Forget for a moment that Jim Miller is an immobile journeyman quarterback with a history of fragility. Ignore the fact that four teams gave up on him before he arrived in Chicago in 1998, and only one, Pittsburgh, had ever named him to start on opening day. (Miller lost the job before the first game of the '96 season was over.) As for reports that Chicago was interested in acquiring Drew Bledsoe in the off-season, forget them too.
All you have to know is this: The Bears believe in Miller. He won't dazzle anybody with his skills, and he long ago stopped trying to. What he will do is take the blame for any offensive misfortune, study every nuance of the offense, and never try to do something he knows he can't do. He is the Everyman signal-caller, competing in an era in which gritty, team-first quarterbacks like him are winning Super Bowls. Baltimore won in 2000 with Trent Dilfer, New England took last season's title with Tom Brady. Now the Bears will try to go all the way with Miller, who admits, "I know I'm not going to break any records in this league. I just want to win some games."
In that department Miller has done pretty well. The Bears were 11-2 in games he started last season. Still, the common perception was that the offense was the weak link—after all, the defense gave up only 21 touchdowns, second fewest in the league—and that Miller's main contribution was simply avoiding errors. This year he must contribute.
That should be easier because Miller finally can play without looking over his shoulder. Though his 2001 passer rating (74.9) ranked 12th among NFC quarterbacks, his career highs in attempts (395), completions (228), yards (2,299), touchdowns (13) and games played (14) earned him a five-year contract potentially worth a reported $20 million. To make Miller feel even more comfortable, Chicago released Shane Matthews, last season's opening-game starter. As a backup, the Bears signed 15-year veteran Chris Chandler, whom Miller played behind in Atlanta in '97. Though Chandler is more talented and experienced than Miller, he also is comfortable supporting his close friend. "They're similar guys," says Bears coach Dick Jauron. "They work hard, and they're students of the game. I watch them in practice, and they're always talking about what they see and why they made certain decisions. They really push each other."
Miller shouldn't lack for targets. The first option is Marty Booker, who set a team record last season with 100 receptions. Marcus Robinson is coming off reconstructive left knee surgery, but in '99 he had 1,400 receiving yards. Speedy third-year receiver Dez White might be ready to break out, and David Terrell spent the off-season refining his route-running, an area of criticism in his rookie year. An improved passing game might take pressure off running back Anthony Thomas and make the attack less conservative.
Last year, Miller swears, the offense was unfairly knocked. "What people don't understand is that we were one of the least penalized teams in the Bears' 80-year existence," he says. "We lost eight fumbles and had only 17 sacks [a league low]. Plus, I was coming back from an Achilles tear, David and Anthony were rookies and we lost Marcus. An offensive coordinator needs to trust his players, and we had lots of guys moving in and out of the lineup. We're a lot more mature now."
So is the defense, which has nine starters returning to a unit that should again be among the league's best.
For Miller, the only major concern is at left tackle. After releasing Blake Brockermeyer, Chicago is hoping either Bernard Robertson, who didn't play last season, or first-round pick Marc Colombo can be an effective successor.
Whoever the starter is, he and the rest of the line will concentrate on protecting Miller, a beloved figure because of his work ethic and reluctance to complain while holding clipboards behind Matthews and Cade McNown. "We've all watched over the years as people said Jim would start, and then somebody else would get the job," says offensive tackle James (Big Cat) Williams. "It had to put stress on him. But he's our Number 1 guy now, and he has to feel good knowing that."
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