Bears wide receiver Joshua Bellamy smiled when asked if there was a key to developing a rapport with Jay Cutler.
“Just know what you’ve got to do,” Bellamy said with a chuckle. “Know what you’ve got to do and you won’t have any problems.”
Bellamy’s rapport with Cutler would be a minor issue — if it was worth contemplating at all — if not for one detail: He was Cutler’s No. 1 wide receiver at practice Wednesday at Halas Hall. A step ahead of Rashad Lawrence and Marc Mariani.
Three days before the most important game of the preseason, the Bears fielded one of the most nondescript starting three-wide receiver sets you can find in the NFL. A hip injury to slot receiver Eddie Royal left the Bears without their top four wide receivers. Alshon Jeffery has been day-to-day for two weeks with a calf strain; rookie Kevin White the No. 7 pick in the draft, is out indefinitely — possibly for the season —after undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture; Marquess Wilson is day-to-day with a bum hamstring —a notoriously slow-healing injury.
That left Cutler with the triumvirate of Bellamy, Lawrence and Mariani at practice on Wednesday — and probably for Saturday night’s “dress rehearsal” against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium as well. Last year Cutler had Brandon Marshall, Jeffery and Joshua Morgan as starting wide receivers in the third preseason game and the Bears lost 34-6 — falling behind 31-0 before the second team came in.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that — all four going down like that,” Cutler said Wednesday at Halas Hall. “It’s a great opportunity for these guys and it’s given me a chance to work with them and do some hands-on stuff with them.”
Kudos to Cutler for looking at the bright side. For a guy who hasn’t often easily tolerated other’s mistakes (cough-J’Marcus Webb, Devin Hester-cough), he sounded like a paternal veteran leader of men in discussing the challenge of working with three inexperienced receivers with a combined five receptions for 24 yards in the NFL, all by Mariani in 2011 with the Titans.
Bellamy is an undrafted free agent from Louisville (2011) who has been cut by the Chiefs, Chargers, Redskins and Bears. Lawrence is an undrafted free agent from Northwestern (2014) who was cut by the Redskins.
“They’re excited,” Cutler said. “I get in the huddle with these guys and they’re all excited to be out there. They want the ball. They want to do things the right way. So we’ll see how it goes.”
It remains to be seen if the older, wiser Jay Cutler will be a better quarterback. But for a guy who usually prefers the wind at his back — his favorite receivers, his favorite coordinators and quarterback coaches, etc. —Cutler is embracing the challenge of working with unproven receivers rather than lamenting the predicament of having to carry a little more of the load than he might have expected.
“It just makes me have to work a little bit harder,” Cutler said. “It makes me have to communicate with them and make sure they know exactly what they’re supposed to do — so I’ve got to be on it on my end as well. It’s a challenge for us. [But] it’s a really good group of guys, so I enjoy working with them.”
Until Royal, Jeffery and Wilson return — and it’s anybody’s guess on all three —it’ll be interesting to see how it plays out in live action. Offensive coordinator Adam Gase will have to be a little more inventive with Matt Forte and tight ends Martellus Bennett and Zach Miller in the passing game. But it’ll be a challenge for Cutler to develop a connection with new wide receivers better than he has in his six previous seasons with the Bears.
Devin Hester was a constant struggle. Veterans Roy Williams and Santonio Holmes never clicked. Alshon Jeffery didn’t become a difference-maker until his second season with Cutler. The only receivers to overachieve in their first year with Cutler with the Bears have been Earl Bennett and Brandon Marshall — both of whom had previous Cutler connections. Royal who played with Cutler in Denver in 2008, likewise has made an immediate impact in camp and looks due for a big year — if he can stay healthy.
Bellamy, who caught a 42-yard pass from Cutler on the third play of last week’s game against the Colts — only to have it nullified by an illegal-use-of-hands penalty on right tackle Charles Leno, Jr., feels good about the rapport he’s already developed with Cutler. He gets it.
“Jay expects everybody to be on point,” Bellamy said. “So when I get in, I’ve got to know that there’s no room for error. I try to make sure I know all of my assignments, so I can be on point for him.”
Lawrence, the former Northwestern receiver, also is making progress working with Cutler.
“I’ve got to go out here and be in the right spot, show him I know what I’m doing,” the 6-1, 197-pound Lawrence said. “And just be consistent.”
Until Jeffery, Royal and Wilson return, the pressure is on them.
“He’s a quarterback —he’s supposed to be demanding,” Bellamy said. “He expects his receivers to know what they’ve got to do. He has a big job himself, so he can’t try to call the protection, tell the line what to do and tell me or whoever else is out there what to do.
“You’ve got to know your job and he expects that. If you don’t know your job, then you can’t play in the league. That’s anywhere.”
The bigger issue might turn out to be the injuries themselves —with a new training and strength-and-conditioning staff, general manager Ryan Pace is hoping to avoid the injuries that plagued Marc Trestman’s staff. Already, White’s “shin” is worse than it was. And Jeffery’s “mild calf strain” is taking longer than anticipated to heal.
No matter how well Cutler eventually connects with Bellamy, Lawrence and Mariani, the Bears’ offense will operate best with a healthy Jeffery, Royal and Wilson. Cutler acknowledged the injuries are a concern.
“Sure it is,” he said. “Kevin White is not going to come back any time soon and we’ll see about some of these other guys. That’s part of the NFL. There’s others teams out there that are dealing with the same situation we’re dealing with. We’ve just got to work with the guys we have, and I know Adam [Gase] and the rest of the guys are going to put together a good game plan each week.”