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The legend of Marcus Robinson

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In 1999, Marcus Robinson produced a season at wide receiver the likes of which Bears fans had never seen. Eighteen years later, the memories are strong as ever. In this interview with Jack M Silverstein, the former Bears wideout reminisces about his jump ball artistry, the high-flying Bears offense of Gary Crowton, and one of the most memorable non-playoff seasons in Bears history.

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Marcus Robinson #88

At the height of his jump, with a defender or two below him and the endzone ahead, all Marcus Robinson could see was the ball.

It loomed huge and attainable above the action, just there in the sky to be plucked like an apple at an orchard. He didn’t see the fans. He didn’t hear the screams. On occasion, he could feel the defender at his waist, some doomed shrimp measuring a mere six feet tall.

He knew how to shield the defender with his body, to use his nearly 6’4 frame and 40-inch vertical to do what he’d always been taught — catch the ball at its highest point. Some of these passes seemed like balls destined to sail on forever. Would the quarterback look his way on an otherwise impossible route? Did the quarterback trust Robinson to make him look good? Would Robinson make the catch to save the day?

In 1999, more often than not, the answers were yes. And yes. And damn straight.

For Bears fans too young to remember 1999, the name “Marcus Robinson” resonates as something between a myth and a name in the franchise record books. That season, Robinson set a Bears franchise record with 1,400 receiving yards and became the 11th player in franchise history to catch nine touchdown passes. He finished in the top 10 in the NFL in receptions and receiving touchdowns, and fourth in receiving yards.

He wasn’t merely “good for a Bear.” Starting in Week 5, Robinson led the NFL in receptions (15), 1st downs (15), and yards (654) on pass plays 30 yards or more, finishing second in touchdowns with 7. During that 12-game run, he led the NFL with 1,277 receiving yards.

All this, despite playing with three quarterbacks and not starting until Week 6.

“I think it got to the point where I was establishing myself as a jump ball threat,” Robinson says. “Prior to that, you had to throw a nice spiral — an over-the-shoulder ball. With me, as long as you got the ball around me, I could go up and go get it.”

Tales of Robinson’s legend started popping up more in 2012, when Brandon Marshall broke his franchise record for receiving yards, and in 2013, when Alshon Jeffery’s breakout season full of impossible jump balls reminded all who were there of the great 88.

Those discussions were the peak of the collective Robinson reminiscing. After all, you won’t find him high in the Bears career record books. You won’t find him on many lists of the greatest Bears receivers of all-time, which far too often leave him out of the conversation.

You won’t find him in a broadcast booth, where so many retired players soak in their glory days.

Until last week, you could barely find him on YouTube.

But in 1999, NFL fans couldn’t turn on the TV on Sundays without seeing him.

“Marcus,” his wide receiver coach told him before Week 6, “you’re going to start.”

As he tells the story and thinks back to getting the news, you can hear his smile.

“From that point,” he says, “it was on.”

The wild Bears of 1999

After years of defensive stoutness, the Bears hired a “crazy offensive innovator” with hopes of winning a Super Bowl by emphasizing offensive systems anathema to Bears franchise history, and perhaps even the NFL.

No, I’m not talking about Marc Trestman.

Fourteen years earlier, new defensive-minded Bears head coach Dick Jauron handed the keys to the team’s offense to the architect of the NCAA’s no. 2 passing attack: Louisiana Tech head coach Gary Crowton.

This was Crowton’s first — and as it turned out, only — stop in the NFL in what is now a 35-year coaching career. The hiring was considered bold and even risky at the time due to Crowton’s lack of NFL experience plus his lack of a traditional NFL offense. Yet his penchant for atypical personnel groupings — like using three tight ends or even five wideouts — attracted Jauron.

“It gives the defense a lot of things to prepare for and keeps a lot of people involved in the game,” Jauron said in January upon Crowton’s hiring.

The legacy of the 1999 Bears is just how many people ended up being involved, and how entertaining it all was even though we finished 6-10. The first thing you think of are the quarterbacks. When Crowton was hired, Erik Kramer was the starter and Moses Moreno and Jim Miller were the backups. Then the team signed free agent Shane Matthews, drafted Cade McNown with its 1st round pick, waived Kramer before training camp and dropped Moreno before the season.

(Kramer, on the shock of being waived when the team spent the entire offseason calling him their starting quarterback: “It’s probably like winning the Lotto, only in reverse.”)

The team’s QB depth chart on opening day was Matthews, McNown, Miller, but with an unusual caveat: the rookie McNown would play the 3rd series of every game. And indeed, Matthews started the first five games, with McNown playing one series per game.

Then came the carousel. Matthews went down with a hamstring injury in Week 5, McNown played, and started the next week. Then the team pulled McNown in the 3rd quarter of his 2nd start with the Bears down 6-0, Miller filled in for him, and the following week, Matthews started. That week, trailing Washington 31-0 in the 2nd quarter, the Bears pulled Matthews for McNown. McNown started the next week, sprained his right knee, and Miller took over.

“You would come in on Saturdays and they would be like, ‘Okay, Jim Miller’s starting this week,’” says a still incredulous Robinson with a laugh. “‘Okay, we’re going to let Cade start.’ This would be on a Saturday before the Sunday game.”

In the end, the three Bears QBs combined for what would be the greatest passing season in franchise history. If they were one person, the 1999 Bears three-headed monster would rank 1st in franchise history in passing yards, with 4,352 compared to Erik Kramer’s 1995 record of 3,838, and fifth in passing touchdowns with 25, (Kramer’s 1995 leads with 29).

