ONE AFTERNOON at Bears training camp Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher were teasing Ron Blum, an NFL line judge who was working the practice, as only cornerbacks can. The object of their scorn? The new Chicago wideout, number 87, Muhsin Muhammad.
"Hey, you've got to watch 87 pushing off," Vasher said to Blum.
"Every official," said Tillman, feigning a rip move with his right forearm, "they never call this. You've got to call it!"
Blum simply shook his head, as if to say, Corners always say the receivers are cheating; receivers always say the corners are cheating. But on a few routes that day Muhammad, the 32-year-old All-Pro who had 93 catches and 16 touchdowns for Carolina last season, came as close as he could to breaking the rules without getting flagged. He'd run at a corner, bump into him and fade to the outside, having accidentally knocked the defensive back off stride.
But that was nothing compared with the hit that Muhammad and the Bears took on Aug. 12, when third-year quarterback Rex Grossman broke his left ankle and was lost for three to four months. Muhammad and Grossman weren't acquainted when the free-agent wideout signed a six-year, $30 million contract with Chicago last February. Yet the two became such good friends while working out together from late March until early July--four days a week, a couple of hours a day watching tape, 60 to 90 minutes a day playing pass and catch--that Grossman invited Muhammad to his wedding this summer.
Now Muhammad has to get acquainted with his quarterback all over again. Early indications were that Grossman's replacement would be Chad Hutchinson, who won three of 14 career starts with the Cowboys and the Bears combined. However, Hutchinson played so poorly in two preseason starts that on Sunday he wasn't even listed among the top three quarterbacks on the depth chart.
Enter rookie Kyle Orton. A three-year starter at Purdue with a 59% completion rate and a plus-35 touchdown-to-interception differential, Orton struggled in the second half of his senior year after suffering a left hip flexor. Fully recovered from the injury, the fourth-round pick had the most impressive arm in camp; last Friday he completed seven of nine passes for 74 yards and a touchdown in an impressive second-half drive against the Bills' second-team defense. "The game's still a little bit too fast for him, but it's amazing how quickly he's picked everything up," offensive coordinator Ron Turner said of Orton in mid-August. "He's got the tools to succeed at this level."
Journeyman Jeff Blake, 34, who was signed after Grossman was sidelined, moves into the backup role, while Kurt Kittner, a 25-year-old who has failed to stick with five teams, will be the third-stringer. If they don't get improved play out of the quarterback position, the Bears could be in for a repeat of 2004, when Grossman suffered a season-ending injury (torn right ACL) in the third game and Chicago finished with the worst-ranked offense in the NFL. Over the last eight games the Bears scored as many as 20 points only once. Their quarterbacks wound up with a league-low 61.7 passer rating.
Chicago is also inexperienced at its second wideout spot--starting candidates Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian were mid-round picks in 2003 and '04, respectively, and have combined for only 44 career catches. That makes Muhammad even more important to the offense, but he doesn't seem concerned. After Grossman went down, he said, "The show must go on. I still think we'll be good."
If so, it will also take a stirring performance by the Chicago defense, which gets back two vital players. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who sat out seven games with leg injuries in '04, is now running free and easy. And after missing 14 games with a torn Achilles, Mike Brown returns, but not at free safety; he has been moved to strong safety to take advantage of his physical style.