Talk about an extreme makeover. The tight end position was considered a strength heading into the 2010 season for the Bears, as they had Greg Olsen, Desmond Clark and Kellen Davis returning, and spent big money to sign free agent Brandon Manumaleuna to be their main blocking tight end. As the lockout ended and the dust settled in 2011, the only one of the four left was Davis. The big surprise was the trade of Olsen to the Carolina Panthers before training camp began in Bourbannais.
Olsen was seen as a pass-catching tight end in a system that didn't require one, although he certainly gave it the old college try. However, his numbers at 41 catches for 404 yards and 5 TDs certainly paled in comparison to the elite tight ends in the NFL. The Bears initially talked about extending Olsen, but apparently decided that he no longer was a part of the future and sent him packing to Carolina for a third-round pick in the 2012 draft. The Panthers promptly signed him to a four-year extension.
"It was not something that I expected," said Olsen. "Things transpired really fast. But, in the end, I think I'm going to a good place. There's no doubt that I'm going to miss my teammates, and the city of Chicago has been awesome to me and my family. But, the business side of it, this was something that was in the Bears' best interests, and then once we started down that road, there was no turning back."
Coach Lovie Smith was diplomatic about the trade and chafed at the reporter who called the Bears offense "Mike Martz's offense", essentially saying that you can't differentiate the two. Martz's offense is viewed by some around the league as too gimmicky and not something the Bears would continue with if Martz were not around. In Ron Turner's offense, Olsen was valuable; in Martz's, he was not. Smith understood but was sad to see Olsen hit the road.
TE Greg Olsen
Jim Prisching/US Presswire
"It's part of the game," said Smith. "There's a business side of the game. I think everybody has a perfect place that they belong and Greg did a great job for us while he was here. I'll have a personal relationship with Greg Olsen for the rest of my life, but we're going in a little bit of a different direction. It's as simple as that."
The move was a bit surprising in another way, as Olsen and franchise quarterback Jay Cutler are good friends. But as the lockout showed everyone, business takes precedence over everything.
"It's tough but part of the business," said Cutler. "I got traded from Denver so I know what he's going through. I know he's sad to be leaving Chicago but also excited about where he's going to, but we certainly wish him the best."
Olsen was seen as a rising star in Turner's system. As a rookie in 2007, he caught 39 balls for 391 yards and two touchdowns. Those numbers went up every year during his Bears career, until last season. In 2008, he caught 54 balls for five scores; that went up to 60 balls and eight touchdowns in 2009, before the big dropoff in 2010. But was that dropoff his issue or a system issue?
It's tough to argue with the fact that the Bears offense was pretty dreadful at times in 2010. Certainly the passing game, specifically pass protection, was not what it was supposed to be as the Bears struggled to protect Cutler and get anything going. Olsen's numbers were hurt in the process, but the system really doesn't call for a big pass-catching tight end. Martz never had a great tight end at any of his stops and his personnel was always wide-receiver heavy, with tight ends asked to block and not do much else. Olsen was here when Martz arrived and tried to fit in with the new scheme, but it was like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
"I did everything that was asked," said Olsen. "Playing fullback and pass protection and blocking. That was kind of the rap going in. I proved all that wrong and showed that I could play every down and did everything I was asked to do. At the end of the day, it just wasn't really a fit. And that's fine. Everyone has their ways of doing things and I have no hard feelings towards it at all, and I'm just happy and satisfied that I have the opportunity to go play somewhere where I feel like I have a better opportunity."
He will have that in Carolina, where new head coach Ron Rivera and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski figure to use Olsen a lot with the Panthers. Chudzinski has coached some of the league's best tight ends in Antonio Gates and Kellen Winslow, and with a rookie quarterback in Cam Newton, Olsen figures to be a busy man in 2011.
"To get back with Coach Chud, and what he's done in the past, with tight ends, is going to be huge for my development and I'm looking forward to it," said Olsen.
This was actually the second offseason in which Olsen was shopped, as he was nearly sent to New England last year. The Patriots reportedly pulled out of a deal at the last minute and Olsen stayed with the Bears.
"We went through all that stuff last year, and I was able to put it behind me and move forward," said Olsen. "Last year wasn't as serious. But this year was more open and official, that this is what they wanted to do. It would be hard knowing that a team didn't want you two times, then playing through it again."
Depending on how the marriage between Martz and the Bears plays out, dealing Olsen could blow up in the team's face. If Martz is gone after this year, and the club is all of the sudden looking for a pass-catching tight end, the move will look foolish. Of course, football coaches and GMs aren't planning to fail, and you can't build teams around what you might need. Still, it's not hard to fathom a Martz-less 2012 and the team looking for a pass-catching tight end next year if the 2011 offense doesn't succeed.
TE Greg Olsen
Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire
To borrow from the White Sox marketing people, the Bears are "All In" with Martz this season, as they shape the offense and their acquisitions around players he feels he needs for success. Free agent signees like WR Roy Willams and WR Sam Hurd fit what Martz wants, whereas Olsen does not. Olsen said that despite giving it his best effort, it was just never going to be a good fit.
"I think our relationship was fine," said Olsen of he and Martz. "I think it was a pro relationship. We never had any issues or quarrels, for lack of a better word. I think that was pretty much it, a good working relationship was how I'd put it."
From Martz's perspective, he gave Olsen every opportunity to succeed in his offense and it just didn't work out. He now has the type of players at receiver and tight end that he feels give them the best chance of success. He told reporters before the NFC title game last season the following about Olsen, putting on a good face about the player who obviously never connected with him:
"We've asked all of our tight ends to take turns at that position of fullback, so that takes away from the down-the-field type of thing we'd like Greg to do at times too," said Martz. "But he's done so many great things for us that allow us to do those things. Unselfishly, he's been willing to do that so we can run the ball so much better. He leads in there. He's at the point of attack as a tight end. We put him out there as a wide receiver. It's fun to have that kind of talent and intelligence and unselfishness to be able to utilize him in so many different ways like I've never done before."
The Bears' release of Manumaleuna was underplayed, fortunately for the team. He was a total bust who earned almost $6 million during his one year with the team, a fortune for a guy who did nothing in 2010. The team signed free agent Matt Spaeth from Pittsburgh to fill the "big body" blocking tight end role, thus admitting to their mistake from the previous season. It's a good thing Julius Peppers has been so good, because Manumaleuna and Chester Taylor have been disasters for General Manager Jerry Angelo and company. Peppers wound up being the only success story from the 2010 free agent class.
The end of this story will be written a few years down the line. If Martz, Jay Cutler and company find success as an offense, then the Olsen deal will not matter in the least. If the Martz experiment ends in failure and the Bears have a new coordinator as quickly as next year, then the Olsen deal to Carolina will probably be viewed in a different light, especially if Olsen steps up to a starring role for the Panthers. Olsen has the tools and talent to thrive in a pass-catching offense and it will be interesting to watch if he can live up to the expectations the Bears had for him when they took him in the first round of the 2007 draft.
"I always had a tremendous amount of respect for Lovie and the Bears for selecting me with their first pick," said Olsen after the trade. "I will miss my teammates."
Notably absent in his list of thank yous was one for Martz.
Mike Esposito is an update anchor and reporter for WSCR 670AM The Score in Chicago. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Champaign and received a Master's in Journalism from Columbia College in 1998.