Yet individually, they finished 30th (Matthews), 34th (McNown), and 39th (Miller) in NFL passing yards that year.

The next key guy on the offense was 2nd-year running back Curtis Enis, the team’s 1st round draft pick in 1998. Bears fans remember him pretty much strictly as one of the team’s failed 1st round running backs, no different than Rashaan Salaam and Cedric Benson. His teammates remember him differently.

In 2012, I asked Patrick Mannelly who was the 2nd best running back he played with, after Matt Forte. Without hesitation, Mannelly said it was a pre-injury Enis, an opinion he reiterated to me earlier this year.

“I can say that too,” Robinson agreed. “He was a hard-nosed runner. He was downhill all day long. He would pound the ball. He was a pounder. He definitely was that.”

Oh, and one other thing.

“We called him ‘Insanest,’” Robinson says. “He was insane.”

Robinson’s first impression of Enis was as “a humble guy, quiet, sat to himself. Cowboy boots, cowboy hat. He was a really quiet, lowkey guy.”

Then he started acting “a little different.” Enis (who could not be reached for comment for this story) created a character called “Little Johnny” who would “do crazy stuff,” like overcoming his fear of flying by grabbing the p.a. mic on the plane and yelling his standard refrain, “Little Johnny coming at ya!”

As Robinson recalls, Enis didn’t mind the team’s nickname.

“He was like two different personalities,” Robinson says. “So we just started calling him ‘Insanest.’”

And yet, like everyone in that offense, Enis produced. He changed his number in 1999 from 39 to 44, slimmed down from 245 pounds to 220, and produced his finest NFL season in his injury-filled career, finishing 2nd to Robinson on the Bears in both yards from scrimmage (1256 to Robinson’s 1400) and touchdowns (5 to Robinson’s 9).

I would say that Enis did more in the passing game in 1999 than he did in 1998, but that was true for everyone, as the Bears led the NFL in pass attempts with 684, the fourth most in NFL history, surpassed since then by only the 2012 Lions. The passes flew everywhere. The team had one game where they started three tight ends and another where they started five receivers. Ten players caught at least ten passes that year — compare that to Trestman’s first season, where only five players caught that many.

Speedster Curtis Conway was the team’s number one receiver entering Week 1, followed by “hands man” Bobby Engram. Youngsters Macey Brooks, Marty Booker, and D’Wayne Bates were all in the mix too.

And then there was Robinson.

“Remember, at the beginning of that year they were saying I was supposed to be cut,” Robinson says. “I was a wide receiver who ran track. I didn’t pan out well.”

When the Bears drafted him in the 4th round of 1997, Robinson was considered an anomaly at wide receiver: a tall, fast leaper. He was six-foot-three-inches and three quarters, drafted at the time when the number of wideouts making their living as jump ball artists were few. The best were 6’4 Herman Moore and 6’2 Michael Irvin. Robinson was drafted the year before Randy Moss. The jump ball simply wasn’t a standard part of the wide receiver skillset.

Robinson caught two passes in a surprising Week 5 win over the Packers in 2000, both going for touchdowns. This 68-yarder in the 2nd quarter gave the Bears a 17-0 lead.

Robinson’s favorite receiver coming up was the 6’5 Ed McCaffrey, best known as a starter on the Super Bowl-winning Broncos teams of the late 1990s.

“Ed was tall, he ran good routes,” Robinson says. “He’d catch the ball and go over people. He wasn’t the fastest in the world, but back then when I first came about, I was a big wide receiver ... and you emulate your game from guys who are your size.”

Size only matters if you’re playing. In 1997, Robinson’s thumb injury gave the Bears an excuse to leave him on injured reserve all season, rather than putting him on practice squad and risking another team snatching him up. So in the summer of 1998, he found his opportunity with the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe.

Robinson was a revelation. He won the league’s offensive MVP award with 925 receiving yards and six touchdowns while leading the Fire to the World Bowl championship.

Then he returned to Chicago and found himself back on the bench in offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh’s West Coast offense.

“It was like a dink-and-dunk system,” Robinson says. “You don’t throw the ball down the field too often. For the most part it’s little, short routes and the back out of the backfield. That’s the offense they had in mind when I first came in.”

When he finally got his shot in 1998, he capitalized, scoring against the Lions in his first NFL game. Almost 20 years later, he remembers every detail. Erik Kramer was quarterback. The play was called “razor.” It was a backside post from the 20-yard line. He was defended by cornerback Kevin Abrams, who at 5’8 had no shot on him one-on-one.

The details spill out of him with excitement.

“It was crazy. I came in. We were in the red zone. They trust me enough, for one, to throw me into the red zone. My heart’s beating fast. I remember Abrams was guarding me at the time. I see the coverage, single-high, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I’m the backside post. He can throw me the post or he can throw me the curl to the front side.’ I ran — we called it the ‘bang 8.’ I ran the bang 8, I caught it, rolled over in the endzone. I remember getting up and I didn’t know what to do. Bobby Engram ran over and was like, ‘What are you going to do man? It’s your first touchdown.’ I was like, ‘Man, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do.’ I just kind of threw the ball on the ground and jogged to the sideline. I didn’t have anything planned. I’d been dressing for games but I would never play. And then all of a sudden in the red zone — ‘Marcus, you need to go in.’”

Robinson was targeted three times that game. He was targeted three times the rest of the season. Despite his big play potential, the team told him he was “just a raw receiver,” one not yet deserving of playing time. By the end of 1998, he had four receptions in two NFL seasons and 41 receptions in ten NFL Europe games.

