Four Down Territory, Feb. 5: Does Angelo know the value of a receiver?

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We’ve successfully completed this mission about three hours earlier than Wednesday night. That’s progress you can believe in. Let’s dive right in.

Q: Why does Jerry Angelo downplay the importance of upgrading the Bears wide receiver corps, when it is so universally believed by virtually everyone else that the Bears will never have a playoff-caliber offense until they improve this unit? Does Angelo honestly believe what he is saying and if so, what does this say about Angelo’s ability to recognize even the most obvious talent deficiency on the team he is in charge of overseeing?

Tom N., Dayton, Ohio

A: It’s a fair question after the Bears missed on re-signing Bernard Berrian last year and made the decision to cut ties with Muhsin Muhammad. The position was as bad as it has ever been under Angelo in 2008 and without some steps to improve it, it’s not going to get better. Having two solid pass-catching tight ends in Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen is good, having a running back in Matt Forte who has good hands out of the backfield is nice. They’re not gamebreaking players as receivers, however. They’re move-the-chains targets and as offensive coordinator Ron Turner has expressed on more than one occasion, it’s hard to drive 70 or 80 yards without picking up big chunks from time to time.

I have a feeling your observation is shaped by Angelo’s end-of-season press conference when he said teams don’t win because of No. 1 receivers or top backs, they win because of quarterbacks. I’m not going to try to speak for Angelo or put words in his mouth, but he may be looking to ensure he has the quarterback right before he gets the parts around him. You put Larry Fitzgerald in the Bears’ offense last season and you would not have seen the Fitzgerald the Arizona Cardinals did. I’m pretty confident Angelo knows the importance of wideouts in the game today. Now, knowing that and being able to find some in the draft, that could be two different issues.

Q: I seem to be the one of the few out there that has serious questions about the performance of two Bear veterans, Olin Kreutz and Brad Maynard. In Kreutz, I see a bully, not an all-pro center. I see the inability to reliably deliver the football in the center/quarterback exchange, the reluctance to execute a “shotgun” snap, and a number of failures to move quickly and execute blocks on screen passes. I hear about the locker room, at least the offensive side, being run by Olin and I simply don’t understand. In my opinion, if the Bears have any hope to develop an adequate offense to complement a hopefully improved defense the offense needs to be run by one guy–the quarterback. From this fan’s understanding of the situation, Olin will not allow that to be the case and I would like to know why.

Additionally, Maynard seems to be the benefactor of a coach who stubbornly believes his defense has a better chance to score than his offense. Much was made of Maynard’s league leading stat of “Inside the 20” punts, however that statistic is seldom given context as Maynard punted the second most (96 times) in the league. So, Maynard gets seemingly gets a pass but yet he has proven to lack the leg strength to ever change the field with a punt. The game at Minnesota was a prime example. Time and time again there were opportunities to deliver a big kick (60 yards) and he never delivered. His punt average of 41.2 yds was 33rd in the league this past year.

In evaluating the team, I see room for improvement in those two positions. How off base am I?

Matt M., Chicago

A: We’ve got two very different issues here. First, the Kreutz situation.

1) You’re right, you didn’t see an all-pro center this past season. That honor did not go to Kreutz. A bully? I’m not sure how. The fight with Fred Miller was just that, a fight between two men. Miller had his jaw broken. Kreutz had his head stitched shut to close a cut from taking a five-pound dumb bell upside the noggin.

2) The snaps. Kreutz plays lower than a lot of other centers to increase the leverage he can generate. The quarterbacks deals with it. You see muffed exchanges everywhere and Kreutz happens to work with more quarterbacks than the average center.

3) Reluctance to execute a shotgun snap? Maybe I missed Kreutz talking about not wanting to be in the shotgun. When did this happen? According to Elias Sports Bureau, Kyle Orton attempted 178 passes from the shotgun formation last season. That means he got 178 snaps from Kreutz. If that’s being reluctant, Kreutz is guilty as charged.

4) Failure to move quickly on screens? Actually, I’d say Kreutz is one of the more athletic centers in the league. He’s a little undersized, and can run into issues against big nose tackles, but the flip side of that is he can get to the second level. Granted, he’s dealt with an Achilles tendon issue but he’s still one of the more agile linemen in the game.

5) So which quarterback should Kreutz have handed the team over to? Henry Burris? Chris Chandler? Jonathan Quinn? Craig Krenzel? Kordell Stewart? Chad Hutchinson? Jeff George was here for a bit, how about him? I see what you’re saying here, and I think we saw a different Orton this past season, one that was much more assertive on the field than he was as a rookie in 2005. Orton had control of the huddle. Orton had control of the team at the line of scrimmage. Remember all of the mini-Peyton Manning stuff Orton was doing? He was making the checks at the line, he was calling the audibles. He was in charge. I’m sure if the Bears had a perennial Pro Bowl quarterback, you’d hear less about Kreutz. That’s not his fault or should we pin the failure to sign Kurt Warner or draft a better quarterback on him too?

