It took ‘til the very end of the third quarter and the Bears facing a 19-7 deficit that seemed a taller task than beating a hippie in a dirty hair contest. It was then the offensive coordinator (Mike Tice) and the quarterback (Jay Cutler) reached a conclusion they should have reached the second Alshon Jeffery was temporarily lost to a broken hand: Earl Bennett is a damn good receiver.
With under a minute to go in the quarter Cutler hit Bennett for 24 yards on second and twelve and followed the play by hitting Bennett for 11 yards on first and ten. The Bears had done nothing offensively for three quarters. Suddenly Earl emerged and the Bears went 51 yards on the drive. (They missed a field goal.) On their next two offensive drives the offense, having looked as pathetic as we’d seen them in years, went 38 yards (after a six yard punt) for a touchdown to Kellen Davis and 55 yards for a game-winning field goal.
Why? There are probably fifteen X’s and O’s reasons the Bears suddenly blocked the Panthers up front and were able to move the ball through the air. But I think the answer is a simple one and it wears number 80. And unfortunately it’s impossible to praise Bennett as a wide receiver without criticizing Devin Hester. Because everything Bennett does well, everything he brings to the field and to the position, all the obvious chemistry he shares with the quarterback, Hester lacks.
Hester is the greatest kick returner in the history of football and Panthers coach Ron Rivera showed him more respect than I’ve ever seen by giving the Bears the ball on the 35-40 to start drives in order to avoid having Mr. Ridiculous skunk his special teams units. And as a wide receiver he does bring two distinct skills: deep, field-stretching speed and elusiveness. He is a package player. Let him test the back end of the opposing secondary once or twice an afternoon. Throw him a few bubble screens on second-and-short and see if he can make a few defenders miss. Hester is the perfect pint of Guinness. He doesn’t need to be a $300 bottle of Merlot. The Merlot ain’t better than the Guinness. It’s an entirely different species of booze.
How long are the Bears going to wait for Hester become a great route runner? (It ain’t happening.) How long are they going to wait for Hester to grasp the offense mentally? (Nope, not happening.) How long are they going to wait for Hester to look and play like an accomplished wide receiver? (It seems forever.)
They don’t have to wait because of Earl Bennett’s presence. Sunday in Nashville, a few miles from the Vanderbilt campus where Earl and Cutler first met, Lovie and Tice must line Bennett up opposite Brandon Marshall. Then they must leave him there until Alshon Jeffery returns. According to Michael Wright, Hester played 44 of 56 offensive snaps Sunday while Bennett played 35. That number should be flipped. And then some. Now is not the time for stubbornness. Now is the time for prudence. And to save this offense from drifting out to sea, the Bears must play their best offensive players. That means Bennett. Not Hester.