Chicago Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz had third string, rookie quarterback Nathan Enderle practice with the second unit this past Monday. This came as a surprise to most everyone, especially backup quarterback Caleb Hanie. Since that time, there has been non-stop discussion in the Chicago newspapers and on sports radio and television about the backup quarterback controversy. Is Caleb Hanie in Martz’s doghouse? Will a fifth round draft pick out of Idaho take over as Cutler’s primary backup? The real question is why does anyone care?
If the Bears are truly contenders in the NFC this year, the player taking snaps behind Cutler in practice is irrelevant. If Hanie or Enderle is forced to play more than two games this season, the team can kiss the playoffs goodbye. The fact that Enderle went 7 for 10 with over 100 yards in his first game only proves that preseason statistics are meaningless. Generally, a third string quarterback plays against third string defenders making them look better than they really are. It’s the same idea for the second stringer. For years Bear fans clamored for the backup to become the starter because of the preseason success they would have against mediocre defensive talent. Even among backups, Hanie is considered below average. Nathan Enderle, being a rookie and having no off-season time with the team, would fare no better than Caleb if forced into regular season game action.
Without regular season games to dissect, all we have are the acute happenings of Bears practices and preseason games. That being said, the more important quarterback story going into this year is whether Jay Cutler will take the next step in Martz’s offense and return to Pro Bowl form. My sense of the Bears fan base is that we have accepted Cutler as a good, but not great quarterback. We want him to play well and manage an average offense while the defense dominates opponents. Fans should not accept anything but a Pro Bowl season from Cutler in 2011. In his second year in this offense he will make decisions faster avoiding some of the poor throws and sacks he took last year. Though the personnel around him hasn’t dramatically improved, it is somewhat better. Despite losing Olin Kreutz, Mike Tice has an overall better understanding of his linemen in his second year coaching them. He has two more 1st round draft picks on the roster in Chris Spencer (2005) and Gabe Carimi (2011). Their talents and his coaching ability should produce results, if not immediately. Jerry Angelo didn’t sign any top-tier wide receivers but has essentially swapped Devin Aromashodu and Rashied Davis with Roy Williams and Sam Hurd. That is certainly not a bad thing. A slightly improved offensive line combined with upgrades at the receiver position should make Jay a more successful quarterback. He should have a higher completion percentage and fewer interceptions than 2010.
Along with Jay Cutler’s on-the-field performance, look for him to become more of a team leader and improve on his relationship with the media. With Olin Kreutz in New Orleans there is a void of leadership on the offensive side of the ball. Cutler, now in his third season with the team, will fill that hole and become even more of a vocal team leader. A recently published Sports Illustrated article gives us a different view of him as a player and a person. He comes off as a tough player and good teammate instead of just an aloof quarterback who hates the media and quit on his team last year. The player backlash on Twitter from last year’s NFC Championship has seemingly put the media on his side for the first time in his career. Instead of finding ways to criticize him, there are more positive stories going into the season. Cutler doesn’t care much about the peripheral aspects of being a star quarterback. He cares about playing football and winning games (and making money) . If he becomes a Pro Bowler again he’ll be golden in the eyes of Bear fans. And if he doesn’t, get ready for the Nathan Enderle era in Chicago.