Commentary

Mentoring his replacement

Desmond Clark takes backseat to fellow TE Greg Olsen

Originally Published: August 14, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Desmond Clark has a pretty good life. That's what he told himself. Adorable twin daughters who fluttered around him the other day after practice like two little butterflies. Another beautiful stepdaughter and wife. And an NFL career that has taken him through 10 seasons as one of the more dependable tight ends in the game and, for the past six, one of the best in Bears franchise history.

[+] EnlargeDesmond Clark
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesDesmond Clark mentored Greg Olsen. Then Clark lost his starting job to Olsen.
So when he was informed rather matter-of-factly in March that, after his 67 straight starts, third-year man Greg Olsen would be lining up at No. 1 when next season begins, Clark considered these gifts.

"Initially, it's difficult," he said, "but when you start to put everything in perspective, I've been blessed. I don't have anything in life that I need to walk around being upset about. So that's kind of how I look at it."

Oh, and one other thing.

"One thing I had to look at is Greg is not a guy who's average. He is above-above average," Clark said. "I think I would've struggled a whole lot more if it was somebody who I didn't respect as much as I respect Greg and what he can do out on the football field."

Clark, whose current contract runs through 2010, admits that he wished he had a chance to defend his spot by battling it out on the practice field.

"That was the only disappointing thing," he said, "but after I got past that, hell, what am I going to do? I'm either going to sit around and cry about it or I'm going to go out and play football. I chose to go out and play football."

It leaves the Bears with not just a healthy situation at tight end. With Olsen all but dazzling this preseason teaming up with quarterback Jay Cutler, and seemingly poised to make the biggest step of his pro career, it also leaves the Bears with the potential for the most potent tight end production in years.

"Of course we're biased," Bears head coach Lovie Smith said, "but we had two excellent tight ends last year. They changed roles but that two-tight-end package is big for us. We'll use Des in a lot of different ways."

For Olsen, his role is clear as the best receiver on the team and maybe even the biggest deep threat based on some of the acrobatic catches he has made in scrimmages this camp.

"You don't find it very often, a guy with that kind of motor, as big as he is and just the way he adjusts to the ball," Cutler said. "A lot of guys that big are kind of stiff and they can't do some of the things that he can. He's a huge target and we're going to have to use him the right way. We just have to be careful and not overload him and put him in good spots where he can make some plays and get some match-ups that we really like."

A gifted pass catcher coming out of the University of Miami, Olsen has had to work on his blocking.

"He didn't work on footwork and all that stuff at Miami, he didn't have to," Clark recalled. "I know me and [fellow tight end John] Gilmore used to sit back and crack jokes about his footwork. But now when you look at it, it's right there with any other tight end in the league."

Any other awkwardness for Olsen was made that much tougher his rookie season when his part in a college rap video circulated on the Internet and caught considerable flak with a front page headline in the Chicago Sun-Times that read, "New Bear's Raunchy Rap Lyrics."

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesGreg Olsen is primed for a breakout season, which he partly credits Desmond Clark.
"When you're in the public eye, that's the life we live and it's part of it. It was actually good, though, to go through that as a young kid and learn what the league is all about from the beginning," Olsen said of that controversy, as well as his two-fumble game in a loss at Carolina early last season in which the Bears squandered a 17-3 lead. "I've had a lot of good things that have happened to me over the years that have taught me a lot and made me who I am, and I look at all of that as a learning experience."

Helping matters considerably was the counsel and guidance offered by Clark.

"It's kind of difficult when you get introduced to Chicago through the newspaper with a bad article," Clark said. "So just dealing with that stuff, and then dealing with being a first-rounder and the pressure to come in and play and play well, it's tough. The thing about Greg, he came in and he wanted to learn, and he wanted to work hard and make plays. When you've got that type of attitude, it's easy for a veteran to help you out."

Olsen called the help "huge" for his development.

"Coming into the league as a top draft pick and coming into the room with an established veteran guy, for him to embrace me and take me under his wing and show me the way just speaks volumes about the kind of guy Des is," Olsen said. "He taught me a lot about everything, from blocking to route running to learning the offense to what it takes to be an NFL player. Just everything."

The only Bears player who might be a bigger influence on Olsen is Cutler, who offensive coordinator Ron Turner joked is Olsen's best friend.

"They spend a lot of time together," Turner said. "Greg is smart. He's spent a lot of time with him in the offseason, away from football, getting him to like him. He knows who's throwing that ball. He's been real smart about that.

"But seriously, he was ready to take the next step even without Jay, and you get Jay in here and he's already developed a good chemistry, and Jay has a lot of confidence in him. I think he's primed to have a really, really good year."

Made just a little easier, perhaps, by a really good teammate.

"They made a choice to go with the future," Clark said. "And Greg is the future."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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