5th in a 10-part series
How dysfunctional are the Chicago Bears at wide receiver?
In two seasons under pass-happy Mike Martz, they couldn’t come up with a 1,000-yard receiver.
If that’s not a sign something is wrong, it ought to be. Martz, of course, is the man who coaxed 1,086 yards out of Mike Furrey in 2006 with the Detroit Lions. Yes, that Mike Furrey. The guy, who in six other NFL seasons, combined to have 1,212 receiving yards.
Roy Williams made a late push to tie Johnny Knox for the team lead in receptions among wide receivers at 37. Running back Matt Forte had 52 receptions. It marked the lowest total for a Bears’ leading wide receiver since Willie Gault had 35 in 1987, a 15-game season as a result of a one-game players’ strike.
Since Marty Booker had 1,189 yards in 2002 under the tutelage of wide receivers coach Todd Haley, there have been 181 1,000-yard receivers. Not one has had an orange “C” on the sides of his helmet. The Bears got the quarterback they needed in Jay Cutler to turn fortunes around three seasons ago, but they’ve yet to complete the steps necessary to arm him as one of the league’s better quarterbacks.
The problem has been two-fold. The Bears, under former general manager Jerry Angelo, failed to commit the resources necessary to make the position one of strength. The resources that were devoted have been underdeveloped. In total, Angelo drafted 11 receivers (not counting cornerback Devin Hester in the second round in 2006). One second-round pick Mark Bradley was a bust – a combination of bad knees and worse hands. Bradley once explained his high-ankle sprain was the result of falling down the steps while hurrying to watch a spiritual DVD with his father. You can’t make that stuff up. One third-round pick Bernard Berrian was a productive yet one-dimensional player. The Bears remain thankful to this day they re-signed linebacker Lance Briggs in free agency in March 2008 and not Berrian.
Third-round pick Earl Bennett has been a solid player but a chest injury and the loss of Cutler for six games made 2011 a wash for him. He made 24 receptions and his biggest catch was a contract extension through 2015. Knox was probably Angelo’s best find at the position as a fifth rounder in 2009. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say how he will respond from back surgery, although early indications were positive.
Adventures into free agency have produced mixed results, some slightly more productive than Williams.
Roll call: Roy Williams (unrestricted free agent), Devin Hester (signed through 2013), Earl Bennett (signed through 2015), Johnny Knox (signed through 2012), Dane Sanzenbacher (signed through 2013), Max Komar (signed through 2013), Sam Hurd (waived).
2011 review: It will be difficult to forget Martz finding some shade under a large tree in the center of the courtyard outside the Olivet Nazarene University dining hall and projecting greatness for Williams, who was signed in a flurry of short-term deals the Bears hammered out in free agency. Martz, who had worked with Williams in Detroit, projected 70 to 80 receptions for Williams. It was a surprising prediction when considering Williams’ struggles in Dallas. Then, Williams did little with the first team offense in camp because he was out of shape. Talk about an omen.
Knox had his feathers ruffled quickly when it became apparent that Martz and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake were trying to motivate him or actually thought Williams was an upgrade. It was made clear to Knox his playing time would be reduced. He ended up turning in the only 100-yard game for the group for the season, getting 145 yards in a loss at Oakland Nov. 27 -- the result of an 81-yard bomb from Caleb Hanie late in the game.
Hester continued to be miscast and then an ankle sprain and host of other minor injuries pretty much took him out of the offense for the second half of the season. He had 91 yards vs. the Vikings Oct. 16, one of only three games with more than 50 yards receiving.
In Bennett’s absence, Sanzenbacher, the undrafted free agent from Ohio State, stepped up. Nineteen of his 25 receptions came in the first seven games when, for a while, he was the team’s leading wide receiver. It’s not a condemnation of Sanzenbacher to say something is wrong with that. An undrafted college free agent should not step in and lead a team in receiving unless something is wrong with the receivers in place. The Bears will try to explain it had to do with the position Sanzenbacher and the offense directed balls his way. The bottom line is the team didn’t have veterans in position to step up, win one-on-one matchups and be productive on a consistent basis.
Free agency/draft priority: This has been a top need area for years and Angelo admitted he might have gone ahead and drafted a wide receiver in the first round in 2009 if the Bears had not engineered the trade for Cutler. Imagine how Hakeem Nicks might look atop the depth chart right now. It remains to be seen how the To Be Announced general manager will assess the position. Early indications are new offensive coordinator Mike Tice wants a big-play element to the passing game while remaining run-oriented. Some of the most successful coaching staffs Tice was ever a part of included Randy Moss and Cris Carter. He knows what dominant wide receivers look like. There could very well be an option or two in free agency and the Bears need to begin developing wide receivers which is a reason why Greg Olson is an ideal candidate to become the passing game coordinator/quarterbacks coach. He’s had success in offenses with young receivers previously. However you break down the needs of the offense, and the line could use some more talent, wide receiver has to be at the top of the stack.
Looking ahead: The Bears have some complementary players in place, the kind of targets that will look good as No. 2 and No. 3 receivers. That is what they need to be. Until significant change comes to this position room, it’s going to be sub-par. They can talk about talent and roles all they want, but they don’t have a playmaker that strikes fear in an opponent. They don’t have someone the defense knows will be getting the ball on third-and-six and still cannot stop. That’s the problem.
Bottom line: Cutler is sure to continue recruiting efforts on Twitter for some help. He’s got no other choice.
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