When the season started, it appeared wide receiver Earl Bennett might be the odd man out in the Bears' new offense under Mike Martz.
Bennett finished second on the team in 2009 with 717 receiving yards, just one year after failing to catch a pass as a rookie. But a hamstring injury in this year's training camp kept him out for the entire preseason and the regular-season opener.
"My biggest thing was to just stay focused and then, when I got my opportunity, just take advantage of it and never look back," Bennett said. "Once you get your chance, you just have to show the coach what you've got, and each weekend I try to show the coach that I'm consistent."
In his first four games back, Bennett was decidedly unspectacular. He caught 13 passes but for a total of just 80 yards, a 6.2-yard average. What he did do was establish himself as a guy who could make the tough catch, the short ball in the middle of the field that ends with a shot in the back from a defender.
A lot of NFL wide receivers want nothing to do with that part of the deal. But the 6-foot, 204-pound Bennett does it because he considers it an integral part of the job.
"My philosophy is, if the ball is thrown across the middle of the field, go get it," Bennett said. "That's just me being a football player. There are different kinds of receivers: possession guys, speed guys. But if the ball's thrown across the middle of the field and it's meant for you, you have to go get it."
Bennett has also demonstrated the ability to stretch the field. In a recent three-game stretch, he caught 11 passes for 182 yards, a 16.5-yard average. With 28 catches, he's tied for third on the Bears with wide receiver Devin Hester and tight end Greg Olsen.
"Earl's kind of our utility guy," quarterback Jay Cutler said. "He can do anything for us. He does all the dirty work. He's a guy that, if you tell him once, you're going to get it out of him. He's a big third-down guy, a slot guy, a guy that we can move around and put in any position."
Cutler and Bennett go back to their college days at Vanderbilt in 2005, when Cutler was a senior and the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and Bennett was a freshman who caught 79 passes for 876 yards and nine touchdowns.
"We've worked out in the offseason, and it probably had some carryover," Bennett said. "Even when he was in Denver (2006-08) he'd go back to Vandy to throw in the summertime and I'd catch for him. It's just something we've continued to work on, and I'm happy he's here."
Even though Bennett's only 23, he's already in his third NFL season, having come out for the draft after just three college seasons, and he's earned Cutler's confidence.
"The biggest thing is trying to be where I'm supposed to be every time and Jay knowing that I'm going to be in that spot," Bennett said. "So it's a comfort thing with Jay. That's what all of us receivers do, is try to be where we're supposed to be when we're supposed to be there."
That's a secure feeling for a quarterback, knowing that he can depend on his receivers, especially in Martz's offense, which requires throws to be made before the intended targets make their breaks. Cutler has that with Bennett.
"When he's on the field," Cutler said, "you can have comfort that he's going to do the right thing."
It's all about making the quarterback look good, right?
"Definitely," Bennett said, laughing. "He makes all of us look good. He gets out of the pocket, and he makes plays down the field, scrambling and so on, so we have to make him look good and make the big catches, too."
And, in Bennett's case, the tough catches, too.
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