Most readers will be reviewing this article long after Bernard Berrian’s Chicago Bears fate has been decided. As of this writing, the Bears have just decided not to place the franchise tag on the free agent. Never fear, Bear fans. It is the opinion of this writer, and hopefully this history will show, that only once has a receiver proven pivotal to a Bears Super Bowl. And never has the absence of a receiver directly caused the Bears to miss one.
In 2008, the Chicago Bears will play in their 89th season of professional football. Most would think that the high-powered NFL passing game came of age in the 1970′s. Yet one might successfully argue that the Bears didn’t find one until the middle of the 1990′s.
Certainly the Bears had their share of star receivers early in their history. The first Bear receiver to be seen as a star leaguewide may have been Harlon Hill, drafted in 1954 from a tiny teacher’s college in Alabama. That’s not to take anything away from earlier stars such as Jim Keane (1946-51) or Ken Kavanaugh (1940-41; 45-50), but Hill still ranks second on the Bears’ all-time receiving chart with 4,616 yards and 40 touchdowns.
Prior to Hill, recently deceased Jim Dooley usually led Chicago in receiving.
In the 1960′s, it was all Johnny Morris, who started out as a running back but moved to receiver. From 1958-1967, Morris amassed 5,059 yards receiving and 31 touchdowns. He remains the Bears’ all-time leading receiver. And once again, here’s where the Bears again look foolish to the rest of the league, as they do at the quarterback positon. Morris played 10 seasons, totaling 356 catches, 5,059 yards and 31 touchdowns. By comparison the Packer’s all-time leading receiver, Sterling Sharpe, caught 595 balls for 8,134 yards in just 7 seasons.
The early 1970′s would provide the Bears with their first 1,000+ yard receiver in five years: Dick Gordon in 1970. But the drought until the next 1,000+ yard receiver would be much greater than that. The early 70′s got so bad that in 1972, Earl Thomas led the team with just 20 receptions. 1973′s leader, Carl Garrett, caught just 23. In the later 1970′s the Bears found a speedster in James Scott, traded for Dallas wideout Golden Richards, but mainly fielded simply servicable players such as Brian Baschnagel and Steve Schubert.
The 1980′s started out much the same. James Scott came back after signing a more lucrative contract in Canada (imagine that now?!), and the Bears drafted Rickey Watts and the unspectacular but gritty Ken Margerum. But by 1983, enough other pieces were in place (Walter Payton, a young and talented defense and offensive line) that Chicago decided it finally needed a gamebreaker. So with the 18th pick in the first round that year, the Bears selected Tennessee burner Willie Gault. And somehow, the Bears found a complimentary receiver to pair with Gault in Dennis McKinnon as a free agent.
Gault never made the Pro Bowl or amassed 1,000+ yards in a season, because he didn’t have to. But offensively, the Bears may not have dominated in 1985 without Gault. Sure, the defense is why the Bears won Super Bowl 20, but the NFL’s highest scoring offense that season would have been much more restricted without Gault pulling safeties away from the line, and Walter Payton.
In the writer’s opinion, Willie Gault is the only receiver in the modern era of the Chicago Bears that directly contributed to a Super Bowl victory (i.e. the Bears may not have won a championship without him).
Gault and McKinnon continued to play at a high level in 1986-87, but no championships were in order due to injuries at other key positions, most notably quarterback. Following the 1987 season, before the era of free agency in the NFL, Gault demanded a trade, most preferrably to Los Angeles where he could concentrate on a second career-acting. So it was, and the Bears traded Gault to the Raiders for first and third-round picks in 1989 and 1990, respectively. These picks turned into corner Donnell Woolford and quarterback P.T. Willis. In 1988, to try to replace Gault, the Bears selected LSU’s Wendell Davis, but Davis was more the posession type.
It would be reaching to state that Gault’s departure directly led to the inability to reach another Super Bowl in that era, but there were too many other injuries and issues for that coorelation to be reached directly. The Bears converted running back Dennis Gentry and paired him with Ron Morris, McKinnion and Davis, but the spark in the receiving corps was gone.
