CHICAGO – Sid Luckman was without a doubt the best quarterback the Bears ever had.
Sad to say, his ghost would probably be ranked No. 2.
So imagine this: Nearly a century into the NFL's longest-running rivalry and six decades after Luckman left town, Chicago may have finally found another real quarterback. Unfortunately, they didn't take the wraps off Caleb Hanie until a minute remained in the third quarter of Green Bay's 21-14 win over the Bears — too late to do the league's most historically pass-challenged franchise much good.
As it turned out, Hanie was the team's third option at quarterback, sent in to relieve second-stringer Todd Collins, himself a replacement for injured starter Jay Cutler. Yet Hanie still managed to throw more passes than Cutler and Collins combined, including the Bears' only passing touchdown, and nearly doubled their passing yardage and quarterback ratings.
"People were telling me, 'congratulations' after and I'm thinking I just threw interceptions," Hanie said sheepishly afterward. "I guess all that means is that they don't expect much."
That will go down as the understatement of the Bears' season. Lousy QBs are such a given in Chicago that when the team traded in April, 2009, for the rocket-armed Cutler — who despite plenty of hoopla did little in Denver and never reached the playoffs — half the Bears fans volunteered to pick him up at the airport. Then he found out why few QBs ever flourish here, went 7-9 with an NFL-high 26 interceptions, and probably figured out that the other half of the fan base had volunteered to drive him back to O'Hare.
But the Bears brought in offensive coordinator Mike Martz to capitalize on Cutler's strength, and despite some rocky stretches, made it as far as the next-to-last game of the season. Cutler took a shot to the knee in the last series before intermission.
After an exam at halftime, team trainers taped the joint and Cutler tried riding an exercise bike on the sideline in hopes of playing the second half. Finally, the medical staff ruled him out.
"It's a lonely feeling," Cutler said. "Go through training camp and everything else and get to this point and have an opportunity to get in the Super Bowl, it's hard."
Harder still was the barrage Cutler took instantaneously on Twitter from some current and retired NFL players. Several questioned his guts.
"If I'm on chicago team jay cutler has to wait till me and the team shower get dressed and leave before he comes in the locker room!" wrote Cardinals defensive lineman Darnell Dockett.
"Folks i never question a players injury but i do question a players heart," wrote Deion Sanders, the far-from-lionhearted one-time cornerback and current NFL analyst.
Nobody, though, questioned Hanie's heart.
The former Colorado State quarterback went undrafted in 2008, threw exactly seven passes in his first two seasons and found out during the Bears bye week that he'd dropped to No. 3 behind Collins, the 38-year-old journeyman from Michigan. Asked whether the demotion motivated him, Hanie said, "I'd like to think I don't need that type of motivation."
Every Bears quarterback can find all the motivation he needs simply by studying the team's record books. After all this time, Luckman still holds nearly every important mark.
Hanie grew up in Forney, Texas, a small town some 40 miles east of Cowboys Stadium and from among all the great Dallas quarterbacks, chose Troy Aikman as his model. He acknowledged he knew little about the Bears' sorry legacy at the position when he arrived — Jim McMahon and Erik Kramer were the only two that came to mind — then added, "I know it's been a carousel this decade."
Just this decade?
Caleb, try since the day club founder George Halas threw open the doors on the business.
It's easy to see how Chicago became home and hearth to so many vicious defenders over the years. The front office rarely risked high draft picks on quarterbacks or soft-handed receivers, arguing a punishing defense was the quickest way to find an audience and keep it in what was decidedly a workingman's town during the league's formative years.
Others say the cold, wind and snow that prevailed for much of the season made an offense that relied on the pass too risky a proposition. But that didn't stop the Packers, stuck in the same tough climate, from upgrading their offense when the league changed the rules to favor a more wide-open game.
The Bears, in fact, went through nearly two dozen starters during the stretch Brett Favre was with the Packers and might need half as many again to be competitive during the reign of third-year starter Aaron Rodgers, who is proving the best way to succeed a legend is start fast and then get even better.
Hanie isn't likely to unseat Cutler anytime soon. Not after what the Bears gave up to get Cutler, nor considering how much cash they threw at him in 2009 to secure a two-year contract extension through 2013. That suited the Super Bowl-bound Packers just fine.
"I kind of wish we had Jay in there the whole game," Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews said, "the way things were going."
"I heard his knee was banged up or something like that," safety Charlie Peprah added, "but 12 came in and good for him. I'm hopeful this will spark his career in the NFL. He came in and didn't seem too rattled."
In Chicago, that's what passes for progress.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org