Commentary

Bears' Olsen still has room for growth

Tight end on brink of being slapped with 'disappointment' tag

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

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Tom Hauck/Getty ImagesLofty expectations don't bother Bears tight end Greg Olsen. He says he has high expectations of himself.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- No one was comparing Greg Olsen to Tony Gonzalez last summer when the words "Olsen" and "Pro Bowl" first started appearing in the same sentence.

No one would dare, as Gonzalez, in his first season with the Atlanta Falcons after 13 years with the Kansas City Chiefs, is a 10-time Pro Bowler and surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer who holds NFL records for career receptions, receiving yards, touchdown catches and more.

Before this year, they could stitch his name on an AFC Pro Bowl jersey in September, but after four games this season, Gonzalez, 33, has "just" 19 receptions for 215 yards (and two TDs), 19th in the NFC.

Olsen, who is physically similar to Gonzalez at 6-foot-5, 255 pounds (Gonzalez is 6-5, 243 pounds) and is a big admirer, is on the brink of being slapped with the "disappointment" tag this season, with just 10 catches for 94 yards and two touchdowns.

It was fair to expect big things from Olsen -- and give him credit: He expects them of himself and does not think the Pro Bowl talk was heaping on too much pressure.

"No, I don't think so at all," he said Wednesday at Halas Hall. "I have that type of potential and that type of ability."

That we have yet to witness that potential at its full capacity does not mean Olsen hasn't made some impression on the offense. Game-planning designed to stop Olsen has no doubt led to some of the early success enjoyed by Bears receivers Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett.

"A lot of teams have tried to take [Olsen] away from us, which is fine," said quarterback Jay Cutler, whose jaw tightens every time he's asked about Olsen's failure to live up to expectations. "That's why it has opened up stuff for everyone else."

Olsen has been in the slot and has lined up at fullback, catching passes seemingly everywhere except downfield, where we all expected. (He had one 29-yard reception against Pittsburgh.) But Cutler has gone deep infrequently thus far, and as they like to say around here, they're 3-1.

"If you tell Greg he'll only catch a handful of balls every game and we win the rest of these games, make it into the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl, he'll be happy with that," said fellow tight end Desmond Clark. "The thing is, if we have a game plan and it's working, we don't want to screw it up. When [the opportunity] presents itself, I'm quite sure we'll take it, and everybody knows Jay will take the shot whenever it's there. It'll come.

"He hasn't caught his stride yet. It's going to happen, and he's going to have a stretch of games where he catches eight, nine, 10 balls and next game come back and catch five or six, and then next game go back and catch eight. He's going to hit that stride sooner or later in the season, then, you know how the city is: Everybody will love him again."

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireBears offensive coordinator Ron Turner wants to get Olsen more involved in the passing game.

At 3-1, the love might not be abundant, but there's a lot of like. And if you figure that Olsen has not yet hit his stride, Matt Forte and the offensive line have yet to get into a groove, and Cutler hasn't really cut it loose, hand-wringing is not yet necessary. We'll all know when that time arrives. We're very good at that.

If someone had told you before the season started that after four games, Olsen would have only 10 catches and the 3-1 Bears would be seventh in the league in scoring at 26.2 points per game, come on, admit it -- you'd have been pleasantly surprised. But you'd have also wondered what was wrong with the big fella.

But after four games in 2008, Olsen also had 10 catches, and he finished with 54 grabs for 574 yards and five TDs, 10th overall among NFL tight ends. Gonzalez, whom Olsen and the Bears will see Sunday night in Atlanta, led all tight ends last season with 96 catches for 1,058 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"Everything takes time," tight ends coach Rob Boras said of Olsen. "But he's a special talent."

While offensive coordinator Ron Turner's talk with Olsen during the bye week did not change the fact that "we've got to get him more involved in the passing game," according to Turner, the Bears love his versatility.

"We're going to try to move him around to as many different spots as we can to try to find mismatches," Boras said.

Turner called it a luxury.

"They don't know if he's going to line up as a wide receiver, a tight end, or at the fullback [spot] and be a lead blocker," he said, "so that definitely gives us the ability to do a lot of things."

Olsen said he feels good about where his game is through four contests.

"I know a lot of the other stuff gets looked past -- the run-blocking, pass-blocking stuff like that," said Olsen, who as a blocker still lacks the leverage of someone like Clark. "I'm not really too concerned about all the stuff that gets said. I feel good about where I'm at, and I just have to continue to not press and when the chances come, just make the best of them."

Chances are, he will. The like lasts only so long.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

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.