By Tom Pollin
CHFF's Shocked Chicago Correspondent
The Chicago Bears woke up Sunday morning in Denver in control of their playoff fate. When Matt Prater’s 51 yard field goal sailed through the uprights they dropped a game behind Detroit and Atlanta and are now on the outside looking in for this season’s playoffs. As the realization sinks in that Tim Tebow did it again, here are five things we learned.
1. Caleb Hanie is about to take his rightful place in the history of Chicago Bears quarterbacks alongside Henry Burris, Cade McNown, Steve Stenstrom and a cast of thousands.
Chicago is far from being unique in this sentiment that the most popular player on the team is the backup quarterback. Caleb Hanie took the field in Oakland in week 12 with the full confidence of all (okay most) Chicago Bears fans that there was enough talent there to get the Bears over the season’s finish line and into the playoffs.
Hanie was an undrafted free agent out of Colorado State and showed enough promise in the 2008 preseason to earn a spot as the third string quarterback. Hanie was put into the NFC Championship game last season in the fourth quarter and even though he threw two interceptions, almost brought the Bears all the way back against the Packers.
Everything in week 12 against Oakland was chalked up to first start “jitters” and, while the playoff express had been slowed down a bit, the idea was still to make sure Jay Cutler was ready to start during wild card weekend.
Hanie has problems completing a pass that needs “touch”, he has problems releasing the ball on time, he’s slow to realize when pressure is closing in on him and overall, hasn’t shown that he can consistently make any kind of big play to ease some of the pressure off the defense.
Caleb Hanie does not, and the way it appears now will never, have the talent needed to be an NFL quarterback. He is the Chicago equivalent of Jim Sorgi. If this were Hanie’s first or second season with the team there might be an upside still to be seen but it’s his fourth. Right now it would be a toss-up on whether he or John Beck makes a better backup quarterback.
2. Charles Tillman may be the Bears’ best pass catcher right now.
That’s only a slight exaggeration. Tillman made an incredible play on a Tebow pass in the first quarter, going up for the ball and using the Denver receiver’s body to help him twist and land both feet inbounds while retaining control of the ball.
It’s hard to nominate any of the other receivers as the best pass catcher right now because unless their name is Johnny Knox, it’s rare when they get targeted. The Broncos recognized this from their tape study during the week and had Champ Bailey covering him most of the game.
Knox did catch three balls for 37 yards and caught Hanie’s first pass in overtime for 18 yards but dropped a pass in the first quarter on a crossing route. Knox had gained some separation from Bailey and Hanie hit him in the hands but Knox short-armed the ball and dropped the pass.
The continued mystery is where Earl Bennett has disappeared to. Hanie has worked extensively with Knox but Denver definitely noticed this tendency and it’s certain that the Seahawks will be keeping a close eye on Knox next Sunday. There’s no reason for opposing defenses to respect the threats posed by the Bears’ other receivers if Hanie isn’t going to look their way.
It’s hard to believe that Bennett lost the ability to shake defenders and get open once Jay Cutler broke his thumb. He has to be still out there roaming amongst the defensive backs somewhere, raising his hand in vain and calling for footballs that never come.
Some would say that late in the evening, when the game is over and the crowd has gone home, if you listen very carefully you can hear him calling. Others would say that if you didn’t have the jalapeno nachos right after the three jumbo dogs you wouldn’t have those problems.
3. The Bears defense still needs to pitch a shutout to win.
And for a while, it looked like they would get it. The defensive line dropped Tebow for five sacks and did a very good job holding Willis McGahee to 34 yards on 17 carries. They didn’t allow a Denver first down in third quarter and forced eight punts by Britton Colquitt in the game.
The linebackers shifted along
with Tebow to keep him contained and deny him the opportunity to pitch the ball while running the option. In the passing game they held Tebow to a 68.33 passer rating and a 4.9 real passing yards per attempt average.
4. As good a job as the Bears’ coaching staff has done this season, they contributed to the loss in the fourth quarter.
No, this isn’t going to be the usual “here’s what Mike Martz did this week” segment. Head coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli’s game plane looked flawless for the first three quarters of the game. Tebow had actually registered a 13.5 passer rating going into the fourth quarter.
With 4:34 left in the fourth quarter and Denver out of timeouts the Bears moved their safeties back and softened coverage in the middle to force Tebow to take short completions in exchange for running time off the clock. It was at that point that Tim Tebow had the Bears exactly where he wanted them. Tebow picked the defense apart in seven plays and 2:26 of possession time to put Denver’s first touchdown on the board.
When Denver got the ball back with 56 seconds left the Bears again played everything in front of the safeties without also keeping in mind that in the thin Denver air, the Broncos’ offense wouldn’t have to move the ball very far to get inside Matt Prater’s range and it wouldn’t take Tebow long to get them there. A 59 yard field goal later and another chapter had been added to the legend of Tebow.
5. Just because a player is a seven year veteran doesn’t mean they know what to do in a particular situation.
To a man, or at least to those that could be found to provide a comment, the Bears were supportive of Marion Barber after the game. They also didn’t have much of a choice with no one knowing when Matt Forte will be back and Kahlil Bell the only other running back on the roster.
Lovie Smith didn’t throw Barber “under the bus” for the loss but did address Barber’s inability to stay inbounds, “All running backs are trying to get a couple more yards here and there, but we have to know the situation. In that situation we have to be able to keep the ball in bounds.”
The only thing that mattered in that situation was to keep the clock moving to prevent enough time for a game tying field goal. It was the same type of non-thinking that ended up costing the Bears a touchdown against Kansas City when he didn’t line up on the line of scrimmage before catching an easy touchdown pass that would have tied the game.
His second big mistake was running the ball in overtime without covering it up which linebacker Wesley Woodyard took advantage of, reaching up to strip it away for Elvis Dumervil to cover up. Like last week when Roy Williams dropped a sure touchdown pass, Barber didn’t lose the game by himself but these types of mistakes wipe out any contribution he made throughout the game while running for over 100 yards.
The Bears have now fallen behind the Lions and Falcons for the two wild card playoff spots and they face a Seattle Seahawks team next Sunday at home that suddenly has dreams of slipping into the playoffs. The Bears have one week to figure out how to turn Seattle’s dreams into a nightmare.