Team sees ta­lent but hasn’t seen break­out

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - JA­SON LIESER jlieser@sun­ | @Ja­sonLieser

Bears re­ceivers coach Mike Fur­rey was re­watch­ing the 2019 sea­son opener, a dreary 10-3 loss to the Pack­ers, and had an ir­ri­tat­ing thought as he an­a­lyzed the sput­ter­ing of­fense.

Where in the world was An­thony Miller? This guy had been the 51st over­all pick in 2018 after two 1,400-yard sea­sons at Mem­phis, and the Bears were bank­ing on him to be a ma­jor part of their pass­ing game. And this was sup­posed to be the sea­son he put it all to­gether and got se­ri­ous about his ca­reer.

Miller, how­ever, played only 15 snaps against the Pack­ers. Quar­ter­back Mitch Tru­bisky threw to him only once. He was ab­sent and re­mained so un­til late in the sea­son.

‘‘One of our best play­ers is not on the field,’’ Fur­rey said. ‘‘And the rea­son why is be­cause you can’t trust him.’’

That has been the book on Miller through his two-plus years in the or­ga­ni­za­tion, and it’s far from the first time some­one has said that about him. Coach Matt Nagy didn’t hold back pub­licly last sea­son, ei­ther.

Fur­rey has the­o­rized that col­lege foot­ball came so eas­ily — ‘‘He was al­lowed to get away with a lot of stuff and his statis­tics were phe­nom­e­nal, but that stuff just doesn’t work in the pros,’’ he said — that Miller as­sumed he would carve up the NFL on ta­lent alone.

Miller is tremen­dously gifted, as he showed in a five-game stretch late last sea­son in which he had 33 catches for 431 yards and two touch­downs. If he masters all the de­tails, in­clud­ing a thor­ough grasp of the play­book and a more pro­fes­sional ap­proach the other six days of the week, he’ll be a star. Fur­rey thinks that time is now. ‘‘He’s start­ing to un­der­stand de­fenses and cov­er­ages and lever­ages — that stuff, it’s not just play­ground,’’ he said of Miller. ‘‘Now ev­ery­thing’s slow­ing down for him from a route-run­ning stand­point. He gets in meet­ings, he can re­spond, he can com­mu­ni­cate. He’s not tuck­ing his hat down and [giv­ing] one-word an­swers.

‘‘He’s try­ing to learn. He’s dropped the ego of this whole Mem­phis thing. Now he’s com­ing here and learn­ing from Allen Robin­son, ask­ing Allen Robin­son, watch­ing Allen Robin­son . . . . If you’re start­ing to do that stuff, you’re def­i­nitely head­ing in the right di­rec­tion and start­ing to grow in­di­vid­u­ally.’’

Fur­rey thought the same thing last sum­mer, how­ever. Nearly one year ago to the day, he said of Miller: ‘‘I just held my breath, hop­ing that he was gonna go to the right place [in 2018] . . . . He’s come in now and un­der­stands what we’re do­ing. Now I be­lieve ev­ery­thing’s gonna get bet­ter and bet­ter for him.’’

That proved to be false hope. Miller’s late flour­ish wasn’t enough to com­pen­sate for barely crack­ing 200 yards re­ceiv­ing in the first nine games.

Last sea­son, Robin­son car­ried the pass­ing at­tack alone. Be­fore Miller’s 140-yard out­burst on Thanks­giv­ing, Robin­son was the only Bears player to reach even 80 yards re­ceiv­ing. He played 94% of the of­fen­sive snaps when no other re­ceiver reached 65%. He had close to dou­ble Miller’s num­ber of tar­gets, de­spite both play­ing all 16 games.

That’s not sus­tain­able, and the Bears showed they re­al­ize that this off­sea­son. While Plan A is still for Miller to de­velop into a fear­some com­ple­ment to Robin­son, the Bears drafted speedy re­ceiver Dar­nell Mooney, added vet­eran Ted Ginn and are tout­ing the progress of third-year player Javon Wims.

There are con­tin­gen­cies, but none is as al­lur­ing as Miller grow­ing into the player the Bears thought they were draft­ing.

‘‘We talk about a player’s abil­ity to sep­a­rate from man cov­er­age and what he can do in the slot — he’s so tal­ented,’’ gen­eral man­ager Ryan Pace said. ‘‘He’s still a young player that’s still try­ing to learn the of­fense, gain trust with the quar­ter­back . . . .

‘‘When An­thony knows what he’s do­ing on of­fense, he plays so fast and can be such a dy­namic part of what we’re do­ing.’’


An­thony Miller had 140 yards re­ceiv­ing against the Lions last sea­son on Thanks­giv­ing, but he was barely a fac­tor in the Bears’ first nine games.

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