Muhsin Muhammad’s time with the Bears is best remembered for its six-word eulogy. In 2008, Muhammad had just returned to the Panthers after three forgettable seasons in Chicago. In his final year, he’d caught just 40 passes for one of the league’s worst offenses. When Sports Illustrated’s Peter King asked him about those dark days in Chicago, Muhammad didn’t hold back. “That’s right,” he said. “It’s where receivers go to die.” It would seem cruel if it weren’t so true.
I grew up about 45 miles from Soldier Field and spent plenty of Sundays there. Muhammad’s stay in Chicago was an extension of the franchise’s identity for the past half-century. From Doug Atkins and Bill George to Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary, from Dan Hampton and Richard Dent all the way to Brian Urlacher, the Bears have long been defined by defense. Even the way Walter Payton played felt like a safety who just happened to run the ball.
To be a Bears fan was to give up on offense, and nowhere was that sacrifice bleaker than at receiver. The Bears’ all-time leader in receiving yards is Johnny Morris, a flanker type who played from 1958 to 1967. In 10 seasons, he totaled 5,059 yards and 356 catches, another Bears receiver record. On average, it comes out to a little less than 42 yards a game. He had one season with more than 1,000 yards. No Bear has ever had more than two.
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Founded in 1920 as the Decatur Staleys, the Bears are one of the league’s original franchises. Even with 94 years’ worth of players, only the Buccaneers have a career receiving leader — Mark Carrier — with fewer yards than Morris, and Carrier did it in 33 fewer games. For nearly a century, Chicago has been, in almost every way, the most receiver-starved team in league history.
Chicago’s playmaking past is so barren that the team’s trade for Brandon Marshall two years ago made him the best receiver in team history before he even caught a pass. By the standards he set in Denver, the seasons Marshall spent in Miami were pedestrian. They also would have been the best two-year stretch the Bears have ever had. Even Marshall’s enormous talent wasn’t enough to calm the fears that he would end up another victim of the receiver-eating sarlacc pit that is Soldier Field.
What actually happened was beyond anything Bears fans could have hoped. Instead of slipping, Marshall was better than he’d ever been. In two years, he has compiled 2,803 yards — more than halfway to Morris — and owns two of the best receiving seasons in team history. The production was undeniable, but to watch Marshall was to watch a player unlike any the Bears had ever had. He bullied cornerbacks, tossed them aside in the open field, and overpowered them in the end zone. He looked how a star receiver should look.
The Bears rewarded him like one in March with a three-year extension worth up to $30 million, news he announced live on The View. He was on the show to promote mental-health awareness, which he does often these days. In 2011, Marshall was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, a disease that can lead to emotional outbursts like the ones that marred Marshall’s early years in the league.
At the press conference announcing his extension, he fought back tears. “He was desperate,” said Jay Cutler during his press conference after the team’s OTAs. Cutler has known Marshall since they were rookies in Denver. “He was searching for something. He found it here.” After signing the deal, Marshall called coming to Chicago “lifesaving and career-saving.”
That’s what has happened in the time since Muhammad buried the Bears. In just two years, Chicago has transformed from one of the league’s most putrid offenses into one of its best. For the first time since the 1940s, the Bears look like a team defined by offense. Chicago is no longer a franchise where receivers go to die. It’s where they’re reborn.
Phil Emery swears that Cutler had no hand in the trade for Marshall. Soon after Emery was hired as the Bears’ general manager, in early 2012, he sat down for a meeting with his quarterback. Emery told him what he would tell a lot of people in those early days. “When I came in, I said the one thing we had to do was increase the playmakers on our team,” he says. But Emery claims Cutler didn’t even bring up Marshall’s name.
Jeff Ireland, then the Dolphins’ GM, is the one who did that. Ireland was looking to shop Marshall.1 “Obviously,” Emery says, “he thought we would be an interested party.” During the negotiations, Emery learned that Marshall had been implicated in an incident at a New York nightclub, but after looking into the incident he felt confident that Marshall hadn’t been involved. Emery agreed to send two third-round picks to Miami in exchange for the Dolphins receiver.
Bringing in Marshall was a start, but it still left the Bears only one-third of the way to a quality receiving corps. The trade became official on the opening day of the league year, about a month and a half before Emery’s first draft as GM. “The draft for me, at the end, always gets down to repetitively watching players that you like with the head coach,”2 Emery says. “And we just kept coming back to Alshon.”
Alshon Jeffery had an uneven final season at South Carolina. The Gamecocks’ starting quarterback, Stephen Garcia, had been booted from the team. Jeffery’s weight had ballooned. His receiving totals were cut nearly in half. But it was the previous season that Emery was drawn to, the year when Jeffery had 1,517 yards, tops in the SEC, and looked like one of the most physically dominant players in the country.
