Martellus Bennett is one of the NFL’s biggest talkers of all-time. He’s sound-bite gold and he knows it. Bennett is so eager to talk about anything and everything — from his philosophies on life to his eclectic interests, even football — that when he shuts it down, it’s self-indicting. Like last season with the Bears, when Bennett’s silence in November just happened to coincide with Zach Miller’s ascension as the team’s No. 1 tight end.
And again this week, Bennett’s silence spoke loud and clear from Patriots training camp in Foxborough, Mass. Fully aware he would be the major storyline of the week with the Bears — and Chicago-area media — in town, Bennett shut it down in dramatic fashion. On Monday, he might talk Tuesday. On Tuesday, he might talk Wednesday, then it was Thursday after the game. And after the game? Marty declined interviews. What a guy.
We know what he doesn’t to talk about. Earlier this month, Bennett took a shot at Jay Cutler in an interview with ESPN. “I’d be open and he’d throw into double-coverage,” Bennett said, piling on to his brother Michael’s comment that Cutler was the “worst quarterback in the NFL.”
And then there’s his untimely departure from the Bears, and the circumstances that compelled general manager Ryan Pace to trade a 29-year-old Pro Bowl-caliber all-purpose tight end in his prime. Because of all the veterans the Bears lost from last season, the departure of Bennett is the most regrettable.
Not that the Bears regret trading Bennett to the Patriots in March — on the contrary, if they could make only one move in the offseason, that likely would have been it. The regret is that Bennett had so much to offer, but forced the Bears’ hand by being Martellus Bennett — a guy who might love his team and his teammates, but loves himself more. Gale Sayers’ autobiography was titled, “I Am Third.” Bennett’s would be, “I Am First.”
Bennett’s absence leaves the biggest hole. The Bears feel they’re a better team without guard Matt Slauson. And they think a running-back-by-committee approach led by 24-year-old Jeremy Langford is a better fit for their offense than workhorse 30-year-old Matt Forte. But there’s no way they’re better — on the field — without Bennett than they are with him. The hole at tight end is obvious even with Zach Miller healthy. And when Miller was out with a concussion, Bennett’s absence loomed even larger. In fact, when Miller was out, the Bears tight ends in training camp combined for eight receptions for 98 yards and one touchdown in the NFL last season.
But that’s how badly the Bears wanted to rid themselves of Bennett, who got off to a bad start with the Pace regime last season by missing the voluntary portion of the offseason program in an attempt to get a new contract — and then basically moaned his way out of town with an attitude that deteriorated throughout the year and seemed to accelerate as Miller became a bigger part of the offense.
Pace is trying to build a team that John Fox can work with — football-first guys willing to sacrifice for his teammates and his team — and there is no room for a player who isn’t totally on board.
Bennett can rationalize his departure from Chicago all he wants, but the evidence is growing that on any team — except maybe the Patriots — he’s a bigger part of the problem than he is the solution: He’s a Pro Bowl talent on his fourth team in six years. The three teams that signed him — the Cowboys, Giants and Bears — did not re-sign him.
And even considering Bennett is on a contract year in 2016, his trade value should be an insult to a player of his ability and ego: As productive as he’s been, as great as he thinks he is, Bennett was worth only a net fifth-round draft pick. (The Bears traded Bennett and a sixth-round pick to the Patriots for a fourth-round pick).
In fact, the Bears offered Bennett to virtually every NFL team, and the only one willing to give up even a mid-round draft pick was the Patriots. There are only about 30 other teams with a greater need at tight end than the Patriots, and they all said, ‘No, thanks’ to a 29-year-old multi-dimensional tight end one year removed from a 90-catch season and the Pro Bowl. The Patriots, who already have the best tight end in the game in Rob Gronkowski, can take the free roll and hope that the star power on their team keeps Bennett and his sizeable ego in check.
The shame is that Bennett is so close to being an irreplaceable part of a team instead of a guy you can’t win with. When he’s on board, he’s a valuable teammate. But he’s like a precocious kid whose mood changes on a whim. After a petulant fit of defiance in 2014 training camp when he body-slammed Kyle Fuller and was suspended (“That’s how I play. I’m going to continue to play the way I play.”), he had the best season of his career and made the Pro Bowl — with generally good behavior throughout.
In 2015, after Pace was hired as general manager and Fox as head coach and everybody else was doing their best to impress the new bosses, Bennett blew off the voluntary portion of the offseason program to leverage a new contract when he had two years to go on his deal. But once he returned, it appeared he was fully on board. In fact, no player expressed his desire to be “all-in” with the Pace/Fox regime better than Bennett.
“I think the organization is doing every single thing possible to make the team better,” Bennett said when the Bears were 0-3 last season. “There are a lot of hiccups right now, but that’s what happens when there’s a lot of change happening. … I really love what Fox and everything Pace is doing. Everything [Adam Gase] is doing. And I’m excited about the future of the Chicago Bears.
“And I think everyone should be. … I think winning’s going to come. But it’s just getting the right guys in the locker room and the right mentality and I think a lot of it is changing the mentality of the culture of this team, which takes time. … I think they’re doing a great job. And I’m all-in for it. Hopefully I’m at the tip of the spear.”
But his all-in attitude didn’t last long. By November, right around the time Miller was establishing himself as a productive target, Bennett was unhappy with this role, not talking to the media and injured — out with a bruised ego and sore ribs. As it turned out, “getting the right guys in the locker room” meant getting rid of him — at any cost. Fearing they would get nothing for him, the Bears traded Bennett to the Patriots for a draft pick.
Buying high and selling low is no way to do business. Ryan Pace knows that. But he also knows he can’t win with Martellus Bennett. The Bears have moved on. And so has Bennett. In silence. That tells us all we need to know.