Commentary

For Olsen, the end game is elsewhere

It's become abundantly clear that tight ends are ignored in Mike Martz's offense

Updated: January 12, 2011, 10:31 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Greg Olsen could end up catching a dozen passes against Seattle on Sunday, score three touchdowns in the NFC Championship Game and be the Super Bowl hero.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireGreg Olsen has had five touchdowns in 2010. That number is down from eight the previous season.
But Olsen, the Bears and the rest of the league know the fourth-year tight end would still be better off on another team.

With one year left on his contract, Olsen had the fewest catches (41) and the least yardage (404) this regular season since his rookie year. He had 19 fewer receptions, 208 fewer yards and three fewer touchdowns (five) than last season, when he was Jay Cutler's favorite target.

He could triple that amount on any number of teams and better utilize what he does best.

Yes, Olsen out of necessity improved somewhat as a blocker this season. His block to spring Matt Forte to a 22-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the Bears' victory over the Jets was perhaps his best. But it's still not what he does.

After Mike Martz's arrival last winter, Olsen told people he wanted to be traded. And who could blame him? Even Martz readily admitted that there wasn't much room in his system for a tight end with his hand down. Translation: Tight ends on Martz's teams were glorified offensive linemen and fullbacks, nothing more.

Olsen said Wednesday that he has changed his attitude.

"It's definitely different as far as the past," he said. "But I really think, and I wholeheartedly believe this, that it's been a good thing. It's opened my eyes that you can have an impact on the game other than catching the ball and scoring touchdowns.

"In the past, it was always, 'What can our tight ends do in the passing game?' We did stuff in the run game, don't get me wrong. But this year, we have a lot more responsibility on blitz protections on third downs. As opposed to maybe running the routes, we're back there, which is just as important, picking up blitzes, scanning guys, run blocking from the backfield, on the line of scrimmage. … The position has made some plays and been a factor in the passing game. But I feel like the position has helped in other ways that sometimes can go unnoticed. … I think we've all grown a lot this past year as all-around players."

That would be with the notable exception of Desmond Clark, of course. Prior to last season, in which a season-opening back injury limited him to seven starts and 11 games, the 12-year veteran became the first Bears tight end since Mike Ditka to turn in three consecutive 40-reception seasons.

Why the multidimensional Clark was inactive in 11 games and had just one catch for 12 yards this season was as much a mystery as it was a waste, particularly after Martz flashed Clark and the other tight ends in training camp as if they were going to be the main cogs in the offense. He also started Clark at fullback during the preseason and talked about his ability to catch balls out of the backfield.

[+] EnlargeGreg Olsen
Rob Grabowski/US PresswireGreg Olsen hasn't been a focal point of Mike Martz's offense.
But it was all talk, as Martz shifted his guy, Brandon Manumaleuna, to fullback in the season opener and shafted Clark, who is all but gone after this season since his Bears contract expires. Manumaleuna, whom the Bears signed to a five-year deal in March, seemed to miss more blocks than he made this season and became such a nonfactor that he all but escaped the responsibility heaped upon the O-line.

As a group, the Bears' tight ends, along with Kellen Davis, caught just 48 passes this season, down from 88 last season, and had five fewer touchdowns with eight combined.

Considering that no tight end under Martz had caught more than 38 passes or scored more than six touchdowns in a season, Olsen's 41 and five were on par. But is that production worth an extension? Probably not to Olsen if the Bears realize there are plenty of other tight ends who can do the same thing in this system and offer to pay him accordingly.

Considering Martz's concessions this season in regards to the run game, not to mention the Bears' 11-5 record and Manumaleuna's contract, it's unrealistic to expect Martz to change his philosophy toward tight ends.

Cutler tried to make a case for Olsen's fit.

"Greg's still valuable to this offensive right now," he said. "He does so many different things. Him and kind of Earl [Bennett] and Rashied [Davis] and those guys are kind of our movable pieces. He's lined up at probably every position possible out there. I think even though Greg's numbers might be down, he's probably had more fun in this offense than he has in years. Just the challenge of preparing each week and the different things we're asking him to do."

Maybe. But do the Bears need a former first-round pick to do that?

Somehow it feels like watching Clark sit on the bench all season. A waste.

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.