Critics near and far have belittled the Bears' group of pass catchers. They were even dissed long distance recently by Packers wide receiver Donald Driver.
"They don't have a receiver," Driver told hosts Tom Waddle and Marc Silverman on the "Waddle & Silvy" show on ESPN Radio 1000. "They don't have any true receivers that step up and play and take their team to where they want to go.
"I love Devin [Hester], and Devin knows that, but Devin plays [defensive back]. I don't think he's just a solid receiver right now. He may become one as years go on, but it doesn't happen overnight."
Hester has been anointed the Bears' No. 1 wide receiver, even though he's been playing the position full-time for only two years after converting from cornerback. He had 51 catches for 665 yards and three touchdowns last season, not exactly prototypical numbers for a go-to guy.
The other starter is Earl Bennett, whose next NFL reception will be his first. Fifth-year veteran Rashied Davis is the most experienced member of the group, but his 35 receptions and 445 yards last season represent his career bests.
Not counting the 30-year-old Davis, who played four years in Arena Football before joining the Bears, no wide receiver on the roster is older than 26 and none besides Hester has done much to speak about in the NFL.
Brandon Rideau has bounced around the league for four years without catching a pass. Devin Aromashodu has seven catches in three NFL seasons. Juaquin Iglesias and Johnny Knox are rookies picked in the third and fifth round, respectively. Despite Hester's rare combination of speed, quickness, athleticism and elusiveness, this is not an impressive group on paper.
The only love these guys have gotten is from teammates and coaches.
"We're not worried about it," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "The receivers aren't worried about it. I'm not worried about it. I know [offensive coordinator] Ron [Turner] is not worried about it. We feel comfortable with what we've got. If we didn't feel comfortable, I think they would have made a move."
The Bears had many offseason opportunities to pursue established receivers like Torry Holt, Marvin Harrison and Plaxico Burress, but they decided to stand pat, and that remains their position. As always, coach Lovie Smith's glass is half full, even if the critics insist the Bears need receiving help.
"If you took a pessimistic view at it, that's what you would probably say," Smith said. "But if you are optimistic and you have faith in the guys like I do, it's like every other position. I'm excited about them getting on the football field, having a chance to work with Jay and then just having a chance to catch some balls.
"Every team gets into a [situation] where you don't have a lot of veterans at a position. You give the younger guys a chance to prove what they can do. We have some guys who are eager to kind of squash some of this talk that has been going on about the receivers. We have confidence in them. I think after 10 days, you're going to like them a lot more than you do now."
The slings and arrows have served as motivation for unquestionably the Bears' most underappreciated group.
"At the end of the day, I want to be a complete receiver," Hester said. "And at the end of the season, for all the critics saying I'm maybe a third receiver or something like that, I want them to say, 'Yeah, he is capable of being a No. 1 receiver.'"
It's impossible for the Bears' wide receivers not to hear how they've been bad-mouthed the past several months, but that means they will never lack for motivation.
"We just put that in the back of our minds and come out here and work hard," Bennett said. "We know what we have to do. We have to come out and produce and try to prove people wrong."
But some players have grown weary of catching so much flak. Davis was so irked the other day that he apparently got his senses crossed up.
"I don't even listen to what you guys write," he said. "It is what it is."
But Hester says it's not worth getting upset over.
"If you're trying to play and you try to get into all that [criticism], then you're going to run around like a chicken with your head cut off," he said. "I don't try to get into all that. That's what they say. We know what we have to do, and we're going to go out and play ball. At the end of the day, we let our playing speak for itself."
NEWS AND NOTES
But this year Urlacher is healthier than he's been in a while and, not coincidentally, he's optimistic about the defense and the team as a whole.
"I think this is the best team I've been on going into training camp since I've been here, there's no doubt about that," said Urlacher, whose teams made the playoffs in 2001, '05 and '06. "You look at each position, and we stack up pretty well versus every team in the NFL.
"It's been a long summer trying to get back in shape and get healthy again, but I feel great. I was able to train this year. Last year, I had the neck surgery. I was trying to get ready for the season and rehabbing that, but now I'm just able to train hard, lift weights and do things I've normally done throughout my career." …
Hester and Danieal Manning give the Bears one of the best punt- and kickoff-return tandems in the NFL, but they also have full-time roles on the offense and defense, respectively.
Hester, who has seven punt-return TDs in just three seasons, is the No. 1 wide receiver. Manning, who led the NFL with a 29.7-yard kickoff-return average last season, is the starting free safety. Smith doesn't believe either player is overburdened.
"I think a player can be a full-time player and do one of the returns," Smith said. "Whether Danieal is the nickel [back] or the free safety, he's on the field all of the reps on the defensive side, and then he's returning [kickoffs]. Hester will do the same thing. I think he can do that and do it well.
"Both players feel comfortable doing that. Both players want to do that. And in order for us to win, we need them to do that."
Hester is three short of Eric Metcalf's NFL record of 10 punt-return touchdowns. …
After a disappointing 2008 season in which the defense finished 21st in yards allowed, 30th in passing yards allowed and 29th in sacks, the Bears did not rehire defensive backs coach Steven Wilks, linebackers coach Lloyd Lee and defensive line coach Brick Haley.
Wilks was replaced by Jon Hoke, and Haley was replaced by Rod Marinelli, who was given the added title of assistant head coach. Defensive coordinator Bob Babich was given the added responsibility of coaching the linebackers, with Smith talking over the defensive play-calling duties from Babich.
But Urlacher would not blame the coaching staff for the team's weak defensive showing last season.
"I'm not going to say that, no," Urlacher said. "It's just we didn't play well. We didn't play good when we needed to, and that's all it comes down to. [The coaches] are not going to go out there and play for us and win the games for us. They can get us ready, but come Sunday we have to go out there and make plays to help us win games." …
Cutler said he'd understand if the team's wide receivers were feeling a bit salty after all the offseason talk about the need for an upgrade at that position.
"I'd be [ticked] off if I were them," Cutler said. "Everyone's doubting them and questioning their ability. So hopefully they do come in here with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. I think that would be really good."
Cutler smiled when he was asked if he had a chip on his shoulder.
"I'm good," he said. "I think there's some more stuff for me to prove to you all and maybe to my teammates and the city, but I'm looking forward to it. It's going to be fun. When I got traded here, I kind of knew what I was getting into. I was excited then, and I'm still excited now."
QUOTE TO NOTE
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