“I was behind Curtis Conway and Chris Penn at the time,” Robinson says. “These guys were smaller than I was, and I remember trying to follow in their footsteps. They were leaders — they were the veteran guys. So I was running my game off of them. And Curtis Conway used to all the time tell me, ‘Marcus, play your game. Play the game that you have.’ I didn’t really grasp that until 1999 when Gary Crowton came.”

Marcus Robinson hauls in a touchdown from Jim Arellanes in the Rhein Fire’s 34-10 World Bowl win over the Frankfurt Galaxy, June 1998.

The Gary Crowton offense

The one thing all Bears fans remember about the Gary Crowton offense is actually the one thing we all get wrong.

There wasn’t just one kind of wide receiver screen.

“The bubble screen is where Gary Crowton would tell you, ‘I don’t need you to take it to the house, I just need you to get four or five yards,’” Robinson explains. “But the middle screen, we would take that to the house. And as a receiver, any time you can get the ball in your hands, you were like, ‘Okay, I’m cool with that.’ Because any time they walked up to the line, if the quarterback saw the coverage they needed, they could check it to you and you could do it. As a receiver, I just wanted the ball in my hands and we were getting that opportunity a lot with those screens.”

This was Robinson’s other touchdown in the win in 2000 over the Packers. This was an “outside screen,” a 58-yard screen pass on a play called “laser” (“laser” meaning left, “rocket” meaning right). The touchdown gave the Bears a 24-3 lead in the 3rd quarter.

One of the keys to the success of the screens was Crowton’s understanding of the NFL rule book, specifically when offensive linemen can and can’t block downfield.

“I don't think people understood the rule,” Crowton told ESPN before the 2000 season. “Most people don’t think linemen can be downfield. You can be downfield after the ball is thrown. You just can’t hit anybody until it’s caught. Once the ball leaves the quarterback’s hand, you can go downfield.”

Along with the quarterback’s ability to check at the line, Crowton’s offense gave receivers agency to alter their routes. This was the “streak read” — the receiver makes a choice after 10 to 12 yards: run a comeback, or go deep. Along with Conway, Robinson credits wide receiver coach Mike Borich for encouraging Robinson to play big.

“My wide receiver coach told me, ‘Don’t play a small person’s game,’” Robinson says. “He told me, ‘Marcus, take what you want. Don’t dance at the line. Don’t be afraid to move guys out of the way and push.’ I started doing that in practice and building my confidence. I started thinking, ‘Okay, I don’t have to sit here.’ Guys were 5’10 at the most. I was outweighing them by like 20 pounds. It was just, pick a side and run.”

Another key person in his development was cornerback Walt Harris, who Robinson credits for leading the DBs in daily showdowns with the receivers.

“The offense was fun,” Robinson says. “It was an upbeat offense. We ran a lot of swing passes and things like that. They got the ball in your hand, and I developed that practice of being able to go up for the football.”

That’s the enduring image of Robinson in a Bears uniform: winning jump balls, especially deep ones. Those plays epitomized the run-and-gun — or gun-and-gun — spirit of the 1999 Bears offense. They weren’t accidents, either.

“Those plays were part of Gary Crowton’s offense,” Robinson says. “He gave us the option to be a deep threat down the field, and I just took advantage of it.”

This was a season that exploded with passing attacks, most famously the birth of the dominant offenses in St. Louis (where the Rams won the Super Bowl) and Indianapolis (where Peyton Manning had his first good season, and Marvin Harrison and Edgerrin James led the NFL in receiving and rushing yards, respectively).

Yet while the Rams pushed the envelope with their four-receiver sets and timing routes, they were practically running the t-formation compared to what the Bears were doing. The Rams had a 55-45% split, pass to run, with a fullback starting seven games. The Bears had a 63-37% split, pass to run, with a fullback starting four games. Our offense wasn’t always scoring — we finished 25th at 17 points per game — but with the inventive and frequent uses of the wide receiver screen and quick hitch routes, no one could accuse the Bears of timidity.

“What’s unique about us is we’re trying to do it up-tempo and give you a lot of personnel groupings, which everybody likes to do — a lot of formations, which everybody likes to do — and some movement,” Jauron explained that September. “We’re just trying to force it on you, make you adjust quickly. There’s no novel ideas in it.”

The offense was high-volume — that’s for sure. After four weeks, Curtis Conway was 6th in the NFL in receptions and on pace for his 3rd 1,000-yard season while tying his career high in touchdowns. Shane Matthews was 10th in the NFL in passing yards and first in pass attempts. Curtis Enis was 10th in rushing yards and 3rd in rush attempts.

In fact, Matthews and Conway looked like a budding superstar duo, especially after a miraculous Week 4 comeback win over the Saints, when Matthews hit Conway for touchdowns with 1:48 and :07 remaining, respectively, turning a 10-0 deficit into a 14-10 win.

Robinson was targeted five times that game, fewer than Conway, Engram, and tight end Ryan Wetnight. He was fourth on the team in receiving yards with 123, trailing Conway, Engram, and Enis. He and Macey Brooks were rotating in practice as the team’s third receiver, with Robinson getting slightly more looks in games.

That all changed in Week 5. In the midst of another nice game, Conway — who had already scored on a 30-yard touchdown pass — sprained his ankle. Robinson picked up the slack, leading the Bears with eight catches for 90 yards and a touchdown.

For the first four and a half weeks of the 1999 season, it looked as if Shane Matthews and Curtis Conway would be the team’s breakout stars. Injuries impacted them both; Matthews led the Bears with 1,645 passing yards and 10 touchdowns in seven starts, while Conway finished third with 426 yards on 44 catches.

