Gauging the Progress

Lake Forest - Wide receiver Justin Gage has always been more potential than production, but it appears he finally may be turning his reputation around.

Gage's career-best seven receptions against the Panthers nearly equaled his total for the year coming into the game (nine).

"He stepped up," said offensive coordinator Ron Turner. "He stepped up big time. He made some plays. He's been playing well ever since he got back in the lineup."

The third-year receiver saved his best performance of his career for the biggest game he's played in since being drafted by the Bears in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. Gage finished with 7 receptions for 81 yards, including the catch of the game on an 18-yard twisting grab along the sidelines that allowed the Bears to run time off the clock in the fourth quarter.

"He really made some outstanding catches," said head coach Lovie Smith. "That's where we saw him being. We really needed our No. 2 receiver to step up and he definitely did that."

In many ways this could be Gage's last chance to prove he deserves to stay in Chicago or at least be a primary option in the passing game. Without progress the Bears will likely look to upgrade the position in the off-season.

Mark Bradley started to emerge as a playmaker before going down with a torn ACL. While he could be ready by training camp, there's no guarantee he'll immediately be the same player he was before the injury. It can sometimes take a season to rebound from a surgery.

If Gage can prove down the stretch he can be a compliment to Muhsin Muhammad, it would alleviate some of the worries about the position.

When Gage burst onto the seen as a rookie it was primarily because of one route. The jump ball became the former basketball player's best weapon, as he averaged 19.9 yards on 17 receptions.

Whether it was a lack of development or Terry Shea not liking Gage's game, he disappeared in 2004, catching just 12 balls.

With Turner at the controls, Gage was named a starter in the off-season. Things were supposed to be different this time around. As the head coach at Illinois, Turner saw what Gage could do when he faced him at Missouri.

However, it looked to be another lost season for Gage. He went four straight games without a catch and was inactive the fourth week of that stretch -- the Oct. 23 game with Baltimore. Since then he has 14 catches in four games.

The six-foot-4, 212-pounder is adding other routes to his repertoire. His increased versatility is part of the reason Kyle Orton is looking his way more frequently. The fact that Muhammad is often given extra attention is also a factor in the increased output.

"They were doing a lot to try to shut Moose down and that leaves the other receivers open and I happened to be on the other side so I got to make those plays," Gage said.

When asked if the Carolina game was the most he's ever had the ball thrown in his direction, Gage mumbled a curse word by accident, said he was sorry and then agreed with the question.

If he remains a productive part of the passing game, Gage won't have to apologize again anytime soon.


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