Arkush: Earl Bennett back from the edge
It seems like yesterday Earl Bennett appeared to be staring into the abyss, on the edge of becoming an ex-Bear and perhaps wondering if he even had a future in the NFL.
After his 17-yard touchdown catch that was the stake in the heart of the Pittsburgh Steelers, sealing the Bears' 40-23 victory, Bennett again is the toast of Halas Hall. But when things looked darkest, did he ever think he'd get another opportunity with the Bears?
"For me, I just believe that I can do all things through Christ and just knew that if I got another opportunity I'd have to take advantage of it because you never know when you're going to get it again," he said Monday. "For me, last night, with the opportunity in the back of the end zone, I knew I had to take advantage of it and try and help my team out."
As a rookie, Bennett was strictly a special teamer playing in 10 games. In 2009, he played all 16 games and was second to Devin Hester among receivers with 54 catches for 717 yards, 13.3-yard average and two TDs. In 2010, he was second to Johnny Knox with 46 catches for 561 yards 12.2 average and three TDs. 2011 and 2012 were injury-plagued seasons in which Bennett played 11 and 12 games, respectively, and totaled 53 catches for 656 yards and 3 TDs.
In spite of the injuries, Bennett signed a five-year, $18.6 milion contract extension in December 2011, with $9 million guaranteed. But two months later, general manager Jerry Angelo was fired and Bennett had a new boss in Phil Emery. Twelve months after that, Lovie Smith and Mike Tice were replaced by coach Marc Trestman.
Bennett said initially he was excited about the arrival of Trestman.
"I had a chance to speak with him a couple days after he got hired," Bennett said, "and just sat down and chatted with him for a while and talked X's and O's and saw what kind of formations were going to be running and I was excited."
But from there things digressed quickly. It became clear during the offseason Alshon Jeffery would be the other starter across from Brandon Marshall, and during the offseason programs the coaching staff fell in love with first-year receiver Joe Anderson and seventh-round draft choice Marquess Wilson.
Then, just two weeks into training camp, Bennett suffered a concussion and missed the rest of the preseason.
First there was speculation he could be a salary cap casualty because of the big deal he'd gotten 20 months earlier, and then rumors circulated that Emery was offering Bennett around the league as trade bait.
While Emery denied the report, no one knew how safe Bennett could be, and he couldn't even come to practice because the sunlight was too debilitating as a result of the concussion.
His lowest point had to be when the story broke that he'd agreed to take a 50 percent paycut on his 2013 base salary of $2.3 milion with no guarantees of recouping the money. Obviously, he was told, "Take a cut to help us with the cap or we may have to cut you."
But right after the final preseason game Bennett began to bounce back from the injury, and come Week 1 he was back in the lineup as the No. 3 receiver.
"I just talked to my agent, and we did what we thought was best for me," Bennett said of the paycut. "I love playing here, and I look forward to playing here many more years. It's not hard to accept at all. The biggest thing for me is to be selfless, to be here for whatever the team needs me to do."
Bennett is an extremely impressive young man, and however close he may have been to being an ex-Bear just weeks ago, after Sunday fans can be grateful he's still a Bear today.
• Hub Arkush covers the Bears for Shaw Media and HubArkush.com. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.