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Quietly, near the end of a conversation about his Chicago Bears offense Saturday afternoon, Mike Martz said, "I've seen this before.''
He was alluding to 11 years ago, when he took the offensive coordinator job in St. Louis and went to work under Dick Vermeil with an incredible offense that included Trent Green, Marshall Faulk, Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Az-Zahir Hakim. The starting quarterback, obviously, became Kurt Warner after Green took the knee shot from Rodney Harrison in the preseason and was lost for the year. The Rams, 27th in total offense in 1998, went on to score 536 points with Martz's there's-always-someone-open offense.
Now the cast of characters is mostly nondescript in Chicago. There's Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Chester Taylor, Devin Hester, Devin Aromashodu, Johnny Knox, Juaquin Iglesias and Earl Bennett. This was the 23rd-rated offense in 2009, but Martz doesn't care. He's always been a guy who loves his team, even when there's no reason to love it. But with this team, and this quarterback, he's over the top, even for Martz -- and I've heard him say some outlandishly positive things about questionable players before.
"I never let hearsay and gossip determine what I think of a player, and I haven't with Jay,'' he said after the Bears' Saturday practice. "What I've seen in him so far is he has no flaws. None. He's got no ego. I'm sure I've not met anyone as intelligent as him at quarterback. He's been a great leader. He can make all the throws. His recognition of the defense at the snap of the ball is freaky, incredible. He sees things the way Kurt used to see them. He came to me with a completely open mind about this offense, and every day when I come to work, he's ready to learn. It tickles me. He's bought in so completely.''
The no-ego part ... that's interesting. Completely open mind ... interesting too, for a guy on his third distinct offense in three years. The honeymoon is on in Chicago.
The problem with making offseason judgments, obviously, is no one's had pads on, and Cutler hasn't been rushed and hasn't thrown interceptions. Who knows what'll happen if he has a five-pick game (as he did last year against San Francisco) or a four-pick job ('09 against Green Bay). And if the Chicago offensive line struggles as it did last year, all the fine patterns drawn up by this offensive guru won't matter much because Cutler will be running for his life.
That aside, I wanted to know Martz's thoughts about his allocation of wideout resources. I actually think the Bears should consider moving Hester back to where he was dominant his first two years in the league -- in the return game. First two seasons: 152 punt and kickoff returns, 11 touchdowns. Last two seasons: 94 returns, zero touchdowns.
Martz's love for Hester is just barely south of his love for Cutler in the early weeks of getting to know his talent. "I think he can be one of the great wide receivers in the game,'' he said. "Nothing we do in our offense should deter him from being a great return man. If he needs to take a few snaps off after a return, that's fine. He can do that. But I think he can be a fabulous receiver.''
No question the receiver group is better than the outside world thinks. Martz raised eyebrows recently when he said the receiver group is the best single unit on the Bears. "I wouldn't back off that one bit," he says. "It boggles my mind people don't see we have some top guys.''
In Martz's previous two coordinator gigs -- Detroit (2006, '07) and San Francisco (2008) -- the teams finished 19th, 22nd and 23rd, respectively, in total offense. Those numbers are partially the reason Martz was a short-timer in both spots. Unless Cutler throws a bunch of interceptions, the Bears shouldn't finish that poorly. This could be the old Chargers. But the one problem that's not going away is the raggedy offensive line. Thirty-five sacks wasn't the total story last year for the Bears' line. There was also the constant drumbeat of pressure from everywhere, which forced Cutler to face more pressure than he'd ever seen in Denver.
It'll be a fun summer anticipating the Greatest Show on the Lakefront, but Martz won't have much of a honeymoon. Everyone in Chicago knows this could be a walk-the-plank year if the Bears don't at least contend strongly for the playoffs. He'll have to scheme a way to protect Cutler, then make sure, as he did with Warner, Cutler has enough time to let his targets get open. The downfield throw is what made Warner great, and Cutler will be challenged to be just as accurate. No question he has a superior arm to Warner. Now he has to prove he can make all the throws in the Chicago offense. All that's riding on the Cutler/Martz tandem is a whole lot of jobs.
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