The combine was a chance for Emery to prod Jeffery about his lagging finish in college. “We tried to shake his tree a little bit,” he says. The conversation started light. They talked about basketball, the first sport in which Jeffery starred in high school. Jeffery talked up his hardwood game, but Emery wanted to know if he thought he could really play receiver. That’s when the tone changed. “He got taller in his chair,” Emery says. “There was no doubt, in terms of how he spoke, that the guy knows he can play. It’s in his fiber.”
This is Emery’s second stint in Chicago. The first started in 1998, as a regional scout. For three of his first seven seasons with the Bears, one of Emery’s pre-draft roles was as the wide receiver cross-checker. Along with scouting his territory, he was tasked with evaluating every receiver the Bears considered draft eligible — typically about 65 players. The theory, he says, is that you develop an expertise. He left the Bears in 2004 to become the Falcons’ director of scouting. The next offseason, Atlanta took Roddy White with its first-round pick. Emery likes to think he knows what he’s looking for in wide receivers, and in Jeffery, he saw the best hands in the draft. On the Bears’ final draft board, Jeffery was among the top three receivers.
When the 2012 draft actually came, six receivers were gone by the 44th pick.3 None of them was Jeffery. The Bears were picking 50th, and calls came in and went out as Emery schemed to trade up. Finally, the voice on the other end of the phone was Les Snead, the Rams’ general manager and a former colleague of Emery’s in Atlanta. He wanted a fifth-round pick to move down from 45. It was a small price for Emery to make good on his mandate for playmakers. “I wanted to be living what we spoke,” he says.
The returns came slowly. Jeffery limped through his rookie season, in every sense. Injuries limited him to just 10 games, and when he did play, he seemed to collect more pass interference calls than catches. That seems like a long time ago now.
Jeffery wasn’t a star from the Bears’ first snap last season. It might feel that way now, but through the first three games, he was relatively quiet. Week 4, in Chicago’s ill-fated comeback attempt in Detroit, is when it really started. He had two spectacular catches — one on each sideline — that were worthless to the outcome, but revealing both for fans and for him. “As soon as he began to step up and make the plays, he became more confident, [showing] that, ‘Hey, I do belong here,’” says Mike Groh, the Bears’ receivers coach. “Then, he really started making big jumps.” The next week, Jeffery finished with 10 catches for 218 yards against the Saints, the highest total in franchise history. It was also a record he’d break eight weeks later.
Groh admits that, like most young receivers, Jeffery still has work to do as a route runner, but “his hands are always going to separate him.” Trestman’s offense allowed Jeffery to flourish because it made those hands his primary tool. Only six receivers were targeted at least 20 yards downfield more often, and only A.J. Green had more yards on those throws. Getting away from cornerbacks matters less for players who can just jump over them.
Marshall had already set a new standard, but Jeffery was something different. Marshall was established when he arrived in Chicago. Jeffery was one of our own. Matt Forte, whom the Bears took in the second round in 2008, has long been one of the most reliable and underappreciated offensive players around. But in Jeffery, Chicago had a handpicked 23-year-old who went beyond reliable. His raw totals were impressive (89 catches for 1,421 yards), but the best part of watching Jeffery every week was seeing what he might do next. He wasn’t just a receiver. He was a fireworks show.
Phil Emery press conferences should come with intermissions. Emery went for 54 minutes the day he announced Lovie Smith’s firing. The choice did warrant some explanation. Chicago won 10 games that fall, the fifth winning season in Smith’s nine-year tenure. Smith had once again put together the NFL’s best defense, but the Bears’ offense continued to toil near the bottom of the league. When Chicago failed to make the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, that was the end.
In its search for a new head coach, the front office found that most successful head coaches have one of two backgrounds — former quarterback coaches or defensive back coaches who’ve become coordinators. “Because they see things from a big-picture perspective,” Emery says. “They see the game from the lens of having to know it all.” With the hope being that the Bears could retain its defensive form by keeping coordinator Rod Marinelli, Emery shifted his focus to former offensive coordinators. The list was eventually narrowed down to three: Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, and CFL coach Marc Trestman.
Most important for Emery was finding a coach who could unearth everything Cutler had to offer. Ultimately, that’s what cost Smith his job. Three offensive coordinators failed to turn Cutler into the quarterback Chicago thought it had traded for in 2009. “I wanted a coach that would have a natural connection or experience in connecting with a quarterback,” Emery says. “Marc was that person for us.”
In his initial interview, Trestman presented his plans for Cutler. “We weren’t going to get caught up in Jay’s skill set, because that was very observable,” Trestman says. “The no. 1 thing was being able to develop a relationship with him of secure trust.” The first time the two met, it was over a pair of boxed lunches at a room in Halas Hall, the Bears facility in nearby Lake Forest.