So in 1991, the Bears selected a “Willie Gault on a budget” in Anthony Morgan from Gault’s alma mater, but Morgan was oft-injured and ineffective. Morgan was so much not the answer that he was supplanted in 1991 by the surprising Tom Waddle, who after being cut multiple times became a Bear legend in just four seasons.
With Dave Wannstedt’s arrival in 1993, he brought with him a philosophy to increase team speed at all costs. With the seventh overall pick that year, Wannstedt selected Curtis Conway, a speedster with little college receiving experience. Once Pittsburgh sent Jeff Graham to the Bears for a fifth-round pick in 1994, the Bears would finally enter the 1970′s as far as their passing game. In 1995, Graham and Conway both caught balls for over 1,000 yards, the first time a Bear had done so since Gordon. But one thing to note: neither Conway nor Graham gave the Bears a Super Bowl.
But alas, Graham left via free agency, Conway became injured with increased frequency, and the Bears put together their two worst seasons since the 1970′s in 1997 and ’98. Actually the Bears may have had a playmaker in the mold of Tom Waddle, Kevin Curtis or Wes Welker in ’97, but let him go. That season, journeyman Ricky Proehl led Chicago with 58 receptions, 753 yards and 7 touchdowns while playing with awful quarterbacks. But it wasn’t enough to get Proehl an extension to the one-year deal he signed. Proehl would move on to St. Louis, where he was a vital if underappreciated cog in the “greatest show on turf.”
In 1999, the arrival of Dick Jauron and receiver-happy offensive coordinator Gary Crowton signaled a need for an influx of talented receivers. That year the Bears selected three of them, including Dwayne Bates and Marty Booker. These rookies teamed with holdovers Conway, Bobby Engram and 1997 pick Marcus Robinson to form a potent group. Robinson broke out to set the Bears’ all-time single-season yardage record with 1,400 and 9 touchdowns.
Conway left as a free agent and the Bears drafted Georgia Tech’s Dez White to replace him. In 2001, the Bears selected Michigan’s David Terrell with their high first-round pick (eighth), mainly because he slipped to them.
In 2000, the emerging Robinson, who looked like the next Randy Moss, suffered the first in a string of injuries. In the fifth game of 2001, Robinson tore an ACL, virtually ending his promise with the Bears. But the end of the brief Robinson era ushered in the brief Marty Booker era.
Though Gary Crowton’s high-powered offense was out, replaced in comparison by John Shoop’s Edsel of a system, Booker caught 100 passes for 1,071 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2001, and followed up in 2002 with a 97/1,189/6 season.
In 2002, Booker became the first Chicago Bears receiver to appear in a Pro Bowl since Gordon in 1970, and the only offensive skill position player going back to Neal Anderson in 1991 to make it to Hawaii.
2003 brought fifth-rounders Justin Gage and Bobby Wade in the draft. Booker’s performance tailed off in 2003, and with a large contract he had signed in ’02, he was packaged with a draft pick to land defensive end Adawale Ogunelye in a trade with the Miami Dolphins prior to the 2004 season.
Still searching for answers and not finding them anywhere, the Bears selected Bernard Berrian in the third round of the 2004 draft, and in 2005 drafted the unknown Mark Bradley with a very high second-round pick. They also signed veteran Muhsin Muhammad.
Berrian had a breakout season in 2006, catching 51 passes for 775 yards and 6 touchdowns from Rex Grossman. 2007 was a somewhat disappointing follow up, marred by several key drops, but he bested the previous year’s stats with 70 catches for 948 yards. He scored 5 touchdowns.
Berrian fulfilled his four-year rookie contract, and will enter free agency on February 29th. Muhammad, with his $1.5 million salary, was released.
Debate rages as to how much effort the Bears should take to resign Berrian. Certainly Berrian’s departure would be a significant loss to a rebuilding Bears offense. Berrian’s performance helped the Bears win several key games in 2006, including the divisional playoff against the Seahawks. But as history has shown, one receiver rarely puts a team over the top. Should the bidding reach $5 million and up per season for Berrian in a shallow receiver market, how could a rebuilding Bears team with multiple needs spend the money on a receiver? History shows the answer is: they couldn’t.