Commentary

In good hands?

Hanie, Basanez should see extended time Saturday

Originally Published: August 20, 2009
By Jerry Bonkowski | ESPNChicago.com

[+] EnlargeCaleb Hanie
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesCaleb Hanie has impressed during preseason games, but is he ready to play when it counts?
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Jay Cutler may just be getting his feet wet as the Bears' starting quarterback, but what if something happened to him, like an injury?

Would Cutler's backups, Caleb Hanie and Brett Basanez, be able to tread water, or would they and the Bears' offense sink?

There's no disputing Cutler's credentials: a Pro Bowl quarterback who has thrown for 9,000-plus yards and 54 touchdowns in the past 2½ seasons.

But Hanie and Basanez have very little pro experience, to say the least. Hanie, who signed with the Bears as an undrafted free agent in 2008 after a standout career at Colorado State, has been active for just one regular season game up to this point, and he did not see action.

But he has seen action in five preseason games -- four last season and also this past Saturday's 27-20 preseason loss at Buffalo -- and has shown some promise.

In those five games, Hanie has completed 37-of-60 passes for 408 yards, plus four touchdowns and two interceptions.

Included in that total was a better showing against Buffalo than Cutler: Hanie completed 8-of-11 passes for 87 yards, including a 14-yard TD pass to Will Ta'ufo'ou, while Cutler completed just 5-of-10 passes for 64 yards and one interception.

"We liked everything we saw from Caleb last year," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "He's in a pretty good position to be behind a guy like Jay Cutler.

"We've seen a lot of progress. He's mobile, has a good arm and seems like he's learning a little bit more about the position each day. But as you look at our roster, you can tell what kind of confidence we have [in Hanie]. We think he has a bright future."

[+] EnlargeBrett Basanez
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesBrett Basanez has not provided much reason to be optimistic.
Basanez, a native of northwest suburban Arlington Heights, had an outstanding college career at Northwestern University, setting nearly three dozen school records, culminating in being named 2005 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year.

But as a professional quarterback, he's struggled. He went unpicked in the 2006 draft, leaving him to sign with the Carolina Panthers as an undrafted free agent. He missed the entire 2007 season after suffering a torn ligament in his right wrist during a preseason game.

And even though on paper he spent three years with Carolina, most of the time was on the Panthers' practice squad. In fact, he appeared in just one regular-season game (completed 6-of-11 passes for 56 yards and one interception).

Signed during the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, Basanez had a terrible debut with the Bears at Buffalo, completing just 3-of-11 passes for 26 yards and an unsightly three interceptions.

Still, expect both players to see considerable time Saturday night against the New York Giants at Soldier Field.

"I think the one thing that will give those guys confidence is just their preparation, just getting the opportunity to go out there and play and perform in the preseason and gain confidence with each snap," said Bears quarterbacks coach Pep Hamilton.

Still, what happens if Cutler is sidelined by an injury? Are the Bears ready to turn over the reins of the offense -- and potentially the fortunes of the team -- to guys like Hanie and Basanez out of necessity and default?

"[We] try to keep that process as pure as possible from the standpoint of just keeping our preparation consistent and worrying about the things we can control," Hamilton said.

When Cutler was traded to the Bears in early April, it would be easy to understand if Hanie and Basanez were intimidated by his credentials and that the pressure would be on them as his backups.

"I don't think they were intimidated," Hamilton said. "There's no reason to be. If you're in this league, it's because you're mentally tough enough and you understand really what it takes to survive in this league, so I seriously doubt they were intimidated."

Yet while not intimidated, Hanie admittedly was a bit taken aback.

"I didn't really know what to think," he said. "It was a foreign situation to me, going into my second year in the league and already experiencing a big trade and big change like that was interesting, to say the least. But it's been a lot of fun and Jay's been great to me, and it's all been fun and games up till now."

That's all well and good. But what happens if Basanez continues to struggle or if Hanie gets hurt? Who backs up Cutler at that point?

Frankly, the Bears' options are limited, with few free-agent signal-callers currently available (although more will start to surface once roster cut-downs begin in the next two weeks).

One possibility is Brian Griese, who previously spent two seasons with the Bears (2006-07) before seeing limited action last season with Tampa, which eventually released him.

While Hanie and Basanez could both wind up excelling at their positions, there admittedly was quite a scramble last week when media reports filtered onto the Olivet Nazarene University campus that Michael Vick was in Chicago.

Several local media outlets questioned if Vick was secretly in the Windy City to discuss signing with the Bears -- when in reality he was only here to speak to a youth group, part of the community service aspect of his probation from prison. Vick signed a few days later with the Philadelphia Eagles.

But that shows the potential fragility of Cutler's backup band. And while the coaching staff has strong faith in the abilities of Hanie and Basanez, it also knows it can't expect Cutler-like performance from either of them for some time, if ever.

"I like their energy," Hamilton said. "And when I say energy, I'm talking about their diligence in the classroom and their attentiveness out here on the football field. They're both willing to learn, and they understand they have a long ways to go before they're able to go out and be able to help our football team win."

In addition to winning football games and throwing touchdowns, part of Cutler's job is to mentor Hanie and Basanez, giving them tips and pointers and allowing them to pick his brain.

"[Cutler] makes me want to be a better player and try to aspire to the things he's accomplished," Hanie said. "He helps me out with little things here and there, like coverages and stuff like that."

Cutler doesn't seem to have a problem that he is supported by a pair of players with limited pro experience. He likes what he sees in his understudies and welcomes the opportunity to mentor and help them grow as his backups and as professionals.

"They're great guys, and I think we all have good conversations and stuff and bounce things off each other," Cutler said. "Caleb asks a lot of questions, which I think is great.

"The more questions, the better. It gets me thinking, as well, as I can give him some other advice on what he's doing and stuff. Those two guys are doing well and coming along."

While Basanez looks to shake off his outing at Buffalo, Hanie is brimming with confidence after outshining Cutler against the Bills. So I asked him point-blank: If something happened to Cutler, are you ready to step in?

"It's a little pressure, just butterflies and being anxious for the game, just normal stuff," Hanie said. "You just can't overwhelm yourself, not look too much into it like a live-or-die type of thing, without being complacent at the same time.

"It's kind of a balance of that and just really getting focused on scoring, making plays and doing your job."

Time will tell if Hanie and Basanez can do just that -- or like the storms that passed through the area prior to Wednesday night's practice session, if they and the Bears wind up all wet.

Jerry Bonkowski | email

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Award-winning sportswriting veteran Jerry Bonkowski returns to ESPN, having previously served as NASCAR columnist/writer for ESPN.com from 2001 to 2004. A lifelong Chicago native, Jerry spent 15 years with USA Today, where he covered all sports -- with heavy emphasis on Chicago-area teams -- and the past 4½ years as National NASCAR Columnist with Yahoo! Sports.

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