His TD came from Matthews, who in the 4th quarter pulled his right hamstring while scrambling. McNown finished the game, which the Bears won 24-22. They were 3-2, and just like that had a new number one receiver and new starting quarterback: Marcus Robinson and Cade McNown.

It’s hard to remember now, but McNown had a promising rookie year. When he took the field in Week 6 against the Eagles for his first NFL start, he’d completed 56% of his 34 passes for 216 yards, and led the then-acclaimed (though limited in playing time) rookie quarterback class of 1999 with a 75.1 QB rating.

According to NFL fans and media, the variable working against McNown that day wasn’t his inexperience, but the weapons around him. The team was missing Conway, who led the Bears in all receiving stats: 51 targets, 29 catches, 310 yards, four touchdowns, 15 first downs. Engram was 2nd in targets and receptions while Enis was 2nd in touchdowns. Following his 90-yard effort the week before, Robinson was now 2nd on the team in receiving yards at 213.

After the Bears went three-and-out on their first possession, the FOX announcers noted the need for McNown to “stay within the offense” due to the loss of Conway. In the 2nd quarter, with the Bears down 10-3 and McNown and the offense coming back to the field, the announcers doubled down.

“Now that McNown doesn’t have (the security of Conway), not only does he really have to rely on the system to help him do things, he’s got to find another guy,” color man Ron Pitts said. “And Engram looks to be that guy.”

In 1999, even a big game from Marcus Robinson didn’t soothe Bears fans when Curtis Conway went down. (Chicago Tribune, Oct. 11, 1999)

Robinson rises

As the Bears offense trotted out for their first drive of the 2nd half against the Eagles, trailing 20-6, nothing to that point indicated that we were about to see the start of one of the most magical individual seasons in Chicago Bears history.

Robinson had seen four passes that day. He’d caught one for six yards. Philly caught one for a 28-yard interception return on a would-be touchdown pass into double-coverage that was woefully underthrown due to defensive pressure.

Then on 2nd and 6 from the Chicago 20, it happened.

As Robinson got a free release down the field on the left sideline, McNown faked a handoff to Enis and bootlegged to his left. Robinson was a step ahead of the defense. He was supposed to run a 15-yard comeback toward the sideline. As the play developed, he thought otherwise. Cade did too. The two men made eye contact. Robinson was past the safety. McNown waved him to keep going. He patted the ball and heaved a pass without breaking his run or setting his feet.

Forty yards down field from McNown, Robinson was a step ahead of safety Brian Dawkins, who’d bitten on the play fake.

“I saw him out of the corner of my eye,” Robinson says about Dawkins. “He was actually looking at the ball himself.”

The pass was juuuuuust the slightest bit underthrown, so Robinson slowed just a bit to make the play. He leapt and reached his hands over the top of the helmet of the 6’0 Dawkins. He squeezed the ball. His body continued moving forward.

Robinson landed just past the Philly 45. Dawkins fell. Robinson ran. Eighty yards. Touchdown.

“It was a jump ball situation,” Robinson says simply — the first of many. And who better than Cade McNown to kick off his legendary season? That’s not a joke. McNown’s attitude toward the deep ball was the perfect match for Robinson’s go-up-and-get-it leaping abilities. Robinson and Jim Miller are often remembered as a duo, and while they were a fantastic one, Robinson actually caught more touchdowns from McNown than any other QB in his career.

“He’s a gunslinger,” Robinson recalls of McNown. “If he walked up to the line, even though he’s a rookie, if he saw I had man-to-man, he would throw the ball to me. I don’t care if I was the 4th read. That was just his attitude. And I adjusted to understanding that, ‘I have to understand every route when Cade’s in the game. He might give you the ball so you have to make sure you go every route.’”

Against the Lions toward the end of the 1999 season, on a short yardage situation, Robinson lined up and, based on the coverage, knew that Cade should throw to Engram on a 5-yard out. Robinson’s job was to clear out Engram’s side of the field. He took off full speed.

“I’m running, and something told me to look up,” he says. “I look up and there’s the ball.”

The play went for a touchdown. Robinson came to the sideline and saw McNown.

“Cade, why did you throw me that ball?” he remembers asking.

McNown’s answer was simple.

“You were one on one,” he told Robinson. “I trust you to catch eight out of 10 of them, so I threw it.”

The Bears lost to the Eagles 20-16, but Robinson was the NFL’s leader in receiving yards that week with 136 on just four catches. The team staggered the next week, losing 6-3 to Tampa Bay with Robinson amassing a game-high 80 yards on five catches. We then got whipped by Washington 48-22 on Halloween, but Robinson scored twice in the 3rd quarter on bombs from McNown (subbing for a now-healthy yet ineffective Matthews). He once again led the NFL in receiving for the week, with 161 yards on nine catches, one of his league-leading three 150-yard receiving games that season.

Conway was still out. Yet through it all, he remained Robinson’s biggest fan despite having the most to lose in Robinson’s rise. To this day, Robinson keeps a picture in his house that speaks to that friendship. He was coming to the sideline after a play. Conway greeted him.

“He’s right in my face telling me, ‘Keep playing this kind of game. Keep playing your big-guy game. Don’t let these guys push you around,’” Robinson says. “He was always encouraging about it.”

Marcus Robinson #88
Robinson employed a “streak read” for his touchdowns against Washington in 1999 — meaning he made a judgment call to go deep when the look was there. Here he is scoring one of his two touchdowns that day.

Marcus Robinson, deep ball artist

By November, Robinson was becoming a known commodity around the league. When NFL broadcasts on FOX cut away for their “McDonald’s Game Break,” Robinson was often included. There was a buzz around the Bears — they weren’t always winning but they were always entertaining.

