to keep defenses guessing. Even the passes were often conservative.

Smith said Cutler would have surgery and might return for a Christmas Day trip to Green Bay. If that’s the case, then Hanie needs to weather the storm through a game Sunday in Oakland followed by Kansas City, at Denver and then Seattle. Those four opponents have a combined record below .500.

“Same goal,” Smith said, meaning the playoffs. “Nothing has changed around here.”

Martz has to make sure that’s the case. Cutler is a strong-willed quarterback who could demand certain offensive game plans. Chicago wasn’t doing anything fancy.

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Hanie, who has thrown just 14 career regular-season passes, is more likely to follow whatever Martz comes up with. This isn’t the time to start getting tricky or proving the coaches can create magic. Hanie is athletic, especially when scrambling out of the pocket. No less than Brian Urlacher(notes) wondered if they’d even try some “Tim Tebow(notes) offense.”

As long as it’s about keeping mistakes to a minimum, which Cutler was accomplishing.

Chicago coach Lovie Smith says Jay Cutler suffered his injury while trying to make a tackle after an interception on Sunday.
(AP)

Smith is correct, it’s still about defense and ground-and-pound in Chicago.

Hanie showed his potential last January when he stepped in for an injured Cutler in the NFC championship game and nearly pulled off a legendary comeback against the Packers. He led the Bears to a touchdown on his first drive and finished 13 of 20 for 153 yards, one TD and two interceptions. The Packers held on for a 21-14 victory, but Hanie wasn’t the issue.

This is all different. Hanie had to go with the flow that day, nothing to lose. This time he can prepare (and so too can opponents) as a promising season hangs in the balance.

“I would say Caleb is pretty excited about the opportunity,” Smith said. “When you’re the backup, you want to get a chance. Not under these circumstances, but you want to get an opportunity to prove what you can do. He realizes what’s at stake.”

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Smith is a defensive coach. Martz has a lot of leeway on the offense. He’s shown an ability to switch on the fly this season, to impressive results. Chicago isn’t reminding anyone of the Greatest Show on Turf that Warner wound up leading. That’s fine. Simple passes, a lot of Forte and a four-game stretch against reasonable competition makes the Caleb Hanie experiment doable.

This is what Martz’s legend was built on.

“We know how to handle these situations,” Smith said.

We’ll find out soon enough.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Nov 22, 2011