UPDATE: It appears Tom Ryle or one of the BTB senior editors added the item about Caleb Hanie's minimal signing bonus and getting the veteran minimum. My thanks to whoever added that fact to the story. Thanks also to everyone who voted on who will be the Cowboys back up in September. - CiC
Kyle Orton's retirement appears imminent -- unless the front office can cut him first. Unfortunately, by talking retirement Orton appears to have killed his trade value to a veteran QB-needy team like the Buffalo Bills or Houston Texans.
The Cowboys planned for this contingency this offseason by signing former Cleveland Browns 1st round pick Brandon Weeden. However, Weeden is 30 years old, having spent most of his twenties pitching fastballs in the minor leagues. Weeden brings a cannon arm to the backup position but demonstrated happy feet and poor ball security under siege in Cleveland's porous pocket last year. A scouting write-up by the Mothership's Bryan Broaddus indicates that some of this could have been due to poor offensive line play by Shawn Lavuo (now signed with Washington) and John Greco. Even so, Weeden is unquestionably a pocket passer with a huge question mark over his NFL future. Especially considering that Weeden's efforts in Cleveland weren't just ugly, but woeful despite having the talented WR/TE combo of Josh Gordon and Cameron Jordan as weapons.
Earlier this month, while discussing Weeden signing a 2-year contract for the veteran minimum and no guarantees, head coach Jason Garrett didn't exactly give the former Oklahoma State Cowboy a ringing endorsement: "We feel in signing Brandon Weeden, he can be viewed as that developmental guy". While Weeden at 30 doesn't have as much football mileage as other quarterbacks of the same age, the Cowboys hedged their bet by signing Forney, Texas native Caleb Hanie to a one-year deal paying $730,000 (the veteran minimum for Hanie) with a paltry $65,000 signing bonus and no guarantees.
Meanwhile, some Cowboy fans including this BTB reader had been wondering whether the Boys should bring back last year's preseason hopeful, Alex "trick shot" Tanney, who was released by Cleveland before the Browns cut ties with Weeden. Tanney was my pet cat in last year's training camp, but he signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this week. That leaves the Cowboys with what they have on the offseason roster -- Weeden, Hanie and West Texas A&M rookie Dustin Vaughn -- competing for the job behind Romo. Unless Hanie or Weeden demonstrate a surprising career renaissance, none of those options look very attractive for Cowboys fans praying Romo doesn't miss any serious time.
Caleb Hanie's Tough Time in Chicago
Hanie enters Cowboys camp as perhaps the ultimate underdog -- he might be viewed as an even longer shot to stick around than the rookie Vaughn, who is eligible for the practice squad. The reason for this is that Hanie flamed out as the Bears backup QB in 2011 after a brutal stretch of four consecutive losses with a cumulative passer rating under 50.
When the former Colorado State Ram had protection he was able to hit the Bears fast but smurfy receivers Johnny Knox, Devin Hester and tight ends Greg Olson and Kellen Davis (all four players are no longer with Chicago). But that was seldom the case, including in the all-NFC Central championship game of early 2011 when Hanie came off the bench to relieve an ineffective Todd Collins and become a fan favorite for nearly completing a comeback against the Packers.
As the 2011 season opened with greater optimism following the signing of WR Brandon Marshall, there was even some chatter in Chi-Town about Hanie pushing Jay Cutler for the starting job. But the pathetic o-line play that ruined the Bears' 2010 season (best personified by the human turnstile at OT JaMarcus Webb) also ruined Hanie's promising young career. It should also be noted that Hanie exhibited the same tendency to force the football into tight spaces as Cutler but without Cutler's arm, leading to high interception tallies for both in Mike Martz's system. The problem was Martz, the offensive line, inadequate weapons, or all of the previous combined. When Marc Trestman finally fixed the Bears' o-line and signed TE Martellus Bennett in one off-season, Cutler settled down and became a Pro Bowl-level quarterback (when he's not hurt). But Trestman's arrival came too late for Hanie, whose journeyman career took him from Denver to the Baltimore Ravens roster last preseason.
The Case for Caleb to Be the Cowboys No. 2
Can the 28-year-old Hanie be effective running Jason Garrett's offense? As in Chicago he will have a talented lead back to hand off to -- and perhaps a better stable of backups to work with in the screen passing game. There's no question if he had to start in 2014 Hanie's offensive line would be better than at any time from 2009 to 2011 with the Bears. Hanie will also have better (and in the case of his receivers, bigger) weapons to throw to at wide receiver and tight end, compensating for his average arm. I doubt as well that Hanie has lost some of the mobility and moxie he demonstrated to make throws on the move.
The biggest question mark is going to be whether Hanie can avoid costly interceptions while throwing downfield. At the same time, Cowboys passing game coordinator Scott Linehan is hardly going to be satisfied with a 'Captain Checkdown' at QB if Romo misses significant time. Unless Hanie impresses early in preseason he's not going to stick around, and the Cowboys will roll with Weeden at backup with Dustin Vaughn likely biding his time on the practice squad. On the other hand, Weeden will also have to demonstrate better accuracy when he has time in the pocket than he showed in Cleveland where there were simply too many throws sailing or being picked off with wide open receivers. Weeden's highlight or lowlight reel from last year makes me far more nervous even than Hanie's picks from 2010-2011. Presumably Hanie has had more time since then to regain his confidence.
Brock Jensen -- Younger and Better Than Hanie?
Nonetheless, I'm left wondering whether Hanie's biggest competitor is Weeden, or a quarterback not on the Cowboys training camp roster. If all three wannabe backups on the roster disappoint in preseason and I'm the Cowboys scouting department, I would take a long look at Dolphins rookie Brock Jensen of North Dakota State. Cowboys scouts must have seen this kid live while he was winning two consecutive FCS title games in nearby Frisco, Texas. They certainly have enough film to know whether or not Jensen has an NFL-ready arm.
Bottom line: the Cowboys have neglected developmental quarterbacks while struggling to address more burning needs for the 52nd and 53rd spots on their roster than a 3rd QB (interior OL, DL, LB) in the last two seasons. Romo's age and back injury history means they can't afford to neglect the position any longer, even if Brandon Weeden and Caleb Hanie were the best of what was available in this off-season's NFL QB bargain bin.