And they grew even more entertaining with the emergence of quarterback Jim Miller. This was one of the most memorable months of Bears football I’ve ever watched, and Marcus Robinson was at the center of it.

On Nov. 7, the team went to Green Bay for an emotional — and now famous — game against the Packers, winning 14-13 on Bryan Robinson’s blocked field goal the day after Walter Payton’s memorial service, following his death the day after the Washington game. The death hit home for Robinson — not only did he and Payton see each other around at Halas Hall, but they attended the same church.

From a football perspective, this was the beginning of Miller’s run at quarterback, as McNown sprained his right knee in the 1st quarter with the team trailing 3-0. Miller’s 3rd quarter touchdown pass to Engram gave the Bears a 14-10 lead they would not relinquish; Robinson led the team with 66 yards receiving.

But from a life perspective, this was a tragic turn for everyone who loved Walter Payton — meaning, everyone.

“It was huge man,” Robinson says about the win. “In the huddle, in the locker room, on the sideline, guys were saying, ‘Come on man, for Walt man. We gotta get this. We can’t let this go.’ It was a very emotional type game. It was good though.”

Payton was on everyone’s mind. Bryan Robinson famously gave Payton props for the block, (“Walter Payton picked me up in the air — I can’t jump that high”) while Enis had arguably his best game of the season, with 88 yards on 20 carries for a season-high 4.4 yards per rush.

“As a player and a kid, you dream of playing in the NFL,” Enis said after the game. “To be in an organization like this where the greatest player in the National Football League has left something for you to live up to, it’s kind of like the creed of running backs in Chicago. You have to live up to that.”

For his part, Robinson led the Bears with 66 yards receiving on four catches, including a 33-yarder to help set up Engram’s go-ahead touchdown. The Bears were now 4-5, trailing the 4-4 Packers and Buccaneers, 5-4 Vikings, and 6-2 Lions in the division. Robinson was 8th in the NFL in receiving yards. Miller was the Bears’ new starting quarterback.

In Miller, Robinson found another QB partner. The team hosted Minnesota next. The night before the game, while watching film together, Robinson and Miller agreed on an adjustment that they would execute together after noticing that Vikings cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock liked to try to read and jump passes on three-step drops.

“Jim and I, Saturday night, we’re sitting watching film and we say the first time Gary calls a slant, we’re going to run a ‘Sluggo’ — a slant-and-go,” he says. “We didn’t tell Gary, we didn’t tell anybody.”

On the team’s second drive, following a false start penalty, the Bears faced a 1st and 15 from their own 23. Crowton called a slant. Robinson and Miller looked at each other as they broke the huddle. Hitchcock bit on the slant. Robinson split on the go. Seventy-seven yards. Touchdown.

“That was the kind of guy he was,” Robinson says about Miller. “He was the only guy who you could come up and talk to about plays and defenses and what you’re seeing. You’re in the huddle and you’re able to almost draw up a play in the dirt.”

Crowton loved it.

“Gary Crowton was like a playground-type of offensive coordinator,” Robinson says. “As long as we were on the same page with the quarterback, he didn’t mind plays being changed. … We had option routes. You could run an out cut, you could run an in, you could sit it. If you and the quarterback see what the defense is doing, then you start to feel each other out in practice. ‘Okay Jim, if I see this, I’m going to do this.’ ‘Cade, next time I’ve got number 26, I’m going to take him on the streak. So be ready to throw it.’”

Against the Vikings, the offense put up one of the greatest games in Bears history. Miller threw for 422 yards, 2nd only in franchise history to Billy Wade’s 466 in 1962, still the only two times a Bears quarterback has thrown for 400 yards. Robinson and rookie Marty Booker each caught seven passes; Robinson gained 148 yards and one touchdown, Booker gained 134 and two touchdowns, including a 57-yard score on a screen pass for his first NFL reception.

Marty Booker’s first NFL catch was a “middle screen” that he took 57 yards for a touchdown, in the team’s 27-24 loss to the Vikings in 1999.

The team’s season-long kicking woes nearly cost them the Packers game the week before, when Chris Boniol missed a 34-yard field goal in the 4th quarter that would have put the team up 17-13. Against the Vikings, he missed a 41-yard field goal in overtime, leading to Minnesota knocking in a game-winner of its own.

Boniol redeemed himself the next week by hitting a 36-yard field goal to beat the Chargers in overtime. This was Conway’s first game back. He caught four passes for 24 yards. Robinson caught six for an NFL-high 163 yards and one touchdown. He now had 967 receiving yards on the season — trailing only Marvin Harrison league-wide — and was garnering Pro Bowl buzz.

The man he replaced summed up his rise best of anyone:

“He’s a big-time player,” Conway said after the game. “He wasn’t the MVP of the World League for nothing.”

The anonymous superstar

What you have to remember about Marcus Robinson in 1999 is this:

We’d never seen anything like this from a Bears wide receiver.

The Bears had deep threats before, absolutely, but they were burners, not leapers: Ken Kavanaugh, Harlon Hill, James Scott, Willie Gault, Curtis Conway. And yes, Robinson was fast — as a sprinter at University of South Carolina, he set the school record in the 200 meter in 1996 at 21.14 seconds.

Robinson’s speed allowed him to capitalize on all of those screens, swing passes, and hitch routes. But a player who put up big receiving numbers alone might not capture the media’s attention, defense’s focus, and fan imagination. For that, you need pizzaz. An extra element of physical dominance.

Like snatching passes out of the ether, for instance.

