EARL BENNETT wassitting in a classroom at Vanderbilt on April 2, working toward completing hisundergraduate degree, when he learned that his career outlook had changeddramatically. Bennett, a wide receiver who was picked in the third round by theBears in 2008, was coming off a disappointing rookie season in which he did notstart a game or catch a pass. But the text message he received in class thatday, telling him he was about to be reunited with quarterback Jay Cutler, wascause for optimism. "I thought it was too good to be true," Bennettsays. "It felt like I was back in orientation at Vanderbilt before myfreshman year, getting ready to play with Jay."
Chicago is bankingon Cutler and Bennett to rekindle the rapport they had during their one seasontogether at Vandy; the last pass Cutler threw in college was a game-winning TDto Bennett at Tennessee. Bennett, the SEC's alltime receptions leader may stillbe looking for his first professional reception, but as Cutler likes to pointout, so was Broncos receiver Eddie Royal at this time last year, and as arookie he caught 91 passes playing with Cutler.
Chicago hasfinally solved its long-standing quarterback problem. Now the Bears must findout if they have the receivers to meet his standards. Cutler is intensely loyalto Bennett, and he has gone out of his way to tutor Devin Hester, who wasdrafted by the Bears as a cornerback three years ago and has evolved into theirNo. 1 receiver. Hester has the speed to stretch defenses, and now he shouldhave a QB who can take advantage of it. After pass patterns in practice, Cutlerhuddles with Hester and carefully deconstructs the previous play.
"I want him tobe tough on me," Hester says. "That's the type of quarterback everywide receiver is looking for. If he tells you what you're doing wrong, that'show you get better. If he doesn't, you don't."
Chicago's passinggame, dormant for much of the decade, ranked 29th in the NFL last season inyards per completion, a statistic particularly galling to Hester consideringhis reputation for big gains. He would run down the field, watch a pass fallincomplete, then run back and do it over again. "It was sad," Hestersays. "It hurt. It was frustrating knowing what we were capable of but notbeing able to do it."
Given the shoddyquarterback play—Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman had a combined passer rating of77.1 in '08—it was hard for the Bears to fully evaluate their young receiversover the past few years. Were the struggles of the offense completely the faultof the QBs, or were the receivers partly to blame? This season should go a longway toward answering that question. With Cutler in the fold, the wideouts haveno excuses. "People can doubt them all they want," Cutler says."That's fine. But those guys are going to come to play on Sunday, and I'mexcited about the whole group."
The receivers'first step was to get acclimated to Cutler's arm strength. He throws withsubstantially more velocity than recent Chicago passers, and even though Cutlerworked with the receivers before training camp, there were still some roughpatches. During one early camp practice Cutler unleashed an out pattern thatwhizzed past Hester's head. "You've got to get your head around quick,"wide receivers coach Darryl Drake barked at Hester. "Really quick."
The Bears havetraditionally been carried by an ironclad defense, but they ranked 16th lastseason in points allowed, and their identity may be changing. Led by Cutler andrunning back Matt Forte, who cleared 1,200 rushing yards as a rookie in '08,the offense is finally capable of bearing more of the burden. This is theopportunity Bennett and Hester have been waiting for. They just have to makesure they hang on to it.
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
45--35 in NFL, sixth season with Bears
TE Desmond Clark(41 rec., 367 yards, 1 TD) moves to backup; RB Kevin Jones (34 att., 109 yards)is expected to see an increase in workload.
DT Jarron Gilbert,Chicago's first 2009 draft pick (at No. 68), had 9½ sacks at San Jose State in'08; CB Zack Bowman and S Al Afalava add secondary depth.
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2008 RECORD 9--7
NFL RANK (Rush > Pass > Total)
OFFENSE 24 > 21 > 26
DEFENSE 5 > 30 > 21
13 at Green Bay
27 at Seattle
18 at Atlanta
25 at Cincinnati
12 at San Francisco (T)
29 at Minnesota
6 ST. LOUIS
13 GREEN BAY
20 at Baltimore
28 MINNESOTA (M)
3 at Detroit
NFL Rank: 32
Opponents' 2008 winning percentage: .414
Games against playoff teams: 7
Thank the Lions for that strength-of-schedule ranking, but in truth Chicagofaces some potential pitfalls. Fans who expect Jay Cutler to come out blazingmay be disappointed when he's tested by two strong pass defenses at the outset.Later the Bears visit San Francisco in a short week, facing a team eager tomake coach Mike Singletary look good against his old club on national TV.
Greg Olsen, Tight end
BEARS TIGHT ENDS have been studying tape of the 2008Broncos, not to check out Jay Cutler but to watch Tony Scheffler. WhenScheffler was a rookie tight end for Denver in 2006, Jake Plummer started thefirst 11 games, and Scheffler caught six passes from him. In the final fivegames, after Cutler took over, Scheffler had 12 catches. The next season, whenCutler became the full-time starter, Scheffler had 49 receptions.
Cutler likes to throw to his tight ends, and Chicagohappens to have one ready to emerge. Olsen, a first-round pick two years ago,had been stuck behind starter Desmond Clark but moved ahead of him on the depthchart this off-season and is developing the same kind of rhythm with Cutlerthat Scheffler once had. "Jay uses the guys who make plays for him, andoften that's been the tight end," Olsen says. "We have a good feel forwhat each of us likes to do."
At 6'5", 255, Olsen is hard to miss, and he hassoft hands and surprising speed. He's a pass-catching tight end who has workedhard to improve his blocking. Even as a backup, he had 93 receptions over thelast two seasons, but Cutler could help turn him into a Pro Bowl player."You don't find a guy who is as big as he is with that kind of motor veryoften," Cutler says. "A lot of guys that big are kind of stiff andcan't do some of the things he can. He's a huge target, and we have to use himthe right way."
CONNECTION Cutler (above) will have a familiar target in Bennett, a favorite from their Vandy days.
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