As you've probably heard by now, Chicago Bears quarterback Jay Cutler likely needs surgery on a broken thumb. It's not clear when or if he'll be returning this season, but for now, this is Caleb Hanie's team. Will the fourth-year passer out of Colorado State be able to keep Chicago's playoff dreams alive?
To answer that question, we must first look at the quarterback Hanie will be replacing. Following his 286-yard, two-touchdown game against San Diego, Cutler now ranks 18th out of 39 qualifying passers (minimum 100 pass plays) in both DYAR and DVOA, the primary statistics we use at Football Outsiders to evaluate quarterbacks. (These stats are explained more here.) That does not mean, however, that there are 17 quarterbacks out there superior to Cutler. No football player posts individual statistics in a vacuum. Cutler isn't out there throwing passes to himself. He needs his linemen to block for him and his receivers to catch passes, and the talent around him (particularly in the blocking department) is clearly inferior to what he played with early in his career. Cutler was a perennial top-10 passer with the Denver Broncos, but he ranked in the 30s in his first two seasons in the Windy City.
(The opposite is also true, by the way. In four years in Chicago, Kyle Orton was never in the top 20 quarterbacks in our rankings. He was 12th in each of his first two seasons in Denver before getting Tebowed this year.)
Lately, though, Cutler and the Bears had been playing much better. At the end of Week 3, Cutler sat third from the bottom in our quarterback rankings. Since then, he's been 12th in DYAR, 10th in DVOA. The biggest difference: The Bears have avoided sacks. Cutler hit the turf 4.7 times per game in Weeks 1-3, but has gone down just 1.3 times per contest since then.
Can the Bears have similar success with Hanie? We don't have a lot of data on Chicago's new starter; he's had just 16 pass plays in the regular season. His player page at Football Outsiders shows that the most similar passer to Hanie over the past two seasons is Aaron Rodgers in 2006-07, the last two seasons the Green Bay quarterback backed up Brett Favre. Is that a sign Hanie is about to put up MVP numbers? Hardly -- other quarterbacks who have played like Hanie in limited action include luminaries like Mike Kruczek, Scott Secules and Guy Benjamin.