“We just started talking about, I don’t remember what — football, not football — and it was easy,” Trestman says. “I never tried to get him to like me.” Ninety minutes later, neither had touched his food.
The legendary George Halas wore glasses. Hardly what fans think of when they hear “Bears head coach.” In 1993, the Bears went from Mike Ditka, with his full mustache and sandy brown hair, to Dave Wannstedt — with his full mustache and sandy brown hair.
When Bears coaches haven’t looked alike, they’ve at least thought alike. The tough-minded Ditka was an offensive-minded coach only by default. Three former defensive coordinators not terribly concerned with offensive innovation followed Ditka. Trestman was the first offensive-leaning head coach hired by the organization in 30 years. Not only does he think like Halas, but with the floppy cap and thick frames, he looks like him too.
With five years leading the Montreal Alouettes on his résumé, Trestman was initially pegged as an offbeat hire. But really, Chip Kelly was the new NFL head coach with the nontraditional background. Trestman’s past is that of a coach educated in the West Coast offense. It included coordinator jobs in Cleveland, San Francisco, Arizona, and Oakland, where he worked under noted West Coast disciple Jon Gruden. Trestman was a Raiders offensive assistant until 2002, when he was promoted to offensive coordinator after Gruden left for Tampa Bay. It was also the year Rich Gannon threw for nearly 4,700 yards and was named the league’s MVP.
“Quarterback whisperer” is the title that gets thrown around, and it’s one Trestman started earning long before he made it to the league. In 1982, Trestman, a former backup quarterback at Minnesota, was a volunteer assistant at the University of Miami. He and freshman quarterback Bernie Kosar took to watching film together late into the night, going over the finer points of quarterbacking. A year later, Trestman was promoted from volunteer to quarterbacks coach and Kosar was winning Miami its first national championship.
Trestman came to Miami for law school, where he passed the bar the same year the Hurricanes won the national championship. And there’s still some lawyer in him. He jumps on questions with gaps in their logic, parses out semantics as far as they’ll go. When I ask him about the differences between Year 1 and 2 as a head coach, he stops me.
“I don’t look at this as being Year 2,” he says. “It’s just another Year 1. It all starts over. Yes, the players have a better understanding of the offense and the communication, but moving forward, that’s really where it ends.”
Each offseason, Emery has mounted an all-out assault on the weakest area of his roster. Addressing needs isn’t innovative, but for most general managers, change means tinkering, a small alteration here or there. Emery has rebuilt his roster with dynamite. In his first year, it was two new starting receivers. This year, it was the defensive line, where the Bears handed out three considerable contracts and used two picks in the first three rounds. In 2013, it was the offensive line.
The Bears ranked 24th in adjusted sack rate in 2012, which actually wasn’t terrible considering the past few years. In the two seasons prior, Chicago had never finished higher than 31st. “It was kind of a hit parade back there,” Cutler says.
Emery’s solution was to turn the line almost completely over. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who was always buoyed by playing with Drew Brees but looked like a revelation compared to his predecessors, was signed before the first day of free agency ended. The Bears brought in tattooed, steamrolling former Jets guard Matt Slauson to play left guard, and Emery took Oregon lineman — and future first-year Pro Bowler — Kyle Long with the 20th pick. “I’ve never been a part of something like that, where there was so much transition in the room,” says Roberto Garza, the center and lone holdover.
Garza has seen three iterations of the offensive line in his 10 seasons with Chicago. When he arrived in 2005, the line was the highlight of the Bears’ offense, led by fixtures like Olin Kreutz, John Tait, and Ruben Brown. Then came the steady stream of failed picks and misguided signings: Chris Williams, Gabe Carimi, Frank Omiyale.
This new group wasn’t complete until training camp. Former left tackle J’Marcus Webb had the first crack at starting opposite Bushrod on the right side, but early in training camp, Emery and offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer started to notice something. “We both said … in different ways that the best right tackle on the team was probably Jordan Mills,” Emery says. Mills was a fifth-round pick from Louisiana Tech, not a player anyone expected to start from the beginning. “You could see when they put Kyle [Long] and Jordan Mills there, something happened,” Garza says. “The line started to come together.”
In one year, the Bears’ sack rate went from 24th to fifth.
Fresh talent helps, but Trestman’s real achievement last year was turning the old parts of the Bears offense into something new. At his postseason press conference after the 2012 season, Emery talked about the need to better use the middle of the field in their passing game. In Smith’s final season, the offense ranked 28th in yards per play between the numbers. Trestman’s Bears finished eighth.
