Hester, Bears' offense stepping to the fore
The Bears are usually about defense. So far this summer, it's been their offense that has electrified fans, writes John Clayton.
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- As I walked out of the buzzing, over-crowded football stadium at Olivet Nazarene University on Saturday night, I looked to the clear, star-lit skies and said to "Papa Bear" George Halas, "Forgive me for what I am about to do."
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This summer, however, the Monsters of the Midway have electrified fans with their offense. And it's more than just a revitalized Cedric Benson splitting the middle of the Bears' defense with a fast run up the gut. Devin Hester, the pinball whiz on returns and converted defensive back, is wowing Bears fans and burning defenders with his pass-catching skills at wideout. Rookie tight end Greg Olsen is stretching the field and catching everything within grasp. Tiny halfback Garrett Wolfe (5-foot-7, 177 pounds) looks like he's on fast-forward on sweeps and short passes in the flat.
So far, Chicago's offense has been the best thrill ride in the summer tour of training camps.
"We're hoping to get some playmakers out there," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. "We've got some guys who are willing to make some plays."
The story of camp is Hester. Bears beat writer John Mullin officially named the 2007 camp, "The Devin Hester Experience." Watching him run routes is like listening to old Jimi Hendrix records -- explosive, exciting and unpredictable. Any fan would love to hang from the "Watchtower" to see the show.
In 2006, Hester was the underground candidate for offensive rookie of the year by returning six kicks for touchdowns, including a kickoff for a score on the opening play of the Super Bowl. Turner and the team's other offensive coaches had been plotting to bring Hester's play-making skills to the offense. Their thought was Hester would be a natural for catching balls out of the backfield or as a receiver. In the spring, Hester caught just about every pass thrown his way.
"I started playing football when I was 4 years old, and I played wide receiver, quarterback and defensive back," Hester said. "God blessed me with the talent to catch the ball. When I had pickup games I would play quarterback and wide receiver. I'd do a quarterback sneak and just run the ball."
Now, the experiment is over. Hester is a receiver. Turner says that Hester will be on the field on offense more than the five or six plays a game he logged last season. Hester predicts about 30 plays; however, there is one problem. He is so valuable as a returner that the team can't afford to see Hester get hurt on offense. Coaches will have to find the right balance in order to keep him fresh and healthy for the entire season.
Hester is just an incredible athlete. For his size and position, Olsen isn't too shabby either. The rookie tight end had the crowd going crazy when he angled his body to the ground and made a remarkable catch before it hit the grass. As Olsen came back toward the huddle, Hester, who is 5-foot-11, soared into the night sky to do the highest of high fives with the 6-foot-5 Olsen.
Things, however, got a little carried away Sunday. Hester jacked up the crowd and played more inspired football after each catch. Fans motivated him to do too much. Before long, Hester started to drop a few passes. Coaches, sensing something wrong, found he was a little dehydrated and gave him some extra rest.
Wolfe, meanwhile, brings a Dave Meggett-type option to the offense. He catches the ball well and is quick. Each day in practice, the Bears unveil new packages to showcase the increased speed and athleticism to their offense. Sometimes, they will go with two tight ends Desmond Clark and Olsen, who is second only to Vernon Davis as the league's fastest tight end. And while all this is going on, Bernard Berrian -- developing as the team's No. 1 wide receiver option -- is burning cornerbacks with his speed on crossing routes and long passes.
All of the sudden, the Bears, who usually look as slow and methodical as a Big Ten offense, have speed and lighting-like scoring ability.
"We've just added another dimension to an offense that already knows the system so well and advanced it a little bit," quarterback Rex Grossman said. "Bernard Berrian is going to take another jump this year, and he's a mismatch for a lot of corners in this league. He's a relatively and unknown guy. ... He won't be after this year."
Things have been so electrifying that some of the fan gloom about Grossman as the team's starting quarterback is brightening up. Grossman looks much improved from last season. With more weapons to work with, the goal is to get Grossman's completion rate to 60 percent.
It is clear in camp that Grossman -- a 54 percent career passer -- has devoted a lot of time to improving his game, so that 60 percent completion rate should be attainable.
First, Grossman has more weapons to use. Berrian has 70-catch, 1,000-yard potential. Clark is a 45-to-50-catch tight end.
Second, from his study of game film, Grossman found ways to be more defined with his throwing fundamentals when his first two receiving options are covered. One of Grossman's strengths last season was being defined in his throwing motion and setup on his first two reads. But if they were covered, Grossman looked lost and his feet were everywhere.
Bears coaches do a great job fixing fundamental problems. Lovie Smith hired Pep Hamilton from the Jets as quarterbacks coach. If there is any idle time at practice, he'll take quarterbacks to a field and work with fundamentals. Hamilton studies every Grossman throw and offers immediate suggestions to repair small technical flaws.
Those suggestions have helped with Grossman's accuracy.
Despite going to the Super Bowl, Grossman had a tough time last year. Fans wanted him benched. Critics around the country called for Brian Griese to replace him. At press conferences, Grossman seemed increasingly uncomfortable and defensive. Folks were out to get him.
Teammates and coaches totally supported Grossman. Smith never gave much thought to benching him. Turner worked hard to keep Grossman's head in the game.
"We are [a] fully loaded offensive team," Grossman said. "It's a veteran offensive line and a good running back. Last year, we went from 29th in the league to 15th. Hopefully, we crack the top five or top eight."
Turner, meanwhile, is opening up the playbook. He's considering incorporating some shotgun formations and running no-huddle series. He's even asking Grossman to run a little more. Last year, Grossman ran only 24 times. He gained 2 yards.
Now, the coaches want Grossman to run a little bit -- even if it's only three or four yards. Grossman can now look around and get the ball to speedier players.
There's something different about these Bears.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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Training camp reports
Jeffri Chadiha, John Clayton, Matt Mosley, Len Pasquarelli and Mike Sando are traveling the country to bring you the latest news and information from all 32 training camps. For more camp coverage, click here.
Thursday, July 26
Pasquarelli: Steelers' camp physical
Saturday, July 28
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Sunday, July 29
Pasquarelli: Saints' Bush eager for Act II
Monday, July 30 Pasquarelli: Bucs' Gruden likes what Garcia offers
Sunday, Aug. 5
Pasquarelli: McGahee at home in Baltimore
Monday, Aug. 6
Mosley: There's a new sheriff in Dallas
Tuesday, Aug. 7
Chadiha: Spikes savors his opportunity in Philly
Thursday, Aug. 9
Clayton: Whisenhunt whipping Cards into shape
Saturday, Aug. 11
Clayton: San Francisco brimming with confidence
Tuesday, Aug. 14
Pasquarelli: Bengals' Johnson a true workhorse
Thursday, Aug. 16
Chadiha: Even-keeled Losman ready to lead Bills
Friday, Aug. 17
Mosley: Texans' Williams sets bar high in Year 2
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