THE BEARS'reliance on their ground game is as certain as death and taxes and anotherBatman sequel. "We still get off the bus running," Lovie Smith has saidevery year since becoming coach in 2004. Yet after last year's measly 83.1rushing yards per game (second lowest in team history), and with this season'sbackfield-by-committee that includes career reserve Adrian Peterson,injury-prone free agent Kevin Jones and untested second-round draft pick MattForte (Tulane), what Chicago needs most is serious production from receiverswho can stretch the defense.
With the loss ofreceiving-yardage leaders Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad to free agency,the Bears are rebooting at wideout. Start with Devin Hester. Last year, hissecond in the NFL, the electric return man was gradually worked into thelineup; he peaked with 11 catches and a touchdown over the last four games,primarily out of three- and four-wideout sets in which he could draw favorablematchups. At season's end Smith all but declared Hester his No. 1 receiver for2008.
Is Hester ready?Well, his route running is still imprecise. And he has taken only a handful offull-on hits in his pro career, so there's the question of whether his5'11", 189-pound frame can handle the physical toll of being an every-downreceiver in addition to returning kickoffs and punts. Smith doesn't seemworried. "Working on his body in the off-season was key because he's goingto have a lot more duties," he says. "We expect he can handleit."
Chicago also hopesthat Hester's natural skills offset his mechanical issues, as they did on twoinstances in a one-on-one drill at training camp. On both plays Hester lost hisfooting on hook routes—and both times his concentration and great hands allowedhim to snag the throw high over his head while on his knees. Says quarterbackKyle Orton, who was named the starter over Rex Grossman in mid-August,"Once [Devin] gets the kinks out, the things he does on the field willerase any questions people have about him as a receiver."
Until then theBears will lean on two veterans plucked off the NFL scrap heap, Marty Booker(late of the Dolphins) and Brandon Lloyd (Redskins). Booker, who played inChicago from 1999 through 2003, is the best bet to fill Muhammad'spossession-receiver role, given his similar skill set (crisply run routes,great hands) and experience. The 32-year-old has seven seasons of 47 or morereceptions and had a Bears-record 100 catches in '01. He's also unlikely to bejarred by the club's iffy quarterback situation. "I've had 16 differentquarterbacks in my career," says Booker. "Who's throwing has never beenan issue."
On the other side,Lloyd is being counted on to pick up most of Berrian's 71 catches and 951 yardsof last year, which seems a stretch until you consider his background. Lloydwas a star under coach Ron Turner at Illinois, finishing No. 2 on the school'salltime list for receiving yards, and followed with three promising years withthe 49ers, who ran an offense similar to Turner's. After a trade to theRedskins in 2006, though, Lloyd fell out of favor and his production declined.Now reunited with Turner, the Bears' offensive coordinator and a friend of 10years, Lloyd envisions a career revival. "Having that familiar face aroundis huge," he says. "Same offense; similar terminologies. There's a lotof promise."
Fighting forplaying time are fourth-year men Rashied Davis and Mark Bradley, plusthird-round pick Earl Bennett (Vanderbilt), the SEC's alltime leading receiver.The running backs and tight ends are better-than-average pass catchers as well."That's a lot of guys to get the ball to," says Davis. "You reallyhave to hope the competition raises all of our games."
If so—and keep inmind that by Week 3 the Bears will have faced two of the league's top passdefenses, Indianapolis and Tampa Bay—Lovie Smith might have to finally changehis tune. Catch as catch can, perhaps?
COACH LOVIE SMITH (36--28 in NFL), fifth season with Bears
Matt FORTE (R)
John ST. CLAIR
SACKS 4 1/2
New ACQUISITION(R) Rookie (college statistics)
2007 Record 7--9NFL RANK (Rush/Pass/Total): OFFENSE 30/15/27 DEFENSE 24/27/28
7 at Indianapolis
14 at Carolina
21 TAMPA BAY
5 at Detroit
12 at Atlanta
16 at Green Bay
23 at St. Louis
30 at Minnesota
11 NEW ORLEANS (T)
22 GREEN BAY (M)
28 at Houston
(M) Monday (T) Thursday
NFL Rank: 11
Opponents' 2007 winning
Games against playoff teams: 6
SI.com's NFL personnel expert Michael Lombardievaluates the Bears' units.
Not sure anyone here will be generating very many wins.
Rookie Forte offers hope of return to old Bears style.
Need Hester to emerge; others lack speed, playmaking.
Olsen and Desmond Clark very good receiver-blocker duo.
Rookie Chris Williams's back woes just one question.
Team's strength: versatile, athletic, keyed by Harris.
Win-with-D strategy founded on these rangy playmakers.
Brown can't stay healthy; safeties must tackle better.
Cold-weather kicker and skilled coverage squads.
A healthy Brown could be the difference between amediocre defense and one that can carry a lackluster offense. Brown has missed43 of the Bears' last 64 games, during which they went 20--23 when he was outand 16--5 when he played. Brown is slated to start in '08, but he's not takinghis good health for granted. "I go day by day," he says.
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August 16, 1982
"I FEEL," he says, "like an old man."He doesn't look it. His face is unlined. His movements are quick; he can't sitstill for long. He gets up, paces, taps his green motorcycle, which stands inthe middle of the lobby, sits down, gets up again. He talks quickly, instaccato bursts. You get a feeling of electricity. Sparks seem to shoot fromhim. --Paul Zimmerman
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DOWN TO THE DETAILS Hester has the tools but must be more precise in his routes.
JERRY WACHTER (COVER)