Bringing in tight end Martellus Bennett helped that cause, but so did deploying Forte the way he should have been used all along. After catching just 44 passes in 2012, Forte caught 74 last year — a career high. The shifty and versatile Forte is the type of receiver who should succeed in Trestman’s quick-passing game, and his efforts to attack the softest part of a defense even unearthed some unpredictable wrinkles in the offense. During his first season in Chicago, Brandon Marshall ran just 130 routes from the slot. Last year, it was more than twice that. Only nine players in the league were targeted out of the slot more than Marshall.
With the 6-foot-4 Marshall and Jeffery and no. 3 receiver Marquess Wilson4 standing 6-foot-3, no one on the Bears offense looks like a traditional slot receiver. But that isn’t a problem. Principles, not positions, are what rule Trestman’s offense.
Trestman says that when he first presents his offense, players “perceive it as throwing a bunch of plays against the wall and seeing what sticks. But there’s a plan in mind, and that’s to get them to see the bigger picture first.” Next, it’s about filling in the details, fine-tuning what the concepts look like when the camera zooms in. “Pretty soon,” Trestman says, “it becomes a lifestyle of how we do things.”
That immersion into the system — and proof of Trestman’s power over quarterbacks — was most obvious when the Bears lost Cutler early in their Week 7 loss to Washington. Over the next seven weeks, Josh McCown, at age 34 and three years removed from being out of the league, was one of the best quarterbacks in football. He led the league in QBR, was third in passer rating and fourth in DVOA, and parlayed his season into a two-year deal and a starting job with the Buccaneers. When it was time for Cutler to return, in Week 15 against the Browns, there was a contingent that believed McCown should be the one starting.
Jay Cutler fidgets. On the field, it’s a quick roll of the head, almost as if he’s trying to crack his neck. It happens a lot.
While Cutler sat on the podium for his press conference at the end of Chicago’s OTAs, the movements were subtler, but constant. Rarely did he go for more than a few seconds without adjusting the brim of his hat or moving a hand to rest on his face.
With his cheek resting on the knuckles of his left hand, black wedding ring in sight, Cutler was asked what’s changed since he came to Chicago, where he’s now spent the majority of his NFL life. He was 25 when he arrived. The roster has almost completely turned over. Forte, Garza, kicker Robbie Gould, safety Craig Steltz, cornerback Charles Tillman, and linebacker Lance Briggs are the only ones left. He’s married now, has two kids. He’s grown up. “If you don’t want to grow up, you’re probably not going to last,” Cutler says. “They’ll find something else.”
At the end of last season, the Bears had to decide whether to extend Cutler’s contract. What Cutler did in his limited time with Trestman mattered, but it was only part of the process. “That was the end of the evaluation cycle,” Emery says. “That evaluation cycle started the first day I got here, with who Jay is, who the player is, who the person is.”
What Emery saw last season was “a player that could be the key reason that you’re winning.” Emery isn’t insulated. He heard the chorus that didn’t think Cutler should play against the Browns. “He started out rough [in Cleveland], and he came back and showed that he’s the guy that can be a pivotal player in the game.” In March, the Bears gave Cutler what amounts to a three-year deal worth $54 million in guarantees.
Emery says on-field performance will always be paramount, but what he saw everywhere else is what he’d hoped for when hiring Trestman. “I’ve felt comfortable with him from the beginning, and we’ve obviously spent a lot of time together since then,” Trestman says. “I would hope there’s been an evolution.”
After missing five games last year, there’s still no way to know what Cutler can be in Trestman’s offense, but when Marshall was asked to levy a guess, he aimed high: MVP of the league. If that seems like a stretch, that’s because it is.5 The Bears may not need an MVP, but if they’re going to make their transition into one of the league’s best offenses, they’ll need the best version of Cutler there’s ever been.
Chicago’s offense finished sixth in DVOA last season, the franchise’s best mark in 18 seasons. None of the teams from Smith’s tenure finished in the top 10. It was an entirely new world for the organization, and as this season gets closer, there’s reason to believe it could be even better. Learning an offense is like learning a language. Progress isn’t measured in how many words are learned; it’s about how quickly you can process them. A year in, with almost the entire offense returning, it should all move faster and smoother than it did before.
Cutler, strangely, is one of the only factors who has changed. The Bears spent nearly half the season without him a year ago. Now, the hope is that if the combination of Cutler and McCown could be a top-six offense, a full season of Cutler could lead to even more.
From the beginning, Emery’s decisions have been made with Cutler in mind. His first spring was spent assembling a new group of targets, his second a new offensive line and head coach specifically aimed at building up his quarterback. Now, the refinements can come.
In the same interview in which Muhammad sounded the death knell for Chicago’s receivers, he trotted out the well-worn list of starting quarterbacks to come through Soldier Field. Cutler was brought to Chicago to put fire to that list. Emery has given him the matches. The rest is up to him.
This article has been updated to correct the list of players left on the Bears roster from Jay Cutler’s first season with Chicago in 2009.
Illustration by Gluekit.