6) When you evaluate the offensive line and what the Bears have done over the last five or six seasons, the more glaring issue to me is how they’ve failed to adequately develop young tackles. Chris Williams will have an opportunity in 2009 but Angelo is in a position where he almost has to spend a high pick on another tackle this year with John Tait entering the final year of his contract. You say you see room for improvement here. Kreutz is signed for two more seasons through 2010. He’ll 32 in June and has 11 seasons under his belt. Where do you want to prioritize this position? Ahead of wide receiver? Ahead of safety? Ahead of an offensive tackle? There are only so many free-agent dollars and high draft picks to go around.

As far as Maynard, his skill set might not be best suited for bad weather at Soldier Field. He’s a directional punter who plays half of his home games in one of the more difficult outdoor venues to kick in in the league. Let’s not blame the contract extension Maynard received in 2004 that has him with the team through 2010 on Maynard. That being said, 2008 was one of the better seasons he has had as a pro. You cite his gross punting average. Gross averages are pretty meaningless. It’s about net average because if a punter booms a 60-yarder and in the process outkicks his coverage team by 15 yards, setting up a 40-yard return, what’s the point? The punter has a strong leg and rocks for brains.

Maynard’s net average of 38.1 yards was 13th in the league.

You cite his 96 punts, second in the league, as a big reason why he led the league with 40 punts inside the 20, a franchise record. Fair enough. Using that same logic, Maynard would also have a lot of touchbacks, right? You drop the ball inside the 20 that many times, you’re bound to have a fair number of touchbacks, right? He had five. Among the 15 punters with 70 or more punts during the season, only Philadelphia’s Sav Rocca (70 punts, four touchbacks) and Cincinnati’s Kyle Larson (100 punts, three touchbacks) had fewer. By the way, of those 15 punters with 70 or more punts, no one allowed fewer return yards than Maynard–203. That’s a sign of a punter being in tune with his coverage team and using the sideline well, etc.

Would Dave Toub prefer a punter with a cannon for a leg? I’m sure every special teams coach in the league would. But a lot of times it’s more about using the 9 iron when it comes to punting than the driver. And as far as the game at Minnesota, he did land five of his nine punts inside the 20. There was a 29-yarder and a 36-yarder that could have and should have been better. He struck some other balls pretty well in that game.

Q: If Beanie Wells is available, do you think the Bears should draft him? With his size, I think he could make an excellent complement to Matt Forte. The two-back system worked well for the Bears during their recent Super Bowl year and it worked well for several teams this year.

Berkshire H., Parts Unknown

A: Wells is considered one of the top backs in the draft along with Georgia’s Knowshon Moreno, Pitt’s LeSean McCoy and maybe Iowa’s Shonn Greene. The Ohio State back is projected to be around in the first round and just might be available at No. 18 when the Bears pick. Considering the club’s array of needs, do you think spending a pick on a back right there would be the best move? Wells might be talented but he’s not going to solve issues at wide receiver and he’s sure not going to solidify the quarterback position. I doubt, too, he can rush the passer or play safety.

When you think of some of the successful 1-2 backfields lately the one that I like to look at is what the New York Giants have had. That was put together with late-round picks. Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward, Ahmad Bradshaw, none of them were high picks. You can find backs on the street that can be plugged into a situation. You’re not going to be looking for a “complementary” player in the first round either. The Bears need to find a starter. They also need to give Garrett Wolfe the opportunity to be the “complementary” guy. I’m not convinced he can do the job but I do know this–he hasn’t had the opportunity yet to prove he can’t.

Q: Who decides who plays on offense? Jerry Angelo (guessing not because of his Earl Bennett comments), Lovie Smith, Ron Turner, the position coaches or someone else? Why Bennett couldn’t get any of Rashied Davis‘ minutes is beyond me. I’d like to know who deserves the “credit.”

Ryan, Madison, Wis.

A: Yes, it’s fair to assume Angelo would have preferred to see third-round draft pick Earl Bennett play more than he did. I think it’s fair to say the ultimate decision on playing time belongs to Smith. He’s the head coach. If he wants someone in the game, it happens. Smith monitors it from time to time, too. During 2006, he had a chart kept on the sideline during games to monitor how much time rookie defensive end Mark Anderson received. Obviously, Turner runs the offense and wide receivers coach Darryl Drake is heavily involved.

I think the best answer to your question is that Smith is in control. When it comes to play time for wideouts, Turner makes most of the decisions and Drake also has say. Turner is in the coaching box during games so Drake will sub players out from time to time. Sorry, it doesn’t look like there is one person to “credit.”

Thanks for all of the questions. We’ll get to another Four Down Territory on Friday. As always, thanks for reading.

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