Jim Miller hits Robinson for a 24-yard touchdown in Week 2 against Minnesota in 2001 to give the Bears a decisive 17-10 lead with 3:39 remaining. Gary Crowton was gone by then, but the connection he helped build between Miller and Robinson endured.

Getting outrun by an NFL wide receiver is one thing, but there is something so demoralizing when you get out-JUMPED. It means you, your teammates, and your coaches have done everything right from a gameplanning perspective, and your execution has been on point because you’re in position to defend the receiver, and yet it’s all for naught. You’re helpless. You may as well have sat that play out. It’s the jumping equivalent of getting stiff armed, or of a quarterback using game-changing speed to evade the perfect blitz.

Like I said, Robinson wasn’t just a jumper. He was fast, he had great hands, he ran great routes, and he was a dedicated blocker. But his legend was born from his leaps. He was Alshon Jeffery before Alshon was Alshon. When Alshon broke into the national spotlight in 2013 with his amazing, leaping grabs, I was excited that we were getting Marcus Robinson Part II.

(Amazingly, Alshon is also a University of South Carolina wide receiver listed at 6’3.)

I felt that way in 2012 too, when Marshall broke Robinson’s record for receiving yards in a season, and also claimed Robinson’s unofficial title belt for the “Most Incredible Season By A Bears Wide Receiver.”

Of course, as Robinson reminded Marshall and Jeffery one day when visiting Halas Hall: “Y’all had Jay Cutler. I had three of them.”

Robinson’s breakout would have been fun in any season, but by 1999, Bears fans were starving for offensive stardom. Until the two Trestman seasons, the final two seasons of the Wannstedt era were the bleakest Bears fans had seen since the days of Abe Gibron. We went 4-12 in both 1997 and 1998. We traded our 1st round pick in 1997 for quarterback Rick Mirer, who failed to win the starting job out of camp, lost all three games he started, and never played for the team again.

In 1998, injuries to Erik Kramer forced backup Steve Stenstrom into starting duty for seven games; he went 1-6. The team’s leading receiver in 1997 was one-year Bear Ricky Proehl, with 753 yards, followed by Engram in 1998, with 987.

Meanwhile, Robinson couldn’t break through, despite strong play in college and his brilliant work in NFL Europe. Adding insult to injury, in 1998 the Bears passed on Marshall wide receiver Randy Moss, and then watched as he landed with a division rival and proceeded to annihilate the Bears, along with the rest of the NFL.

So when Robinson came down with that catch against the Eagles, I bolted off the couch. He caught it! HE CAUGHT IT! He’s our Moss!

No, I corrected myself — he’s our MARCUS!

Front page of the Chicago Tribune sports section, Dec. 20, 1999, after Robinson’s best game as a Bear.

For Bears fans, that was the thrill of it all — the feeling that our always proud yet unmistakably downtrodden franchise had a true NFL gamebreaker, a guy who hadn’t played for any other NFL team, a guy we could call our own.

“It was so humbling for me,” Robinson says now about 1999. “I didn’t even really recognize the stardom of it. Nowadays, they have so much social media and you’re seeing it constantly everywhere you go, like the Odell Beckham catch. When I was playing, I was just loving the game, playing the game of football, and enjoying my friends. It was like a group of grown men of kids.”

Robinson was having so much fun that when Conway returned from injury, he would still jump in with the scout team just to get more action.

“I still enjoyed being the Michael Irvin or being whoever the receiver was (for the upcoming game),” he says. “When Curtis came back, me and him started switching plays on and off, and I started feeling like I wasn’t getting enough work in so I would do the scout team.”

That unusual mix between NFL superstar and scout team practice player was indicative of one of Robinson’s funniest fan memories. By the middle of the season, he was doing episodes of the TV show “Sports Sunday” on NBC Chicago. One day after a shoot, he went to Niketown in the Loop, still in his three-piece suit. As a Nike athlete, he could stop through and get shoes and gear, and he started to get to know the staff and his way around the store.

He asked the manager, Mike, for a pair of shoes. While he was waiting, a woman walked up to him holding a shoe, and asked him if he could get it for her in a 9 ½.

“Sure,” he told her. “Why not?”

He took the shoe and found Mike, who laughed and gave him the 9 ½. Marcus returned to the woman.

“Would you like to try it on?” he asked her. She did, so he took a knee in front of her, unlaced the shoe, and put it on her. That’s when her husband came in and sat next to her.

“He looks at me,” Robinson says, retelling the story. “And he looks at her. And he looks at me. And he says, ‘Marcus Robinson?’ I was like, ‘Yeah.’ He was like, ‘Oh, you guys are doing a show where you’re working here?’ I said, ‘No, your wife wanted a 9 ½.’ He looked at her, and you should have seen the look on his face. He was like, ‘You don’t know who this is? This is Marcus Robinson! He’s one of the greatest wide receivers in the NFL, and you’ve got him putting on your shoe?’ She’s like, ‘Well I didn’t know! They have helmets on.’”

As the season wore on, it was harder and harder for football fans to not know Robinson. Sports Illustrated wrote a small piece on him titled “Playing Catch-up” after the November Vikings game. A month later, he played arguably his best game as a Bear in a 28-10 win over Detroit. With McNown back under center following Miller’s four-game suspension for unwittingly violating the league’s steroid policy, Robinson led the NFL in receiving yards with 170 and tied for the week’s lead in receptions (11) and receiving touchdowns (3).

“I remember it vividly,” he says. “I remember one touchdown where they didn’t even cover me. We were on the goalline and I was standing out there by myself. I’m looking at Cade, and Cade is just going through the cadence, and I’m like ‘Dude, snap the ball! There’s nobody out there!’ Finally he snaps the ball and throws it to me. It was just one of those memorable moments.”

