OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 27: Tyvon Branch #33 of the Oakland Raiders sacks quarterback Caleb Hanie #12 of the Chicago Bears at O.co Coliseum on November 27, 2011 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
The Chicago Bears dropped to 7-4 after a 25-20 loss to the Oakland Raiders in Week 12, but now the bigger story is how they lost. Allow me to explain.
It's not necessarily a big deal when the Chicago Bears lose a road game to a division-leading Oakland Raiders team 25-20 with their opening day backup, Caleb Hanie, making his first NFL start in place of an injured Jay Cutler. But when the Bears lose that game because of Caleb Hanie, it's a much bigger story. Although Hanie emerged from the wreckage on Sunday with a superficially respectable collection of stats (254 yards passing, two touchdown passes, 50 yards rushing), the truth lies in one dirty little stat line: three interceptions. Hanie may have exuded a certain measure of moxie when thrust into an impossible situation during the 2010 NFC Championship game, but it is important to remember that he lacks any specific physical talents commensurate with quality NFL starting quarterbacks. Three interception games can't happen for him, but one just did, and Kyle Orton knew it would happen.
Sure Orton never actually said word one about the impending failure of Caleb Hanie, but in reality he said plenty. After Jay Cutler injured his in thumb in a Week 11 game against the San Diego Chargers, Orton instructed his agent to push for his release from the Denver Broncos so he could pursue a spot on the Chicago Bears. On the surface it looked a lot like a desperate veteran trying to escape the shadow of the vexing Tim Tebow experiment in Denver by any means necessary, but under a microscope it reveals so much more.
Consider the circumstances of Orton's request: as a former starting quarterback entering free agency in 2012, he had every incentive to seek to maximize his value heading into the open market over the summer. With the Houston Texans rolling the dice on their playoff hopes with Matt Leinart (and then rookie T.J. Yates) and the Kansas City Chiefs turning to unproven Tyler Palko, Kyle Orton singled out the Chicago Bears as the best spot to earn leverage at the negotiating table for his next NFL contract. Everyone knew the Chiefs were desperate for a starter like Orton, but he chose to actively discourage the Chiefs from putting in a waiver claim by floating rumors he would not report to Kansas City. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears told the world it was Hanie's job to lose. Why did Orton single out the Bears as his preferred destination?
The answer is that Kyle Orton knew Hanie would fail. To make sense of this, the primer on the situation is that there is likely only one way Hanie would lose his job: big mistakes. Like all the physically underwhelming backup quarterbacks who have come before him in NFL history, and like all those that will come after him as well, guys like Caleb Hanie are given only one task when forced to start in the NFL regular season: don't lose the game. The label "game manager" has developed a stigma across the league, but the concept is borne out of practicality and necessity. If you lack the skills to make a positive impact, you must tap into intangibles and adhere to the default technical requirements of the quarterback position to ensure you do not make a negative footprint on the game. It's not about how many high-level NFL throws you make as a backup QB on a team with playoff aspirations, it's about how many CFL-level throws you make. Here's a hint with regards to the limits of the latter element of the previous sentence: anything above zero is usually a problem.
Sure the Orton to the Bears move was quite never meant to be, as the Kansas City Chiefs won the waiver claim on the veteran QB, and the Bears quickly responded by signing Josh McCown to a one-year deal, but the notion underlying Orton's motivation to get to Chicago has enduring significance.
Any interest in joining the Bears made sense from Orton's perspective only under the assumption that Hanie would find a way to play himself out of a job. Whizzing inaccurate incompletions all over the field was never going to be enough. Uncomfortable movement in the pocket and timid tosses to checkdowns in the route progression, although difficult to watch and far from a confirmation of requisite NFL talent, would have fit the formula to win games with a backup. Orton's interest in Chicago never stemmed from a bet that Hanie would play overly-conservative and uninteresting football, it signaled a more sinister bet that Hanie would be far too interesting for a team with playoff aspirations.
It took only one start for Orton's bet to payoff, and although he is not around to collect, the Bears organization is still left to deal with the aftermath. Heck, they even tried to hedge against Hanie by putting in an all-too-public side bet of a waiver claim for Orton with the hope that he somehow went unnoticed on the waiver wire, and then eventually ended up with veteran Josh McCown as a consolation prize.
Tasked with one simple job, and given strict (albeit implied) orders to avoid the unnecessary risks associated with pursuing the next heroic play, Caleb Hanie somehow managed to turn his first NFL start into a pretty compelling case for it to be his last NFL start. Punts, incompletions, three-and-outs, coverage sacks and checkdowns were never going to be more than water under the bridge as far as the team was concerned. However, Hanie chose to burden the Bears with so much more.
With 6:32 remaining in the first quarter of a 3-0 game, 1st-and-15 at your own 14-yard line simply cannot devolve into a scrambling desperation pass thrown up for grabs and intercepted; however, it did on Sunday. With 1:32 remaining in the first quarter of a 6-0 game, 3rd-and-15 from the opponents' 43-yard line should never be marked by an interception on an ill-advised touch pass attempting beat zone coverage on a seam route; regrettably, it was on Sunday. With 0:30 remaining in the second quarter of a 9-7 game, 2nd-and-1 from the opponents' 6-yard line can, under no circumstances, feature a careless lollipop throw into coverage on a designed throwback play that yields an interception and a 73-yard return; against all odds, it did on Sunday.
Again, it's not about how many high-level NFL throws you make as a backup QB on a team with playoff aspirations, it's about how many CFL-level throws you make. Kyle Orton knew that if he could have somehow worked his way into a Bears uniform, Caleb Hanie would have made enough destructive throws to force a change at the position. He was willing to bet any remaining leverage for his impending free agency on that outcome. Unfortunately, for both Orton and the Bears, he isn't around to collect on his bet. Luke McCown as the alternative option no doubt changes the calculation when it comes to making a change at the position, but Hanie's negative impact in Week 12 should be enough to force the Bears to run the numbers. In other words, it only took one game to prove Kyle Orton correct.