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Forget this season, Bears have big issues to sort out in 2012

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte heads locker room following his 205 yard rushing effort 34-29 wover CarolinPanthers Sunday October

Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte heads to the locker room following his 205 yard rushing effort in the 34-29 win over the Carolina Panthers Sunday October 2, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 22, 2012 8:19AM

Whether it’s Rex Grossman for Kyle Orton or Craig Krenzel for Jonathan Quinn, a new starting quarterback usually elicits an automatic wave of enthusiasm and hope among Bears fans.

But the likelihood that Josh McCown will replace Caleb Hanie for the game against the Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday night is unlikely to snap anyone out of the dreadful funk surrounding this year’s disappointing team. After being burned by the Hanie experience, nothing short of Jay Cutler will inspire anybody at this point.

Coach Lovie Smith’s tepid-at-best and not-so-veiled responses to questions about Hanie on Monday indicated a change will be made. And the Bears’ weekly media itinerary that was e-mailed to reporters on Tuesday, which last week listed ‘‘Caleb Hanie in the media room’’ at noon on Wednesday, listed “Bears quarterback in the media room’’ this week.

There’s a saying in sports reporting that ‘‘everyone always wants to know what the quarterback’s thinking.’’ That’s why Hanie’s news conferences since he became the starter have run longer than Cutler’s.

But not anymore. We’re in the ‘‘Twilight Zone’’ of the Bears’ season — a particularly apt reference for Halas Hall — where the Bears still have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, but most Bears fans who have seen enough in 2011 are ready to move on to 2012. McCown? Hanie? Everybody wants to know what general manager Jerry Angelo’s thinking. We’re two weeks away from that.

In the meantime, while we’re asking McCown if he’s as comfortable with Mike Martz’s offense as Hanie was, how much confidence he has in his offensive line, how much pressure he feels to right a listing ship and how great of an opportunity this is, our focus will really be on big-picture questions that eventually deserve answers. Here are three for starters:

Will Mike Martz stay or go?

This is the epitome of Halas Hall dysfunction: After two years of Martz’s offense, we still don’t know if the Bears are better off with him or without him.

With the Bears having invested two years in the system, the offense was showing enough promise when Cutler was injured that it would seem like a waste to have to start over.

Then again, even with the best quarterback the Bears have ever had, installing Martz’s offense has been a laborious process. Every flaw exposes another flaw and eventually leads to a daunting conclusion: Like any other offense in the NFL, it takes really good players to make it work.

No matter how much more about football Martz knows than we do, one simple, subtle trend is hard to ignore: In his first year in Ron Turner’s offense, Cutler completed 60.5 percent of his passes. In two years in Martz’s offense, Cutler’s completion percentage fell to 59.5 percent in 2010 and 58 percent in 2011 — and that’s a ‘‘franchise’’ quarterback in an offense that lives and breathes on completion percentage.

Will the Bears start fixating on a No. 1 wide receiver in the offseason?

Whether Angelo knows it or not, the question ‘‘Does the quarterback make the receiver or does the receiver make the quarterback?’’ has been answered this year. And the critical question is whether Angelo knows it or not because from the time the Bears moved Roy Williams ahead of Johnny Knox in training camp, they proved again they know little about wide receivers and even less about managing people.

Williams’ untimely drops, Knox’s injury, Devin Hester’s stagnation and Hanie throwing into triple coverage for Dane Sanzenbacher should make it pretty clear something needs to be done.

Will the Bears sign Matt Forte to a long-term contract in the offseason?

Unless Forte’s camp suddenly agrees with the Bears that an NFL running back is an expendable and depreciating asset — and it’s very doubtful they would — Forte is almost certain to get the franchise tag for 2012. Whether he plays after getting tagged remains to be seen.

Forte was having a great season. But he averaged 78 yards from scrimmage in his last three complete games. Marion Barber had 140 yards from scrimmage against the Broncos. Kahlil Bell had 108 yards from scrimmage against the Seahawks. Neither is Forte. But — except for quarterbacks — numbers speak louder than intangibles in the negotiating room.

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