Chicago Bears fans first got a glimpse of the potential of Zach Miller during the first preseason game of the 2014 season. After having a good offseason and training camp that year, Miller caught 6 balls for 68 yards, with 2 touchdowns in a half of football on August 8 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Bears fans were intrigued and a little excited about what a healthy Miller could bring to the team.
Six days later, on August 14, 2014, Miller hurt his foot in the Bears second preseason game and the next day they put him on season ending injured reserve. It was the third time Miller had a professional season taken from him due to injury.
Bears fans probably thought they had seen the last of Miller.
But they didn't.
Miller has had to fight for his opportunities in the NFL and now at 31 years old, he may be ready to fulfill his potential.
Miller was originally a 6th round draft pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2009 after playing quarterback at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He flashed some athleticism in camp as a tight end, but not much was expected from him as he was learning a new position. A knee injury made his roster spot unlikely, and the Jags contemplated stashing him on IR that year. He ended up making the 53 man roster out of camp and he caught 21 passes for 212 yards with 2 TDs, but 14 of those catches, 161 of those yards and both TDs came in their last 5 games.
The Jags tight ends coach back then, Mike Tice, said that Miller had the potential to be a Dallas Clark type player.
Miller had another nagging injury as he prepared for his second year when a foot sprain kept him from most of Jacksonville's 2010 offseason. He was also diagnosed with a concussion late in the year, causing him to miss their final game. Even with the bookend injuries on the season he was still able to snag 20 balls for 216 yards and a TD, and he saw his offensive playing time increase by over 80%.
His third season (2011) found him slowed with a knee injury in camp, but then a shoulder injury in October caused him to go on IR. He finished with just 4 receptions, 42 yards and a TD.
Miller partially tore a pectoral muscle early in 2012, then a calf injury led the Jags to cut him in September. After clearing waivers he reverted back to Jacksonville's IR, but they decided to let him go for good the next month.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took a chance on the athletic Miller in 2013, but he was released in their first wave of cuts that offseason.
In December of 2013, then Bears general manager Phil Emery, signed Miller to a reserve/futures contract, and he was having a good offseason last year until that Lisfranc foot injury took away his season.
And that catches us up to where we started this article.
Even though he didn't do must last year, this new Chicago regime believed in the potential of Zach Miller. GM Ryan Pace, the scouts and coaches saw enough and they signed him to a 1 year extension in February.
After the big win against the Rams, head coach John Fox said of Miller, "He is a guy we saw a little bit of film on a year ago in camp and early in the season he had an injury. We liked what we saw and we liked his makeup and we had coaches that knew of him or people who spoke with him. He fits our mold and he just needed to stay healthy and he has. He has been a big, good producer and I think he has earned his production as we go."
Miller only has 10 catches for 165 yards and 3 TDs this season, but he's being used in a variety of ways by offensive coordinator Adam Gase. His versatility gives Chicago options and he's starting to build trust in his coaches and teammates.
"He has improved," John Fox said of Miller, "Jay Cutler has gotten more comfortable with him. The staff has gotten more comfortable with calling some of his numbers or even personnel groups. He is in the game with Martellus Bennett and has done pretty well the last couple of weeks."
The last two weeks saw Miller snag the game winner during week eight's Monday Nighter against the Chargers and then on Sunday in St. Louis he caught a short pass from Cutler and raced 87 yards on the Bears 2nd play of the game for a TD.
"It was a quick out," Jay Cutler said, "we run it all the time. He busted it back inside, broke a tackle, and outran ‘22' (Trumaine Johnson), one of their starting corners. The guy had an angle on him and he made a good move and finished it."
The good move Miller made was aided by some technology. "After I made the initially guy miss, Alshon (Jeffrey) threw a great block and then once I got by him it was just - don't get caught." Miller added, "I was looking up at the Jumbotron and I saw them closing in and I gave them one swerve over to the right and I was lucky to get to the end zone."
He finished his afternoon with 5 receptions, a career high 107 receiving yards and 2 TDs.
Miller was asked about the trust he's building with Cutler, "We spend time with each other off the field so obviously we're starting to trust each other. We had a great week of practice. If we do that and it carries over to the game, that's the plan on how you do it. So, it's starting to get there and we'll keep building and keep working."
Cutler also spoke on the rapport he's building with Miller."I've always enjoyed going to Zach. He's one of those easy guys where you always know where he's going to be and he's a friendly target and he's a smart player. He used to be a quarterback, so he knows tempo things, knows when to gas it a little bit. I've never really second-guessed throwing him the ball."
"He's just a guy who, on his first day he got with us, you could tell that this guy knows how to play football," Cutler said when asked if the trust level has grown this year with Miller. "He knows how to run routes and battle through injuries. He's still battling through some stuff. It couldn't happen to a better guy the last two weeks. We ask him to do some of the dirty work, so for him to get a few balls and make some big catches, it was great."
Numerous injuries have stolen a lot of football from Miller, but he's proven to be a fighter. "It's great. It's a great feeling," Miller said when asked how he feels after battling through so much, "I'm blessed to be in this position and to play here. We've got a great team and a lot of weapons."
If Miller can remain healthy, he'll be one of those weapons that defenses need to game-plan for.