Another touchdown was the aforementioned clear-out play for Bobby Engram, the one McNown heaved to him because he was one-on-one.

“The DB had nice coverage and he was leaning against my chest,” Robinson says. “I jump up over him and catch the ball and kind of tiptoe down the sideline and barely make it in the endzone. But when you watch the film, the DB is fading toward the ball like he’s about to catch it. And as I catch it and tiptoe toward the endzone he’s looking around. He thought the ball went out of bounds. But I actually just picked it off him.”

That week, Robinson was named NFC offensive player of the week and a 1st alternate for the Pro Bowl. Dick Jauron announced his selection to the team during practice. Robinson was now the NFC’s leader in receiving yards with 1,223. At the time, he described the feeling of his Pro Bowl alternate selection with one word: “dreamland.”

He finished the season with 1,400 yards receiving, breaking Jeff Graham’s franchise record of 1,301, set in 1995. Robinson’s nine receiving touchdowns tied him for 9th in franchise history, and he finished 2nd on the team in receptions with 84, behind Engram’s 88, the two of them behind only Johnny Morris’s 93 in 1964 for the most in Bears history.

In the NFC, Robinson lost out on the Pro Bowl to division rivals Cris Carter and Randy Moss of the Vikings, Isaac Bruce of the Rams, and Muhsin Muhammad of the Panthers. His final ranks in the NFL:

  • 4th in receiving yards (2nd in the NFC, 13 yards behind Moss)
  • 9th in receptions (5th in the NFC, 4th among NFC wide receivers)
  • 9th in receiving touchdowns (6th in the NFC, 4th among NFC wide receivers)

He was the first non-kicker since Neal Anderson in 1989 to lead the Bears in scoring.

“We were like college days, high school days, playing this game that (Gary Crowton) brought from college,” Robinson says today. “It was so much fun.”

The Daily Herald, Dec. 23, 1999, announcing the Bears Pro Bowl selections: KR/PR Glyn Milburn, 1st alternate Robinson, and 2nd alternate Olin Kreutz.

Once a Bear, always a Bear

The Bears entered the 2000 season in an unusual position: they seemed primed to ascend to the top of the division led by their offense, not their defense. They went into the 2000 draft looking to fill needs on D, selecting New Mexico linebacker-safety Brian Urlacher in the 1st round and Nebraska safety Mike Brown in the 2nd.

ESPN came out in full force for the Bears in 2000. Twelve of ESPN’s 15 NFL experts picked the Bears to reach the playoffs, while the majority of a seven-reporter panel picked Crowton as the league’s biggest trend setter. John Clayton expanded on that concept with a column, lauding not just the Super Bowl-champion Rams and coordinator-turned-head coach Mike Martz, but Crowton’s 6-10 Bears too.

Not everyone was sold on the Bears — Sports Illustrated picked the Bears to finish last in the Central, and 25th in the league — but everyone was sold on Robinson. In February 2000, Robinson signed a four-year deal for $14.4 million with a $5 million signing bonus. He was part of the top tier of NFL receivers with Moss, Marvin Harrison, Isaac Bruce, and Jimmy Smith. I recall buying probably the Pro Football Weekly fantasy football preview issue for 2000 and seeing Robinson ranked 6th among wide receivers.

It was not to be.

In 2000, Robinson led the Bears with 738 receiving yards and five touchdowns despite missing five games due to injury, including the final three games of the season with a bulging disc. He had back surgery in the summer of 2001 and started the season hot, second to Booker after four games with 219 receiving yards to Booker’s 255.

They both had two touchdown catches and 10 first downs, and even connected for a 34-yard touchdown pass, with Booker — a high school quarterback — hitting Robinson after Miller tossed to Booker on what looked like a screen.

But in the team’s fifth game, a 24-0 win over Cincinnati, Robinson tore his LCL/ACL, knocking him out for the season and forcing him to miss the team’s astounding 13-3 run to the division championship. He calls this his worst injury.

“I was like, ‘Man, the season’s over — how did this happen?’” he recalled in August of 2002. “But especially after Sept. 11, how could you wallow in self-pity?”

With a year remaining on his contract, Robinson took a pay cut of $1 million heading into the 2002 season. He played all 16 games, but started only two, with just 244 yards receiving on 21 catches.

Yet injuries alone weren’t the problem.

“I think when Jerry Angelo came in he wanted to give everything to our defense,” Robinson says. “He came from that Tampa team and Tampa had that great defense. It wasn’t like I was taking up a lot of cap room, moneywise. I had one more year on my contract. And I took a pay cut.”

Robinson spent the 2003 season with the Ravens, doing enough (including an incredible four-touchdown game), to earn a pay day. It came with the Vikings, where he played the final three seasons of his career, enjoying a 16-game, eight-touchdown season in 2004, leading the Vikings in receiving yards in their playoff loss to the Eagles.

Though his 2001 knee injury was his worst, he was hampered by injuries in Minnesota, including breaking three of his transverse processes — “the little wing tips of your vertebrae.”

His final NFL season was the same one that some of his former Bears teammates reached Super Bowl XLI. When Brian Urlacher, Olin Kreutz, Patrick Mannelly and others took the field in Miami, Robinson was watching.

Marcus Robinson #88...
Marcus Robinson snares a deep touchdown pass from Jim Miller in the Bears’ 23-20 win over the Chargers in 1999.

