If the Bears were to hold an Olympics-style decathlon at Halas Hall one day, my money would be riding on safety Danieal Manning to come away with the gold medal.
Now I've never seen him throw a discus or launch a javelin, just like I've never seen him jump a hurdle or pole-vault six meters. But if the decathlon truly measures who is the "World's Greatest Athlete" – who can run the fastest and leap the highest and throw the furthest – then I'm pretty sure those ten events would ultimately conclude that Manning is the best of the best on this team.
Unfortunately for the youngster out of Abilene Christian, "playing football" is not one of those ten events.
The Monsters of the Midway featured the No. 5 defense in the NFL while making that magical run to Super Bowl XLI not too long ago, leading the league in takeaways and featuring Pro Bowl-caliber talent at most every position. They were fast, they were fierce, and they were ferocious. Although just a second-round rookie from a Division II program, Manning was the starter at free safety after leapfrogging Chris Harris on the depth chart by Week 3 and looked to be a potential star in the defensive backfield.
But this past season, that once-vaunted Chicago defense fell all the way to 28th overall and had trouble with both the run and the pass – 24th against the ground game and 27th versus the air attack. And while injuries at defensive tackle were a big factor all year long, many experts around the league pointed to the safeties as to why this unit couldn't stop anybody anymore. Mike Brown wasn't able to get through the season-opener before heading back to IR, and Adam Archuleta proved to be just as bad in the Windy City as he was the year before in our nation's capital.
As for Manning, for some reason, he seemed to be getting worse instead of better.
Yes, he upped his tackle total from 70 (53 solos) in `06 to 79 (68 solos) in `07. Yes, he came away with two interceptions just as he did the year before. Yes, he started 15 of 16 games and was one of the few defenders to suit up for every contest by avoiding the injury bug.
Nevertheless, Manning was still blowing assignments and missing tackles seemingly on a weekly basis, causing many to scratch their heads in disbelief as to why such a brilliant athlete couldn't translate all that natural talent into more success on the gridiron.
S Danieal Manning
Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images
In his defense, the organization didn't put him in a very good position to succeed starting with the offseason program. With Brown coming back from yet another injury and Archuleta added in a trade from Washington, suddenly Manning was a man without a job. This was also before both first-string cornerbacks, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, had signed their lucrative contract extensions, so there was a possibility at the time that one – or both – of them could be wearing different uniforms as early as 2008. Once veteran minicamp opened in Lake Forest, there was Manning taking half of his reps at corner.
On paper, it made a lot of sense. Manning has all the tools necessary to play anywhere in the secondary. He can learn cornerback for a year and potentially take over as the starter should either Tillman or Vasher depart. He can still fill in at safety if anything happens to Brown or Archuleta. He'll just be this hybrid DB who can do it all – a jack-of-all-trades, if you will, yet a true master of none.
However, as we've learned repeatedly each and every Sunday, the NFL does not play games on paper.
In Week 1, Manning primarily watched from the bench before Brown tore a knee ligament in the second half. By Week 2, he was starting again at free safety after Brown got moved to injured reserve. By Week 5, he was given the assignment at right cornerback as Vasher nursed a bum groin. By Week 7, he was back at free safety because unheralded rookie Trumaine McBride proved to be a better fit at corner. It was enough to make a seasoned veteran's head spin, let alone a second-year pro who was still quite green.
Football fans usually think of wide receivers and cornerbacks when it comes to blinding speed, but even Bernard Berrian – himself a former sprinter – admits that Manning is the fastest Bear on the field once the ball is snapped. Is it possible that Manning is simply more "athlete" than "football player" and may never live up to his potential?
If the Midway Monsters are going to get back to their dominating ways on defense next season, some questions have to be answered at both safety spots.
Brown is a tremendous player when healthy and one of the best on-field leaders you'll ever see, but he's missed more games than he's played the last four years and has officially earned the dubious "injury-prone" description. Archuleta was a complete bust coming over from the Redskins, so expect him to be pink-slipped as soon as possible. Brandon McGowan took over for Archuleta as the starter in Week 13 and showed some ability, plus the coaches liked what the saw out of rookie Kevin Payne until he was shelved with a broken arm.
Taking a shot at a big hitter like Ken Hamlin of Dallas in free agency or a premier prospect like Kenny Phillips of Miami in the first round of the NFL Draft would be a step in the first direction, but the Bears just might have a quality player on their hands if Manning could ever put it all together.
The good news is that, with Tillman and Vasher both inked for the long term and McBride providing valuable depth behind them, he won't be jerked all over the field from safety to corner and back again this offseason.
Now Manning just has to go for the gold.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.