Bears' rookie receiver has a coming-out party at Soldier Field
CHICAGO -- A star was born Sunday on the chewed-up turf at Soldier Field, and it wasn't Jay Cutler, who was more field general than loose cannon in his regular-season home debut.
It wasn't Greg Olsen, either, the supposed recipient of Cutler's golden arm, and it wasn't Matt Forte, who seemed poised to follow, even improve upon, his stellar rookie campaign.
It was Johnny Knox, the pride and joy of the Lone Star Conference, who hasn't wasted any time making a major impact on the Chicago Bears.
"I told Johnny, congratulations," Cutler said after the Bears outlasted the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers 17-14 in the rain. "You're no longer a rookie."
If you haven't followed the Bears this summer, you're probably wondering: When did that Johnny Knoxville guy start playing football?
Wrong guy. This is no stunt. Knox is for real, and he's no "Jackass."
"Nobody knows who I am," Knox said. "I'm just trying to go out there and make plays to help my team win."
Knox, the rookie from Abilene Christian University with the name straight out of Hollywood, has morphed from NFL combine workout warrior to legitimate NFL threat in about the time it takes him to run a 40-yard dash.
That's 4.34 seconds, if you're scoring at home.
That time, the third-best at the 2009 draft combine, gave the Houston product his entree into the NFL. The Bears drafted him in the fifth round, after the two guys who beat him in the 40, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Mike Wallace, who is playing the same role for the Steelers.
Four-three-four is NFLese for "Dude's fast." That's Prime Time fast. Devin Hester fast. Actually, it's faster than Hester's combine time of 4.41.
Knox isn't gunning for the old NFL Fastest Man title. The Olympics might be in Chicago in 2016, but the Bears need more than fleet feet at wideout. With Cutler firing spirals, the Bears need real receivers, and Knox has stepped up. In two games, he's caught eight passes for a team-high 152 yards. He caught a 68-yard bomb in the opener and scored on a 7-yard pass in this win, which the Bears needed desperately after last week's embarrassing loss in Green Bay.
"It feels real good," he said. "It ain't easy to score in the NFL."
No, it isn't, but Knox had no problem in two years of Division II football, setting his school and conference records with 30 touchdown catches. He should have plenty more opportunities as he continues to digest an NFL playbook. While offensive coordinator Ron Turner said they can throw any play at the receiver, Knox admitted that he mostly just knows the playmaking X position, or the split end.
Bears coach Lovie Smith said the coaches are impressed with how much Knox improves seemingly every day.
"He's not just a fast guy running around," said Olsen, who has played with a few speedsters at the University of Miami and Chicago. "He catches the ball well, he runs his routes well. He's a very good all-around receiver."
Knox endeared himself to the rain-soaked home crowd early. On the team's first scoring drive, in the second quarter, he caught a 22-yard pass that took the Bears into Steelers territory. Five plays later, he took the Bears into the red zone with a 16-yard grab. Six plays later, the Bears tied it at 7-7 on a Kellen Davis touchdown catch.
He bookended the Bears' next scoring drive, catching a 7-yard pass to start the team's first fourth-quarter possession and another 7-yarder over the middle to tie it at 14. He caught a 5-yard pass on the team's next drive, before Robbie Gould won it with a 44-yard field goal.
With Cutler's big arm, Bears fans dream of bombs to Hester and Olsen racing up the seam against overmatched linebackers, but Knox has added a wrinkle to that plan. He can go long, and he can catch the slants and run. He's proven to be the surprise the Bears needed for a passing game begging for a standout.
And to think, he was almost inactive in Week 1. Instead he showed that he was ready to contribute right now. Rashied Davis, Juaquin Iglesias and Devin Aromashodu might have found themselves squeezed out for the time being as Knox is cementing his role as the Bears' third receiver, complementing Hester and Earl Bennett.
"He's developed really quickly," Cutler said. "In two games he's really come along. With [Aromashodu] going down in the first week, we were scrambling for who to put in there. We put Johnny in there and he's been turning up great."
The Bears broke camp with a B-list of no-name wide receivers, headlined by Hester, the special teams ace who is still a novice at the position.
So the lingering question was: Who is going to step up? Knox seemed like more of a project. Aromashodu was ahead of him on the depth chart entering last week's opener, but when he couldn't go with a quadriceps injury, Knox stepped in. I could make a Wally Pipp joke here, but this type of thing happens all the time in the NFL. Guys go down, guys step up. It's as much a part of the league as high-tops and Peyton Manning commercials.
Knox was the target on Green Bay's game-clinching interception in the opener. He seemed confused on the route, and as he kind of stumbled turning outside, veteran cornerback Al Harris muscled past him to pick off Cutler. Knox and Cutler never built a real rapport in camp either.
"At first our timing was off," Knox said. "We've started to build a bit of a relationship. We've just got to carry it throughout the season."
Knox joins defensive back Danieal Manning as Abilene Christian players on the Bears. The two proved that speed can carry you out of Division II football and into the big time. Pretty soon, the Bears scouts can just focus on Abilene and Vanderbilt, and call it a day.
"I always thought I could play at this level," said Knox, who came out of a small high school in a Houston suburb and played two years at Tyler Junior College. "I just had to make the transition and show I can."
Turner, the guy responsible for those short-yardage plays on third-and-long, said Knox has the rare skill of playing fast when it matters.
"We've all commented that sometimes when young guys come in, it takes them a long time to learn to play fast, to play the game at the speed you have to play," Turner said. "He's done it from Day 1. From training camp to preseason games to the first two games of the regular season, he hasn't gotten big-eyed. He goes out and plays with confidence."
Manning, a second-round pick out of Abilene Christian in 2006, said he has tried to mentor Knox.
"If he considers me some type of role model, that's great," Manning said. "I just wanted to put him under my wing the way guys did with me. It's a big stage, you have the media, high expectations, money, different stresses and he's handling it well."
Knox's green eyes were as big as saucers as the media phalanx surrounded his locker after the game. His answers were succinct and humble. He spoke softly, like hundreds of out-of-nowhere rookies have before him. As I watched him prepare his bag, I wondered if he knew that his life just changed forever.
It's a long way from Abilene Christian to Soldier Field, and Knox, like Manning before him, has gotten there fast.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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