“I root for the Bears now,” he says. His nephew Demarcus Robinson is a wide receiver with the Chiefs, so while he rocks a Chiefs jersey and pulls for his nephew, he watches and cheers the Bears every Sunday. In June 2008, Robinson signed a one-day contract with the Bears to retire as a member of the team that gave him his start.

Today, Robinson is a family man. He and his wife Keyomi have two children: Mikayla, an incoming freshman at South Carolina who was born just before the 1999 season kicked off, and Marcus Jr., 12. Life is good for the Robinsons — Mikayla earned a scholarship to play volleyball at South Carolina, while Marcus Jr. is cancer free after a 2015 diagnosis with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and nearing the end of his check ups.

When he’s not with his family or watching the Bears, Robinson owns and runs Big Time Sports, a gym he founded in West Dundee where he trains both adults and children in different sports, including track, and helps teenagers learn proper conditioning.

His health is good for a ten-year NFL veteran, but the sport left its mark.

“I remember this doctor, she asked me if my hips hurt,” he says. “I said, ‘No, I’m fine. It’s no problem.’ She said, ‘Okay, when you get out of bed in the morning, do you feel (pain in) your hips?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, definitely. I feel them.’ And she said, ‘That’s the thing you have to understand. A normal person doesn’t feel their hips just getting up and getting out of bed.’”

Though the pain in his hips is joined by pain in his hands, knees, and back, Robinson stays positive. “I’m not crippled,” he says. “I can shoot basketball if I wanted to.” He has also not seen any symptoms that would suggest he is suffering from the degenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE.

Still, there was that day in 2000...

The Bears were in Philadelphia, playing the Eagles. Robinson was running down the sideline and got hit in the head by a defender. Doctors asked him if he could see the fans on the other side of the field. He couldn’t. He stayed in the game, but on the bus ride back to the airport he asked teammate James Allen where they were going.

“He said, ‘Man, the game’s over — we lost to Philly,’” Robinson recalls. “I was like, ‘What?’”

The next day during the team’s film session, he had no memory of the plays he’d run.

“I was talking to Jim (Miller), and Jim was telling me to go to this side and he was telling me what to run and I would run it,” he says.

Robinson is one of a number of professional athletes who seek to use a California law that allows professional athletes to file workers compensation claims for games played in that state. About a year ago, he went to California for a series of physical, neurological, and intellectual exams. He saw five or six doctors plus a dentist, some recommended by his attorney, others recommended by the NFL. He has not yet received the results of the tests.

No matter.

“When I talk to people I say, ‘I wouldn’t trade it for the world — I’d do it all over again,’” he says. “I think a lot of football players, if you had them sign a waiver saying, ‘This is what can happen from playing this sport,’ I think guys would still play it with that chance.”

I ask him the question that everyone wonders: Why?

He doesn’t blink.

“You’re doing something you love that you’ve been doing since you were a kid,” he says. “(You have) a job you love, there are some dangers to it, but it’s still something you love to do.”

The Robinsons are now looking to move back to Marcus’s home state of Georgia, to be closer to Mikayla. He plans to open a gym there. But he’ll always be a Bear. He keeps up with his fellow wide receivers Conway, Engram, Booker, Dez White, and Ahmad Merritt, and has become friends with former Bears with whom he wasn’t even teammates, including Nathan Vasher and Johnny Knox.

His memories of his teammates and coaches are positive across the board, especially of Jauron, who impressed Robinson by remembering his wife’s name and his daughter’s name, and always asking Marcus about them.

“He was a quiet, family man,” Robinson says about Jauron. “You always wanted to play for Dick.”

Last year, when the Bears hosted the Eagles in Week 2, Robinson was there, his most recent trip to Soldier Field. He still gets recognized at the stadium, so when he attends games, he brings about 15 to 20 of his football cards to give to kids. He signs autographs, talks to fans, and talks to staff he knew from his playing days.

“I was so blessed,” he says about his career. “I enjoy going to games because when I was playing for the Bears, I knew Mroc, a groundskeeper. I knew Sarah, who does the suites. I still know Garcia, who does security. I really go meet and talk to those guys and go down to the sideline and see the docs again. It’s just really nice to go back and see the people you worked with and interact with them. That’s what I really love about going to the games.”

I ask him what he loves most about playing for the Bears. The answer comes quick.

“Soldier Field,” he says. “And the fans. I can still smell the grass. There’s something different about Soldier Field, especially in that November time when it’s cold but it’s not too cold. You’re walking out onto Soldier Field and it’s like the fans are like on top of you. You’re engulfed in the stadium. And the smell of the grass, and just how the fans are.

“I tell a lot of young guys: talk to the fans. If you ignore Chicago fans, they will not like you. If you have a bad day, you have a bad day. If you are not doing well, they would rather you yell at them. Give them some emotion back. You’re walking down the street and a random guy will be like, ‘Marcus man, you dropped that pass. We would have won that game!’ And I’ll be like, ‘I know man. I ain’t get it.’ They don’t have any shame about calling you out on that, and they don’t have any shame about calling you out and saying, ‘Man, you were awesome. You’re a great guy. I love when you play.’”

He pauses, and I can hear him smile again.

“I really love that.”

Bears v Falcon X

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Jack M Silverstein is Windy City Gridiron’s Bears historian, and the creator of the ongoing 2006 Chicago Bears oral history interview series. He is also the author of “How The GOAT Was Built: 6 Life Lessons From the 1996 Chicago Bears.” Say hello and talk sports at @readjack, and say hello to Marcus Robinson on Twitter @mrobinson8788. Nearly all statistics in this story came from the incomparable Pro-Football-Reference.com, while the newspaper images come from Newspapers.com.