It’s no secret that as an organization historically, the Chicago Bears have struggled to develop two specific positions: quarterback and wide receiver.
When the first great t-formation quarterback, Sid Luckman - that for which the famous team fight song “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” relishes over - holds almost every relevant career passing record for 60 plus years until the arrival of Jay Cutler, you have all of the answers needed to understand Chicago’s struggles.
When men like Johnny Morris, Harlon Hill, and a tailback like Walter Payton sit at or near the top of your chart in receiving yards, you really begin to lament how Chicago’s never consistently found dynamic options. Quarterback and receiver mostly go hand in hand in playing off of each other to create success, but if you typically have one or the other, you’ll create better memories than the Bears have.
That’s why in recent years, it’s heartening to see Chicago maintain some good fortune at wideout. You forget the halcyon years of guys like Marty Booker and Marcus Robinson, because for the most part, they were flashes in the pan.
A former fourth rounder like Robinson enjoyed success in 1999 setting a Bears record for receiving yards at 1,400 - that was eventually eclipsed - before injuries derailed all promise.
Booker became the man of the hour of the early 2000’s Bears, when he caught 97 plus passes and at least 1,000 yards consecutively in 2001 and 2002, before being unceremoniously traded to the Miami Dolphins for Adewale Ogunleye in 2004. Even in a short stint, Booker ranks 5th and 8th all time in career receptions and receiving yards with Chicago, respectively. Both an indictment of the Bears history and tribute to Booker’s short success on the lakefront.
If quarterbacks such as career journeymen and busts, Jim Miller and Cade McNown are under center, and you’re still excelling, that’s praiseworthy. But it wasn’t to last and served as a reminder of a team that regularly finds defensive talent and running backs, but not much else.
Ex-Bear Muhsin Muhammad once harshly critiqued the Bears saying they were “where receivers go to die” in a 2008 interview. He didn’t back off of that assessment in 2010, challenging players in the organization to “prove me wrong” when asked about his previous comments.
In fairness, while he received flak from the defensive Bears back then, it’s not like his words didn’t hold any merit - as they were indicative of long-term failure. But the comments became a match that set off a new frontier.
Chicago didn’t begin to nab any playmakers on the outside until the advent of a speedster like Johnny Knox in the late Lovie Smith-Mike Martz era. Knox was a talent that possessed a knack for getting behind defense’s a routine exercise. Yet, even his career was cut short by an unfortunate back injury in 2011: extinguished after displaying the special ability to stretch the field. The first quality receiver the Bears had developed in almost a decade ruined with the snap of a finger.
Not all was lost.
Then came Brandon Marshall in a 2012 trade, arguably the most complete receiver the Bears have ever had in their uniform - even with his locker room concerns that have had him bounce around the NFL. He holds two highly regarded individual seasons that would rank well with any organization’s historical marks, let alone Chicago’s. You don’t go out and catch at least 100 passes and 10 touchdowns multiple times like it’s a stroll in the park. Even while he saw an eventual exodus from Chicago due to those issues not wholly related to football, you couldn’t deny the step up the Bears started to enjoy with his arrival.
Of course, Alshon Jeffery was still here via the draft after being mentored by Marshall.
One could make the argument that Jeffery is the most naturally gifted wideout the Bears have ever possessed even despite health and work ethic knocks. There’s doubt as to whether he returns to Chicago in 2017 as he’s currently suspended for four games and on a franchise tag as a pending unrestricted free agent. Meanwhile, the front office justifiably doesn’t know whether they can rely on him long-term while paying him the money he desire. Yet, even they can’t deny his star ability on the field. He’s a man who makes circus catches appear graceful and simple, and is a stark contrast from other flame outs at Halas Hall.
Jeffery is match-up problem for defensive backs any time available and presents himself as a worthwhile impact player should he return.
Finally, it would be remiss to not mention the rise of new found depth at the bottom of the draft like Marquess Wilson flashing, and now, an un-drafted player in Cameron Meredith showing signs of promise.
Wilson is a project of the formerly failed Marc Trestman regime, and while he’s had plenty of injury concerns in his young career, he’s also shown promise that two separate coaching staffs have recognized.
Before his season ended early in 2015, he had 28 receptions for 464 yards and a touchdown in 11 games, at times becoming the reliable safety valve when plays broke down for Cutler. With Jeffery sidelined, Wilson’s recent activation from the physically unable to perform list offers the opportunity to etch his place on the roster. He’s still just 24-years-old, but it’s now or never in a potential final shot.
When you discuss Meredith’s role, you can’t forget his back-to-back 100 yard games in his first two starts with a prominent role this season. Sure, Meredith has slowed down due a variety of factors, with just three receptions and only six targets in his last three games. Quarterback change from Brian Hoyer to Cutler likely plays in with Cutler targeting Meredith little in comparison to his backup. It’s had the second-year wideout disappear from the game plan at times.
Defense’s adjusting after seeing his explosive production factors in too. And, you have to note Meredith struggling in that respect to adjust to their adjustments as well. He is a former college quarterback still learning the nuances of the position in route running and technique. Nuance takes time.
Discounting Meredith from being in the same position as Wilson due to Jeffery’s suspension would be a mistake though - albeit Meredith hasn’t had to recover from injuries. He has promise and can find his groove again on an offense attempting to carve out more consistency from young playmakers. Rookie tailback Jordan Howard can’t do it by himself.
While the Bears don’t have a receiver factory, it would be outright denial to not notice that they have finally learned how to develop their own in putting them in position to succeed.
The search to finally acquire a consistent superstar quarterback may in all likelihood reboot this offseason. Whomever steps in will have a reliable stable of targets to count on from the outset unlike any previous Bears quarterback.
Wilson had a positive, grinding mindset in regards to his return from injury.
“Whatever they need me to do, I just want to do it. If they throw me in there, they may want me to play a lot of snaps. I’ll try my best. Anything to help the team.”
You better believe Wilson and company will receive that chance, as instead of being a place to die like it once appeared, Chicago is now a team where receivers can and will ideally strive for greatness to thrive.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.