Reconsidering the importance of wide receivers

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
Larry Fitzgerald streaks down the middle of the field for a 64-yard touchdown. Santonio Holmes snatches the ball from the air, deftly keeping his toes planted on the black part of the end zone.

Many factors contributed to the scores that electrified the final three minutes of Super Bowl XLIII. Arizona and Pittsburgh boast innovative offensive schemes. Both teams are led by Pro Bowl-caliber quarterbacks. And at least some of it boiled down to the simple fact that Holmes, and to a greater extent Fitzgerald, are productive receivers with dynamic skills.

A handful of NFL teams subordinate the importance of receivers in building a roster, including a certain member of the NFC North, which considers it a secondary position and a disproportionate weight on both the salary cap and cashflow. The Chicago Bears entered the offseason with a host of priorities stacked ahead of improving their thin receiver group, and it remains to be seen whether the course of the 2008 playoffs will impact their plans.

Four of the five teams that won a playoff game in 2008 boasted a 1,000-yard wide receiver during the regular season. Philadelphia was the only team that did not, but rookie DeSean Jackson was close with 912 yards. In the Super Bowl, Fitzgerald and Holmes combined for 37 percent of the total offense and 50 percent of the touchdowns despite touching the ball on 14 percent of the plays.

These figures don't provide conclusive proof that blue-chip receivers are mandatory pieces of a championship puzzle. They do, however, demonstrate that a receiver can make a great impact despite limited touches; it was more than notable that the Cardinals and Steelers both relied on wide receivers with the championship on the line.

The Bears, on the other hand, set themselves up for an unproductive season from their receivers in 2008 by failing to replace the departed Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad. They mostly relied on tailback Matt Forte and the tight end duo of Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen in the passing game while awaiting Devin Hester's development. Hester finished the season as Chicago's leading receiver but his production ranked deep in the netherworld of NFL statistics.

Rashied Davis (445 yards), Brandon Lloyd (364) and Marty Booker (211) combined for fewer yards than Fitzgerald accumulated on his own during the regular season. Booker is the only current Bears receiver with a 1,000-yard season in his career, and that came six years ago. The Chicago passing offense, while not the primary reason the Bears missed the playoffs, finished the season ranked No. 21 in the league.

And yet when Bears general manager Jerry Angelo stepped to the podium last month, he emphasized quarterback play as his primary focus. It is a defensible priority considering Kyle Orton's second
-half slide, but what Angelo said next was a cause for at least some concern.

"I know that there is going to be a lot of talk about a No. 1 receiver," Angelo said. "Guys, it starts with the quarterback. It's all about the quarterback. You don't win because of wide receivers. You don't win because of running backs. You win because of the quarterback. We've got to get the quarterback position stabilized. We're fixated on that and I don't want us to lose sight of that. The rest of that is peripherous stuff. That's something that if you don't have anything to write about, you'll write about that. It starts with the quarterback and that's the bottom line."

(Thanks to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Sun-Times for posting the transcript of Angelo's news conference.)

It's true: The Bears don't necessarily need to acquire one of the top receivers expected to be available this offseason, whether it is Cincinnati's T.J. Houshmandzadeh (free agent) or Arizona's Anquan Boldin (likely trade). But there is a happy medium between a Boldin-type receiver and the group the Bears have now.

Someone like Pittsburgh's Nate Washington (40 receptions for 631 yards in 2008) could help and wouldn't upset the Bears' cap structure. It might be worth signing Dallas' Sam Hurd, a restricted free agent who is recovering from ankle surgery, to an offer sheet.

Otherwise, the Bears are limiting the ceiling for Orton's improvement if they rely on the same formula as 2008. A soft-handed tailback and two good tight ends are not enough options for an offense that strives for balance. And from this vantage point, the Bears don't have enough potential for internal improvement to stand pat.

If Hester starts 2009 the way he finished 2008, he could push toward 1,000 yards. But Davis? He has proved to be, at best, a No. 3 receiver. Booker? He hasn't played a full season since 2002. Lloyd? His contract expires this month and the Bears hardly seemed enamored with him last season. Earl Bennett? His next NFL catch will be his first.

There are plenty of ways to win games in the NFL, and a big-time receiver isn't part of a mandatory formula. Competence and consistency are required, however, and for the Bears that would be an upgrade.