Return specialist Marc Mariani is at home at Halas Hall. He’s no longer the late-season addition. He’s no longer the new guy asking for directions around the building.
“It is quite a bit different,” Mariani said. “I feel more like a part of things. I’ve been here since Day 1.”
The Bears turned to Mariani in Week 12 of last season, signing him to a two-year contract. He became the final and most reliable option of the Bears’ search to make up for the departure of star returner Devin Hester, who signed with the Atlanta Falcons. Now, Mariani is the clear leader to return for coach John Fox and special-teams coordinator Jeff Rodgers.
“It’s just fun to get out here and work and kind of not be the new guy anymore,” Mariani said this week during organized team activities.
Finding Hester’s replacement turned out to be more problematic than former general manager Phil Emery and special-teams coordinator Joe DeCamillis anticipated. Hester, who was angered by the Bears’ decision to move on from him, went to his fourth Pro Bowl after a strong year in Atlanta.
Questionable decision-making stood out as four different players returned punts and four players handled kickoffs last season for the Bears. The shadow of Hester was a real thing. When asked, some returners, including Senorise Perry and Rashad Ross, spoke of the pressure of taking the place of the greatest returner in NFL history.
But Mariani never felt it.
He joined the Bears too late last season and went through too much to return to the NFL. Mariani’s Bears debut on Nov. 23 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was his first regular-season game since the 2011 season.
Mariani spent nearly three full seasons trying to regain the form that earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl in 2010 after big year for the Tennessee Titans. He broke his tibia and fibula bones in left leg during a preseason game in 2012. His injury required immediate surgery, and minor surgeries followed. Mariani later dealt with a shoulder injury.
But he feels rejuvenated now.
Mariani’s 27 total returns last season, which included 510 kickoff return yards in six games, boosted his confidence. He’s also a fan of new trainer Jason George’s changes to the Bears’ workout program.
“My body feels greats, especially to start here from Day 1 and especially with ‘J.G’ in the weight room,” Mariani said. “It’s going really well.”
Is there pressure to replace Hester this year?
“Nah, man,” Mariani said. “It’s fun to see his highlights, and it’s fun to look at those records. But honestly, we’re playing for 2015.”
Mariani is the only player listed with a returner designation on the Bears roster. But running back Jacquizz Rodgers and rookie receiver Levi Norwood are other options. Hester actually replaced Rodgers last season as the Falcons’ kickoff returner.
Jeff Rodgers is looking for one essential quality in his returners: ball security.
“Our No. 1 goal of our return game is going to be give the ball back to the offense,” Rodgers said last month. “Every guy is different. I’ve coached bigger guys, smaller guys, faster guys. The ball security thing is always going to be a common trait.
“But we’re going to scheme our return stuff based on whatever the player does well. That’s still yet to be determined. Whoever that guy is is going to win that job in training camp and into the season.”
Mariani, who also has worked with the second-team offense at receiver, is up for that challenge.
“I think I’ll have a great shot to go out there and win that job again,” Mariani said. “Coach Rodgers is doing a great job with guys. I think it’s going to be a great year especially after last year.”
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