Bears wide receiver Earl Bennett celebrates a touchdown against the St. Louis Rams during the second half.
Amid the landfill of a 5-7 season, the Bears have uncovered a couple gems, none brighter than second-year wide receiver Earl Bennett.
Last season, as a third-round pick who failed to catch a single pass as a rookie, Bennett might have been called a "flop" or a "bust," if he was discussed at all.
But those who rushed to judgment on the 22-year-old Vanderbilt product have been proven wrong. Bennett leads the Bears with a 13.3-yard average per catch, even though he's sometimes mislabeled a "possession receiver."
His 599 receiving yards are second only to Devin Hester's 682, and the 6-foot, 204-pound Bennett is fourth on the team with 45 catches, just 9 behind Hester's team-best 54.
"Earl has been steady," coach Lovie Smith said. "Very seldom does he make a mistake, and we know what type of play we're going to get from him most of the time."
Sunday's 17-9 victory over the 1-11 Rams wasn't monumental, aside from the fact that it stopped the hemorrhaging of a four-game losing streak, but it was significant for Bennett.
With the Bears backed up to their own 9-yard line, Bennett caught a touch pass from Jay Cutler in a narrow seam over the middle and set sail for the end zone.
At the Rams' 20-yard line, St. Louis safety O.J. Atogwe caught up to Bennett and punched the ball loose, but it bounced out of bounds. The Bears kept possession, and Bennett had a 71-yard reception, the team's longest of the season.
"That was big," Smith said. "He needs to hold on to the football, but that play (got) us out of a hole. A great pass by Jay. There was a small window to get the ball in, but that's the type of play that we've become accustomed really to seeing from him."
Late in the third quarter, Bennett caught his first TD pass in the NFL, a 3-yard arrow from Cutler.
"I was glad to see Earl get one," Cutler said. "He's had a lot of good catches for us all year long but hasn't been able to crack one into the end zone."
As a true freshman at Vanderbilt, Bennett caught 79 passes, including 9 TD passes from Cutler, who was a senior. In just three years at Vanderbilt, Bennett caught 236 passes, more than anyone in Southeast Conference history.
But he could hardly get on the field with the Bears last year. Bennett made cameo appearances in 10 games and was inactive for the six others.
Bennett says the biggest difference between this year and last is the opportunity to play. Bennett, however, had to prove he was worthy of the opportunity before it was given, and in the off-season Bears coaches saw the improvement they were looking for in all areas.
"Catching the football, making all the adjustments, alignments, just knowing what to do," Smith said, listing the areas in which Bennett has improved. "And then, when you get an opportunity, making some plays. Earl has made the most of it."
Last off-season, Bennett admitted that he wasn't familiar enough with the playbook as a rookie to react rather than thinking about what he was supposed to do. He needed to learn the system before he could play instinctively and rely on his athleticism, but he said he remained confident that his time would come.
"I kept the faith," Bennett said. "I knew Chicago drafted me for a reason, so I just said, 'Anytime I get the opportunity, I've just got to make the best of it. It may be just one play, but that one play I've got to show the coaches what I've got.' Whenever I got the opportunity I just wanted to run with it."