BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – For at least one day, Devin Hester(notes) is the offense. He's everywhere. The Chicago Bears are going through drills, and it seems like each play either begins or ends with the ball in No. 23's hands.
Hester motions into the backfield, takes a snap, then lofts a pass down the middle, intended for Johnny Knox(notes). It's a misfire, but the sheer audacity of the thing creates a buzz in the stands. Two plays later, the Bears line up with a Wildcat look, but Hester motions out and quarterback Jay Cutler(notes) sprints under center.
Chicago runs quick slants, end-arounds, fake end-arounds, intermediate routes and deep patterns to Hester. He's getting easy separation, playing fast. He takes a direct snap and pitches to running back Chester Taylor(notes). Later, Cutler is flushed left, so he finds Hester deep down the sideline – ludicrously deep, where few quarterbacks can find anyone.
"Yeah," Cutler will say after practice, "we wanted to go back-side on that, so he was kind of there for show. But in this offense, you never really know when you're going to get the ball."
The traditionally conservative Bears are installing the latest version of Mike Martz's system, an offense that's both aggressive and almost mythically complex. Ostensibly, it's a curious fit for Chicago's personnel. Nobody knows if the offensive line can block it successfully, but Martz calls that unit, "the centerpiece that allows us to do what we do." Historically, this scheme has deemphasized the tight end position as a receiving threat, yet Greg Olsen(notes) led the Bears in receptions (60) in 2009. Martz teams deliver interceptions as if they're part of the game script, and Cutler is coming off a 26-pick season.
These are not small concerns.
And then there are the wideouts. This team could have traded for Brandon Marshall(notes), but didn't. It could have signed Terrell Owens(notes), but didn't. It passed on Nate Burleson(notes) and Antonio Bryant(notes), too. The presumptive starters at receiver are Hester and Knox, a pair of Pro Bowl kick returners. Devin Aromashodu(notes), a seventh-round pick in the 2006 NFL draft, will be featured in three-receiver sets. Chicago is his fifth NFL stop.
Nonetheless, the Bears' lack of a brand-name wide receiver doesn't seem to trouble the team's brand-name offensive coordinator.
"I love our receivers," Martz told reporters back in May. "I think that our receiver corps will be the strength of this team. You can put that in granite. There's not very many things I would say are un-retractable, but that one is pretty strong."
So far, the receivers are loving Martz, too.
"Man, when he got picked up, all I could think of was the Greatest Show on Turf," says Hester, a fifth-year receiver. "The St. Louis Rams, how it was hard to stop them. Just watching film on them, the way he calls his plays, guys are always open.
"We watch film on ourselves now. You see why that guy puts up so many yards."
In San Francisco, Martz took over a 49ers offense that finished dead-last in passing in 2007 and transformed it into the league's 13th-ranked aerial attack. In Detroit, he turned Jon Kitna(notes) into a 4,000-yard quarterback (twice) and Mike Furrey(notes) into a 98-catch receiver. In St. Louis, Martz gave control of the offense to a "grocery clerk" (his words), and Kurt Warner(notes) immediately led the '99 Rams to the Super Bowl.
If there's a single persistent theme in Martz's coaching career, it's an uncommon willingness to see upside and possibility in players, even if there's red ink on the scouting report.
In Chicago, the receiving corps is working to define itself as a group that doesn't need an upgrade. Knox is a burner with 4.34-speed, coming off a 527-yard rookie season. He was on the receiving end of both Cutler completions in the preseason opener at San Diego. Hester is at least as fast as Knox, and apparently there's a chapter devoted to him in the Bears' playbook, loaded with gimmicks. He's quick to credit 16-year NFL veteran Isaac Bruce(notes) for aiding his development as a receiver and route-runner. Bruce has been working with the Bears throughout training camp as part of the league's minority coaching fellowship program.
"I've learned a lot from him," says Hester. "He's been like, I would say, a mini-Mike Martz. But he can also run out there and do it."
Bruce describes the learning curve in the Martz system in the friendliest possible terms, as if developing a Z-receiver weren't so different from figuring out the DVR.
"It's not very hard, once you get your feet wet in it," he says. "Like I was telling one of the players [Wednesday], what [Coach Martz] is doing right now is putting down a foundation. Once the season starts, he's just going to start adding branches to it. You have rules in it, and once you learn the rules you're good to go."
Of course that's the perspective of a man with 15,208 career receiving yards and nearly a decade of experience in the system.
"Everything in this offense is on timing," says Hester, who's coming off a career-high 757 receiving yards. "Everything. You have to be in this spot at a certain time. If you're late, the quarterback is throwing the ball regardless. If you're not there at a certain time, he's still getting rid of the ball and throwing it. When you're there in that spot, things are going to be successful. When you're late, it won't be successful."
Throughout camp, few players have felt the pressure to excel quite like Aromashodu, the journeyman wideout who emerged as an impact player in the final weeks last year. He closed the season with four touchdowns in as many games, and he absolutely roasted Minnesota corner Antoine Winfield(notes) in Week 16.
"He's learned to play this game at a high level," says Martz. "The conditioning aspect of the receivers, for what we do, is incredibly important. And he's learned that. But I think he's been excellent so far. He's progressed every week – and we're making it hard on him now, making him learn three positions: X, F and Z. We put him in all three positions, made it very difficult for him, and he's done a good job with that. He's not had the mental errors that I thought he might have. He's playing fast, he's getting in game-shape."
Bruce concurs, identifying Aromashodu as a player who's massively outperformed expectations.
"D.A., he's a big enough guy to make plays on the outside. They've moved him inside a couple times, and I was really surprised at how big he is, and he can play," Bruce says. "That's always a plus in this league – a big guy who can play like a small guy. He's the one guy right now who can flip-flop, go inside and outside, and he's picking it up really well."
At this point in Aromashodu's career – he was drafted by Miami, then visited practice squads in Indianapolis, Houston and Washington – he's not taking anything for granted.
"I've had to persevere, knowing that everything's not always going to work out – I've been cut before," Aromashodu says. "Stuff is going to happen. It's just how you bounce back and react to it."
The Bears are preparing to run a very un-Bear-like offense in 2010, featuring three- and four-wide formations, constant pre-snap motion, and the occasional deep ball thrown by one speed receiver to another. Some days, like this one, will belong to Hester. Others will belong to Knox, some to Aromashodu.
When Martz was hired, head coach Lovie Smith said, "I think he'll bring energy." He'll no doubt also bring yards and points and sacks and interceptions, and all the other flourishes for which his system is known.
"You know, this offense is designed to get the ball into the playmakers' hands," says Bruce, the longtime playmaker. "Once the defense starts to take that away, we – well, I don't want to say 'we,' but the Bears have a guy smart enough, who can be creative enough, to get the playmakers the ball."
On a hot day in mid-August, facing a defense that isn't yet allowed to fully engage, the playmakers are completely dominant. They are, as the coordinator promised, the strength of the team.
- Mike Martz