Commentary

Bears WRs hitting their stride

Maligned in preseason, wideouts putting up big numbers

Originally Published: October 1, 2009
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Bears rookie wide receiver Johnny Knox has found himself in the end zone twice this season with no real idea what to do.

"Someday," he said of a possible celebratory move.

Devin Hester scored the winning touchdown Sunday in Seattle on a 36-yard catch-and-run, and when fellow receiver Earl Bennett caught up with him to celebrate, Hester broke into a rushed version of the "Teach Me How to Jerk" video, while Bennett stood by awkwardly.

"I sang," Bennett shrugged.

They are not exactly a polished group yet. With the possible exception of Hester, they barely even have attitude. But considering how far they have come in a few weeks, the Bears wide receivers have earned at least a little indignation.

"They should," tight end Desmond Clark said. "I would if I was routinely getting talked about as not being as good as I am. I would have a chip on my shoulder because I don't think they've gotten the kind of respect they deserve.

"All of them are young, yeah, but everybody came into this league young, and everybody had to make a name for themselves at some point or another, and that's the position they're in right now."

That chip sounds more like brash talk than real bravado at this point, but they're working on it.

"Johnny and [fellow rookie Juaquin Iglesias] don't have much of a reason," Rashied Davis said. "It's Devin, Earl and myself -- we're the guys who have been talked about as not being good enough. So that sort of pisses us off, and I think we brought the rookies along with that same mentality -- that we have to go out there and play as hard as we can and prove it every day, whether it be blocking in the run game or catching passes and making plays in the pass game.

"We don't necessarily have to prove it to anyone, but we want to show everybody that this is who we are and we are capable of making plays and making people respect us."

[+] EnlargeJohnny Knox
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJohnny Knox has found the end zone, but not a celebration.

Davis, whose role this season has been limited to special teams, hasn't caught a pass yet this fall. But it seems fitting that a 5-foot-9, 30-year-old receiver with five years in the NFL and four in the Arena Football League is the leader of a group that is still trying to define itself.

While pointing out the speed of Bernard Berrian and the strength of Muhsin Muhammad, both former teammates, Davis calls this corps of Bears receivers, which averages 23.4 years old without him, "different, quicker, small but physical and very athletic."

The trio of Hester (13 catches for 187 yards and two touchdowns), Bennett (13-168-0) and Knox (9-159-2) are second in the NFL only to Arizona with three wide receivers with at least 159 yards after three games.

And while it is clear that Bears quarterback Jay Cutler has, as advertised, elevated the play of his receivers, what distinguishes this Bears group is a quiet versatility and, particularly, an ability to run after the catch.

Asked whether he is seeing more of that than last season, Darryl Drake, in his sixth season as the Bears' wide receivers coach, scoffed.

"We have more of that since I've been here," he said. "There was 100 yards [combined] after the catch last game. We haven't had that around here."

It has not gone unnoticed by Cutler.

"I try to get the ball in their hands as quickly as possible and let them do their thing, and they've done a great job of breaking tackles, making people miss," the quarterback said. "But they know when to get down. They're not out there sacrificing their bodies."

That might be disputed by Drake, who believes Hester has been misjudged in a number of areas.

"What a lot of people don't realize is how tough [No.] 23 is," he said of Hester. "Some of those catches he made [against the Seahawks] exposed his body, safeties bearing down on him, but he didn't care. He said, 'I'm just going to make that catch.'

"It takes real toughness to make some of those high catches on the slant when you know those safeties are coming at you, you know the linebacker is buzzing out there to take your head off."

After three games, it is still a little early to call Hester the second coming of Tom Waddle, but he is progressing -- this much we know. Drake said Hester is coming in on days off, peppering him and defensive backs coach Jon Hoke with questions, striving to become a better student of the game.

"Most [receivers] don't really start to understand totally what's going on in the secondary until after four or five years of playing the game," Drake said. "Those defensive coordinators are not going to just come out there and line up, show you one look, and let you run up and down the field on them. They're going to disguise, they're going to give you different looks, different coverages.

[+] EnlargeRashied Davis
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesRashied Davis hasn't had much action as a receiver in the regular season, but he's the vocal leader.

"They want you to think before that ball is snapped. And when [receivers] start coming along, they start reacting, they know what's happening with those safeties, and Devin is getting to that point."

Opponents are seeing it as well.

"When you go into a game and a defense says, 'We have to take you out, and we have to take our best corner and put him on you with safety help,' which is what Pittsburgh did, then that's respect," Drake said. "They wouldn't have done that previously."

The Bears also are benefiting from opponents' unfamiliarity with Bennett and Knox, and from the reputation of a Bears running game that has yet to live up to it.

"You can't double-team us too much because, yeah, maybe the running game hasn't taken off yet," Davis said, "but they're still going to devote two people to that box because they know if they don't, [Matt] Forte can rip 'em at any time."

As for Knox, so far he's a revelation and a difference-maker as a fifth-rounder out of Division II Abilene Christian by way of Tyler Junior College.

"I always heard people say I was too little and too short to make it to this level, but I just tried to use it," Knox said.

He said he idolized Chad Ochocinco growing up.

"I just like his style," the baby-faced Knox said almost apologetically. "Not the way he talks, but the way he carries himself on the football field because he's so competitive."

All Knox needs now is swagger. Well, and maybe a little game in the end zone.

"I don't know what he's waiting on," Davis said. "If it was me, I'd have busted out a long time ago. I'd have had it choreographed."

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.