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1985 Bears Coverage: Bears grope for receiver

Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

Bears grope for receiver

Ray Sons

Originally published Aug. 25, 1985

All the fuss over the Bears’ defensive holdouts has camouflaged a serious problem on offense. Sure, you have Jim McMahon throwing the football again. But who is going to catch it?

With a new season two weeks away, there is evident inadequacy at the flanker, or wing, position. “That position is up in the air,” says Ted Plumb, the receivers coach.

Brad Anderson would dispute that contention. This confident fellow will start Monday night in Dallas in the third exhibition, and considers himself adequate for the job.

Yeah, Brad, but what do you tell the fan who worries: “Migosh! The Bears have to start a guy with three career catches!”

He just grins and says: “You have to start somewhere.”

As so often happens in football, one man’s broken rung is another man’s leg up the ladder. Anderson can be happier than a pooch loosed in a hydrant factory because the only two proven performers in the job he covets, regular Dennis McKinnon and 10-year veteran Brian Baschnagel, can’t run without limping.

“I love my present situation,” Anderson says. “Of course, I feel for Dennis. I’ve been injured and know how he feels. It’s a beautiful situation for myself, a chance to show the coaches and the other players what I can do.”

Coach Plumb doesn’t sound quite as happy. He watches his hairline recede every day with the depth at wide receiver. “What we thought was going to be a strength is now showing a little bit of weakness,” he frets.

McKinnon, the team’s most consistent wideout, is coming back slowly from his second knee operation in nine months. (“There’s some real concern there,” Plumb says.) Baschnagel had knee surgery the first week of training camp and is on injured reserve.

Head coach Mike Ditka took note of the seriousness of the situation: “We’ve got to be able to threaten people with outside receivers. Right now, I’m not sure we can.”

He applied a flimsy patch by moving rookie James Maness and Jack Cameron to flanker from split end. I say “flimsy” because Maness, a third-round draftee, has missed a lot of practice with a pulled hamstring, and now must learn a new position. (“He’s like in the first week of training camp,” Plumb says.) Cameron made the team last year as a kickoff return specialist and caught but one pass.

There seems a more obvious savior. You have a veteran of demonstrated ability playing split end behind Willie Gault. Why not move Ken Margerum to flanker?

In other seasons, we would expect the outspoken Margerum to be offering the coaches his advice on the subject, campaigning to start in McKinnon’s place. But Margerum, coming back from the serious knee injury that cost him a year of competition, is being uncommonly shy. He begged off an interview last week, saying he’d prefer to do something before he talked about it.

Plumb concedes “you can always move Kenny over there” (to flanker), but the coaches hesitate to add the burden of a position change to Margerum’s comeback until they are as sure of his rehabilitation as he is. “In a guy’s own mind, he just has to pick up where he left off before the injury,” Plumb says. “But, when you come off surgery, there is a transition period.” Nevertheless, Plumb says, the possibility of moving Margerum is “real.”

Meanwhile, there is the incumbent by default, Anderson. With his blue eyes, peachy complexion and glowing good looks, this native of Arizona looks as though he should be hopping around in one of those impossibly frothy soft-drink commercials, rather than catching footballs and getting the fizz knocked out of him. The Bears drafted him on the eighth round out of the University of Arizona last year, and kept him as a backup to Gault. He moved to flanker when McKinnon was hurt and caught those three passes, including a 49-yard touchdown.

At 6-2 and 198, Anderson is big enough to do the blocking expected at flanker, though he is nowhere near McKinnon’s proficiency. His blocking “needs improvement,” he allows.

Brad bridles at what he deems a popular misconception: “People look at me and say: `Definitely a possession receiver. He doesn’t have good speed, but he can catch the ball and run good routes.’ I don’t like to hear that. I’m not a world-class sprinter, but I can get by people.”

He burned Pac-10 defensive backs for long touchdowns, and his three catches last season averaged 25.7 yards, the best mark on the team.

Anderson spent the summer in Chicago so he could work out with McMahon and, more often, Steve Fuller. He considers it “really important” to know his quarterbacks, on and off the field. “You have to be able to think together. You can’t get that without spending a lot of time together.”

If Anderson fills the flanker void, Ditka and Plumb should send a bouquet to his mother.

In high school, Brad’s favorite sport was basketball. “I stayed outside until midnight, shooting free throws,” he remembers. “I lived to play basketball.”

But his mother (who religiously attended all his football and basketball games, track meets and band concerts) appraised him with a scout’s eye and told him he’d never make it in basketball, no matter how many free throws he shot.

“My mom told me I wasn’t good enough, so I stuck to football,” Brad says. “She said: `You’re not going to get a chance to go to college playing basketball.’ ”

Luckily for the Bears, Anderson was a dutiful son, brought up to believe mother knows best.