Bears wideout Marcus Robinson, an unknown during his first two years in the league, is now among the NFC leaders in receiving yards, a feat that is all the more remarkable when you consider that he was lucky he didn't lose his spot on the roster before the season even began. After spending his rookie year on injured reserve with a bum thumb and most of the 1998 season on the bench, Robinson finally got a chance to show his stuff this off-season under new coach Dick Jauron. Robinson responded by mishandling almost every ball thrown his way. "Our first minicamp, wow, did Marcus struggle," recalls Bears wide receivers coach Mike Borich. "I mean, he really struggled."
Despite catching only 37 passes in four years at South Carolina, where he was an All-America sprinter, Robinson was a fourth-round draft pick of the Bears, who saw the 6'3", 215-pounder as a raw talent. He showed flashes of brilliance while playing for the Rhein Fire of NFL Europe in the spring of '98, catching 39 passes for a league-leading 811 yards and five touchdowns, and was named the league's offensive MVP. During minicamps and training camp with the Bears this year Borich and Robinson broke the art of receiving down to the basics, focusing on aspects such as hand position, route running and tracking the flight of the ball. Then Borich threw ball after ball to his wideout, and whenever Robinson dropped one, he had to provide Borich with a detailed analysis of what went wrong. As the sessions progressed, Robinson climbed the Bears' depth chart. "If you watched Marcus," says Bears quarterback Shane Matthews, "you could see him getting better every time he stepped on the field."
In nine games this year Robinson has caught 40 passes for 656 yards and has been especially impressive since fellow Chicago wideout Curtis Conway sprained his ankle in a 24-22 win over the Vikings on Oct. 10. In the last five games Robinson has 30 catches for 533 yards and four touchdowns, including four for 66 yards against the Packers on Sunday. His 33-yard reception in the third quarter helped set up the go-ahead touchdown in a 14-13 Bears victory. Says Robinson, who caught only four passes in three games last season, "I've always been here just waiting for a chance."
He has responded in a big-play way. Robinson has four of Chicago's six longest plays from scrimmage this season, including an 80-yard touchdown reception against the Eagles on Oct. 17, and he ranks sixth in the NFC in average yards per catch (16.4), ahead of the Vikings' Randy Moss and the Packers' Antonio Freeman, among others. "The major difference is, with a little game experience Marcus has started believing in himself," says Borich. "When that happens, the game slows down and the ball gets a heckuva lot bigger. Marcus has learned that when someone on this level says you have potential, it's not always a compliment. It usually means you aren't as good as you should be."