A chance encounter in his hometown of Dallas before Super Bowl XLV put Caleb Hanie in front of Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway.
A bit awestruck, the suddenly relevant Bears quarterback listened as Elway offered words of encouragement for Hanie's play in the NFC championship loss to the Packers. They had a moment. A young NFL backup quarterback receiving a compliment from Elway is like a young computer programmer having his software endorsed by Bill Gates.
Elway apparently saw something special in Hanie in the only game fair to judge his development. Lovie Smith sees enough in Hanie to feel confident trusting him to keep the Bears in playoff contention as starting quarterback Jay Cutler recovers from a broken thumb.
I see what they see — a dynamic playmaker poised to take full advantage of his opportunity, provided he displays growth as a decision-maker beginning Sunday against the Raiders in his first NFL start.
Cutler will undergo surgery to repair his broken right thumb as early as Tuesday but, despite the understandable angst expressed during a demoralizing Monday in the city, the Bears' playoff chances remain healthy and intact.
As much as losing Cutler for at least the next six weeks should stop Bears fans from wondering if they will drive or fly to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis, their team still has no excuse to miss the playoffs. The Bears lost a quarterback, not an identity.
Consider too that not only will Hanie allow the Bears to keep their postseason goals alive, he will give the Bears an edge at the position in four of their final six games if he stays within himself. Sure, Carson Palmer of the Raiders and Aaron Rodgers of the Packers enjoy clear-cut advantages. But, sorry, neither the Chiefs' Tyler Palko, Broncos' Tim Tebow, Seahawks' Tarvaris Jackson nor Vikings' Christian Ponder gives his respective team a better chance to win than Hanie does.
As long as Hanie remembers what his role is.
"You know how we win football games around here," Smith said Monday at a news conference at Halas Hall.
Indeed, winning games in Chicago with a franchise quarterback is the exception and not the rule. Traditionally under Smith, the Bears do it with defense that makes life hard on quarterbacks and special teams that make history. They often do it in ways that leave us looking for smoke and mirrors, in spite of the quarterback and not because of him.
The Bears have been here before. Neither the 2011 defense nor the running game is as good as 2005, but success that playoff season gives the veteran core a reference point of rallying around a backup quarterback.
Even before Smith urged everybody not to feel sorry for the 7-3 Bears, I didn't pity them. Take away the Packers game on Christmas Day — hard to project as a win even with a healthy Cutler — and the remaining five Bears opponents have a combined 21-29 record. Even with Hanie and a makeshift offensive line, the Bears still look better than the Chiefs, Broncos, Seahawks and Vikings. Realistically, they can finish with 11 wins and definitely 10.
The opportunity Hanie faces exceeds the pressure. The more he tries to make big plays the less successful he will be making them. Offensive coordinator Mike Martz needs to put the quarterback, whose talent he has been reluctant to acknowledge, in the best position to succeed: rollouts, short drops and play-action passes.
A solid rapport with receivers and teammates already exists. Chemistry with Martz will take time given the way he played head games with Hanie during training camp.
Smith unintentionally did Hanie a disservice proclaiming expectations for the position won't change. That's ridiculous. Cutler had begun to evolve into the difference-making quarterback worth two first-round draft picks and Kyle Orton. Expecting similar impact from Hanie is unfair. Expecting him to complete 60 percent of his passes, protect the football and provide solid, natural leadership isn't.
Finding Hanie a reliable backup poses a bigger Bears problem. Rookie Nathan Enderle isn't the answer unless the question is: Who's the least-qualified NFL player on the Bears' roster?
Before you finish that thought about Brett Favre, stop. Forget Kurt Warner, who happily tweeted he isn't leaving the TV studio. I like the idea of Marc Bulger if Martz could talk his former player out of retirement and the Bears were willing to pay him a year's salary for six games to guard against injury. The reality of that risk makes worry over Hanie's replacement more appropriate than concern over Cutler's.
Expect Hanie to thrive because of what the next six weeks mean to his career and the Bears season, which wasn't canceled Monday no matter how dire the news seemed.