Jay Cutler and the Bears offense didn't exactly light the world on fire Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings; middle of the pack yardage totals, 86.5 QB rating for Cutler, and 2.9 yards-per-carry average on the ground. But the Bears excelled at executing a balanced offensive attack (31 passes, 39 total rushes), finishing drives with touchdowns, and spreading the ball around to almost every active offensive skill player.
Eight different Bears caught a pass from Cutler, who finished the game with a completion percentage over seventy for the third time this season, including rookie Evan Rodriguez with his first NFL catch, and backup tight end Matt Spaeth. The one notable receiver that didn't have a catch or even a target? Devin Hester, who left in the first quarter due to a concussion. I want Hester back on the field and healthy as much as anyone, but with Hester out for Sunday's game against the Seahawks, the offense has a chance to repeat its well-executed gameplan against Minnesota. Right now, less Hester is better.
Having eight different Bears catch a ball on Sunday was a season-high, and Cutler looked crisp and confident with his available receivers. I thought Mike Tice did a great job from a playcalling standpoint, and Cutler proved that the Bears can spread the ball around in the passing game and still get good production from Brandon Marshall (12 catches, 17 targets, 92 yards). Outside of Marshall, the Vikings had no idea which Bears' player was going to be targeted with Cutler's next laser throw; Earl Bennett had four catches on four targets, and Spaeth, Rodriguez, Matt Forte, Eric Weems and Michael Bush all caught every ball Cutler threw their way. Kellen Davis was the other target for Cutler, and he caught one pass on four targets (of course he did).
If you liked the Bears passing game on Sunday, then you have to acknowledge that Devin Hester is solely a minor part of the Bears offense this season. In the past the Bears have tried different hats on Hester in hopes that he would actually grow into that role: number one receiver (barf), multi-dimensional speedster that needs open space to excel (notsomuch), and limited but essential piece of the passing game (the plan heading into this season). The time for hoping that Hester's receiving skills take a step forward is over; he's a thirty-year-old kick return specialist that is an average-to-below-average slot receiver. Once he loses enough of his return magic (and I'm getting worried that we're getting close), his lack of ability as a receiver will make him unnecessary to keep around as a high-priced veteran backup.
If you're curious about just how much Hester has been playing this year, here are the snap counts according to Football Outsiders for the top Bears offensive skill players through Sunday:
|Snap Counts||Wide Receivers||Running Backs||Tight Ends|
|1.||Marshall 667||Matt Forte 435||Kellen Davis 697|
|2.||Bennett 348||Michael Bush 233||Matt Spaeth 318|
|3.||Hester 282||Rodriguez 104||Kyle Adams 68|
|4.||Alshon Jeffrey 240||Armando Allen 33|
According to playing time, Hester has been getting less per-game snaps on offense than the other three WRs listed, Matt Forte, and both Davis and Spaeth. In his six games played, Jeffrey averages forty offensive snaps a game, Bennett's average is just shy of that in nine games. Kellen Davis, you could argue, needs to see the field a bit less based on his performance this season, but the Bears have been relying on Spaeth more and more as the season goes along (and as the offensive line injuries mount).
Hester has not been a standout offensive performer this season; if anything, the injuries to Jeffrey and Bennett have allowed him to see the field as much as he has, because when he's out there, he's not producing (31 targets, 18 catches, 11.3 yards-per-reception). In his absence on Sunday, we saw more Bennett (71% of offensive snaps played), Spaeth (51%), and Rodriguez (33%). Hopefully Hester is ready to play on Sunday against Seattle, but it's more important for Mike Tice to continue utilizing the three guys above (along with Kyle Adams and hopefully some two running backs sets), at least until Jeffrey is able to return. Seeing Matt Spaeth on the field half the time helps out our M.A.S.H. unit known as the offensive line, and Rodriguez and Adams are good ways to change up the offensive look without having to utilize those guys most of the time.
While Devin Hester isn't a key component of the Bears' offense this season, his health is needed in order to prevent guys like Eric Weems and Dane "Mafioso" Sanzenbacher from seeing significant playing time. Hester should still see the field, and get some throws his way, but the Bears' offensive success going forward is about a lot of other guys. At this point, Tice and company need more from afterthoughts and underutilized players like Spaeth and Rodriguez than they do Hester.