EARL BENNETT was sitting in a classroom at Vanderbilt on April 2, working toward completing his undergraduate degree, when he learned that his career outlook had changed dramatically. Bennett, a wide receiver who was picked in the third round by the Bears in 2008, was coming off a disappointing rookie season in which he did not start a game or catch a pass. But the text message he received in class that day, telling him he was about to be reunited with quarterback Jay Cutler, was cause for optimism. "I thought it was too good to be true," Bennett says. "It felt like I was back in orientation at Vanderbilt before my freshman year, getting ready to play with Jay."
Chicago is banking on Cutler and Bennett to rekindle the rapport they had during their one season together at Vandy; the last pass Cutler threw in college was a game-winning TD to Bennett at Tennessee. Bennett, the SEC's alltime receptions leader may still be looking for his first professional reception, but as Cutler likes to point out, so was Broncos receiver Eddie Royal at this time last year, and as a rookie he caught 91 passes playing with Cutler.
Chicago has finally solved its long-standing quarterback problem. Now the Bears must find out if they have the receivers to meet his standards. Cutler is intensely loyal to Bennett, and he has gone out of his way to tutor Devin Hester, who was drafted by the Bears as a cornerback three years ago and has evolved into their No. 1 receiver. Hester has the speed to stretch defenses, and now he should have a QB who can take advantage of it. After pass patterns in practice, Cutler huddles with Hester and carefully deconstructs the previous play.
"I want him to be tough on me," Hester says. "That's the type of quarterback every wide receiver is looking for. If he tells you what you're doing wrong, that's how you get better. If he doesn't, you don't."
Chicago's passing game, dormant for much of the decade, ranked 29th in the NFL last season in yards per completion, a statistic particularly galling to Hester considering his reputation for big gains. He would run down the field, watch a pass fall incomplete, then run back and do it over again. "It was sad," Hester says. "It hurt. It was frustrating knowing what we were capable of but not being able to do it."
Given the shoddy quarterback play—Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman had a combined passer rating of 77.1 in '08—it was hard for the Bears to fully evaluate their young receivers over the past few years. Were the struggles of the offense completely the fault of the QBs, or were the receivers partly to blame? This season should go a long way toward answering that question. With Cutler in the fold, the wideouts have no excuses. "People can doubt them all they want," Cutler says. "That's fine. But those guys are going to come to play on Sunday, and I'm excited about the whole group."
The receivers' first step was to get acclimated to Cutler's arm strength. He throws with substantially more velocity than recent Chicago passers, and even though Cutler worked with the receivers before training camp, there were still some rough patches. During one early camp practice Cutler unleashed an out pattern that whizzed past Hester's head. "You've got to get your head around quick," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake barked at Hester. "Really quick."
The Bears have traditionally been carried by an ironclad defense, but they ranked 16th last season in points allowed, and their identity may be changing. Led by Cutler and running back Matt Forte, who cleared 1,200 rushing yards as a rookie in '08, the offense is finally capable of bearing more of the burden. This is the opportunity Bennett and Hester have been waiting for. They just have to make sure they hang on to it.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
WITH 2008 STATISTICS
COACH: LOVIE SMITH
45--35 in NFL, sixth season with Bears