Say what you want about the Bears' wide receivers, and early in the season they heard just about everything, but no position on the team showed greater improvement this year.
Heading into Detroit for the season finale against the Lions, the Bears' top four wideouts, all of them virtual novices in the NFL, have made significant improvement this season, despite the team's 6-9 record and inconsistencies.
But if there are sweeping coaching changes at the end of this season, even if they're limited to the offensive side of the ball, how will that affect a young group of receivers that is still learning to play together in the current scheme and with new quarterback in Jay Cutler?
"I don't even think that far ahead," wide receivers coach Darryl Drake said when asked about speculation on job security. "Right now everything's in place for the way we want it, and we feel good about the way things are. We keep working and continuing to improve. I don't even speculate or think that far ahead. I don't even want to. We've got Detroit, and we're going to try to get better against Detroit and see what happens."
Of the Bears' top four wideouts, they have a rookie (Johnny Knox) a second-year player (Earl Bennett), a third-year player (Devin Aromashodu) with a total of four NFL starts, and a fourth-year player (Devin Hester), who's been a full-time receiver for just two seasons.
The across-the-board improvement this year is unmistakable. Hester has three more catches and 17 more receiving yards than last season, even though he's missed the past three games and half of two others. Bennett has 51 receptions for 690 yards after failing to catch a pass last season as a rookie.
Aromashodu had seven catches for 96 yards in two previous NFL seasons. Last Monday night he had seven catches for 150 yards, the most of any player in the NFL in Week 16. Knox will miss the final game with a sprained ankle, but the fifth-round pick has already proved to be one of the steals of the 2009 draft with 45 catches for 527 yards and five touchdowns. He also was chosen as a second alternate for the Pro Bowl as a kick returner.
Based on the overall inexperience, all of them figure to improve.
"We're going to be better," Cutler said, "there's no doubt about it. Just looking at the film of the last game, they're doing things that are going to help us out in the long run. They're learning. It's a young group. Even D.A.'s young. He hasn't had a lot of experience. Even though he's been in the league a little bit, he hasn't been out there in live-bullet situations. That's what's fun about working with these guys. They're so eager to learn, and they're excited about it. Every little thing you're telling them, they're picking up on it."
Cutler, who's in just his fourth season, has suffered through growing pains with his wide receivers. If a new offensive coordinator is brought in to replace Ron Turner, Cutler will be playing under his third coordinator and third system in three years. But the quarterback said developing rapport with his targets is more important than scheme.
"It's not in my hands, not in my control," he said of coaching changes. "Scheme-wise, you learn it. If we have to change schemes, we have to change schemes. I don't think that's a bigger issue than me just knowing the little things of how they are going to react in game situations and what I'm going to do in game situations. Once we hammer that down, if we call something a different concept, we call it a different concept. It's not an issue. I'm not really worried."
Turner is trying to have the same attitude regarding his job status.
"I haven't even thought about it," he said. "I've got a contract that says I'm going to be here, and I plan on fulfilling that contract. I've got another year, and I plan on fulfilling that, and I'm looking forward to trying to figure out a way to go out and play well and build on the success we had last week and beat Detroit and go from there."
NOTES AND QUOTES
"It means a lot for our football team," Smith said. "No more than that. I think our program is validated for what we've done here. We've been disappointed in our play this year, but we've been a good football team for a long time. We're doing things the right way, and better days will be ahead for us."
Smith is 51-44 as the Bears' coach but 22-25 since losing to the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, so he was asked how confident he is that he'll be part of the future at Halas Hall.
"I'm confident that I'll be coaching [against] the Detroit Lions this week," Smith said, "and that's about as far as you need to go. You coach and you work that day. You don't look any further than that, and it's been that way for me since I've been here. Nothing has changed. I'm excited about being able to coach the team coming off a big win."
Pressed on the issue and asked about speculation, Smith said: "You speculate, alright? I don't. Let's go over it one more time. We've got Detroit coming up this week. All my focus is on that. Period." ...
Weak-side linebacker Lance Briggs was named a starter on his fifth straight Pro Bowl Tuesday, but he was the only Bear to make it. The seven-year veteran has a team-best 135 tackles, including eight Monday night against the Vikings, and he has 2.5 sacks and an interception.
"We've come to expect it from Lance," Smith said on the team's official Web site. "He's one of the best players in the league, for sure one of the best linebackers. He's made play after play. Our season has been disappointing, but Lance has played well throughout."
Briggs was also the Bears' only Pro Bowl representative last season. The last time the Bears had back-to-back seasons with just one Pro Bowler was when (Brian Urlacher went by himself in 2001 after kick-returner Glyn Milburn was the only choice in 2000. In the five years from 1995-99, the Bears had no one voted to the Pro Bowl.
Knox was voted a second alternate to the Pro Bowl as a kick returner. The fifth-round draft pick from Abilene Christian is averaging 29.0 yards on 32 kickoff returns, including a 102-yard touchdown. ...
In his last six games, middle linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer has 2.5 sacks, one interception, four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.
In 86 previous games with the Bears, the Vanderbilt product had produced 4.5 sacks, one interception, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.
Hillenmeyer had a career-best 17 tackles Monday night, including 12 solos. He also had two passes defended and forced the Adrian Peterson fumble that led to the Bears' game-winning TD.
Ironically, it was the plays that Hillenmeyer didn't make that he talked about after the game.
"I dropped two picks on the last drive [of regulation], and those are plays that we always feel like we should make," he said. "But it does feel great to have a win. It feels great to kind of redeem myself."
QUOTE TO NOTE
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