The last thing that Danieal Manning heard from the Chicago coaching staff leaving the locker room before Sunday's game was to "start fast and get field position."
"It was crazy," Manning said in the Soldier Field locker room said after a 23-10 victory over the Jaguars. "I looked up, and it seemed that he was throwing the ball directly at me. We had a zone pressure defense going that was completely misread. My guy ran a dig [route], and I saw him. He couldn't jump away. There was no way I could help but catch it."
The play had an unexpected twist, however, as Manning galloped to the Jacksonville 5-yard line only to fumble out of bounds near the end zone. A touchback was called, challenged by the Bears, subsequently overturned and the ball given back to the Bears again on the Jacksonville 5.
"How strange was that?" Manning said with a chuckle. "You know I fumbled not because the ball was stripped from my hands. It was only the Vaseline I had all over my arms. I guess that got on the ball, it slid on my uniform and ended up back on the field. You can be sure I've learned a lesson there. I'll still use the Vaseline as that helps protect my arms from the cold, but I think maybe I'll apply less of it next time."
It's easy to see why Manning is able to joke this year after coming out of a 2007 season where his role on the team was largely undefined.
"It was not easy, let me tell you that for sure," Manning said of being jerked in and out of the lineup, including position shifts from safety to corner to nickel and just about everything in between. "I felt I should start, but I got beaten out for that job [by Brandon McGowan]. It was difficult psychologically."
But perhaps it gave the versatile player something extra to aim for, thus improving his overall level of play.
"That's probably right," Manning said when asked if his demotion ultimately made him a better player. "A little competition never hurt anybody. I came in here this past season ready and willing to make my mark and get my job back. From the OTAs on, I was all business, working with the coaches, perfecting my technique. I was determined to succeed."
The player that Manning has become is now playing an important role on both kick returns and as a nickel back.
"I love the chance to be out there showing what I can do," he said, "and I think the increased role on kick returns has boosted my self confidence to a great extent. I get the chance to do some moves, use some speed and get the ball down the field. What I really want to do is to reach the end zone. Almost happened today, and in my mind, accomplishing that is only a matter of time."
In Sunday's game against the Jaguars, Manning averaged 27 yards on three kickoff returns and busted one big one for 52 yards. He also had two tackles against a Jacksonville team that tends to keep the ball on the ground more often than not.
That won't be the case Thursday night, when Drew Brees and the high-flying Saints come to the Windy City. Despite the fact that the Bears have been shredded by good passing games at times this season, Manning is up for the challenge.
"That will be fun, something I'm definitely looking forward to," he said. "We'll be checking the film on that this week and getting our game plan together. I feel that it could be a good match for me personally. I am familiar with what the Saints like to do, and I think I can have an effect on that."
When New Orleans comes to Chicago, Manning is hoping for brutally cold game-time temperatures similar to what the Jaguars faced in Week 14.
"15 degrees, 16 degrees, that's what I'd like these warm weather and dome teams to face," he said. "You can be sure that will affect how they are going to plan their offense. The ball is a lot more difficult to catch when your hands are numb and you are shaking so much you can hardly see straight."
And, in Manning's mind, a shortened week should be no problem for the Bears from a preparation standpoint.
"We have a lot at stake here," he said, as the Bears are now 7-6 and still alive in the chase for the NFC North title. "We're definitely looking forward to getting back to work [Monday]. We have a lot to be playing for. We definitely want to go to the playoffs, and the only way that is going to happen is if we win out."
It didn't look that way at the break of training camp when he was just another bench player, but the third-year jack-of-all-trades could play a pivotal role down the stretch for the Monsters of the Midway.
"I'm loving what I have the opportunity to do now both on defense and on returns," said Manning, "and my goal is to do everything possible to help the Bears finish the season at the top of our division."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Chicago Bears for eight years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.
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