‘Where receivers go to die’: 15 years later, does the quote about Chicago still ring true?

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Weeks ahead of the 2023 season, Chicago Bears receiver Darnell Mooney decided to rewatch one of the toughest moments of his career. It was Oct. 5, 2022, when the Bears hosted the Washington Commanders, and both offenses struggled. But with 30 seconds remaining and the Commanders leading 12-7, the Bears had a chance at a game-winning touchdown with a fourth-and-goal on the Washington 4.

Bears quarterback Justin Fields faked a toss and lofted a pass to Mooney, who jumped and nearly caught the ball while he was above the goal line for the touchdown, but he bobbled it and didn’t secure the ball until he was driven out of the end zone by inches.

Washington ball — and game. Mooney said he was being “accountable” by watching every detail of that play as a new season neared, one with the promise of putting the bad memories of a three-win disaster in the rearview mirror. But with the Bears now at 0-4 after losing their 14th straight on Sunday, and more receiver drama unfolding with Chase Claypool, the echoes of a defining quote reverberated through Halas Hall.

It’s the 15th anniversary of ex-Bears receiver Muhsin Muhammad telling Sports Illustrated that Chicago “is where receivers go to die.”

Second-year general manager Ryan Poles tried to change that narrative. He orchestrated a blockbuster trade in March, sending the No. 1 overall pick to the Carolina Panthers for a package that included DJ Moore, a true No. 1 receiver who’s 26 and is being looked at to expedite the development of 24-year-old quarterback Justin Fields.

But as the Bears prepare for Thursday’s rematch with the Commanders (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video), they rank 24th in passing yards (186.3 per game) after ranking last in 2022 (130.5). Moore is doing his part, ranking 14th at 75.3 receiving yards per game, but Mooney has eight catches total and Claypool’s future in Chicago is in doubt.

Several Bears receivers said they’re aware of Muhammad’s quote, and they believe the current unit could help change that perception. But history doesn’t support their optimism. The Bears have had one first-team All-Pro receiver in the past 15 years in Brandon Marshall, and they’ve been unable to attract elite free agents because of a lack of quarterback consistency (18 starting QBs in the past 15 years) and a lack of success, with their last playoff win coming in 2011. One player agent said free agents take a hard look at who will be passing them the ball before signing.

“When you’re talking about [wide receiver], it had been a huge issue for us because of the lack of stability at the most important position on the field,” said Josh Lucas, the Bears’ director of player personnel from 2015 to ’22. “We always knew as long as we didn’t have an attractive quarterback that wide receivers wanted to come play with, we would be up against the eight ball.”

The Bears acquired Claypool in a trade deadline move on Nov. 1, 2022, and he didn’t come cheap. Chicago sent its second-round pick, which proved to be No. 32 overall — essentially a first-rounder — because Miami’s first-rounder was stripped by a sanction.

Claypool caught 18 passes for 191 yards and one score over 10 games for Chicago. His lackluster effort, especially when it came to blocking, was addressed by coach Matt Eberflus after a Week 2 loss. And Claypool’s frustration was evident Friday when he said he didn’t think he was being put in the best position to showcase his skill set. Two days later, he was a healthy scratch, although Eberflus said what Claypool said didn’t have anything to do with him being inactive. He’s also being asked not to attend team activities this week.

“We’ll see where it goes from there,” Eberflus said Monday. “Ryan handles all those things, all those trades and transactions, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Conversely, Moore has been what the Bears needed. He had eight receptions for 131 yards and a touchdown Sunday to boost his season numbers to 19 catches, 301 yards and 2 TDs. He now has two games topping 100 receiving yards, becoming the first Bears receiver to do so in the first four weeks since Allen Robinson in 2020.

Marshall said the connection between Fields and Moore reminds him of what he had with Jay Cutler.

“They have the chemistry already,” Marshall said. “You saw them in training camp.”

If there was a silver lining Sunday for Chicago, it’s that the offense showed some progress, especially Fields, who had his first 300-yard-passing game (335) and his first game with four passing touchdowns. The Bears entered Week 4 ranked 29th in yards per game at 250 and 26th in scoring at 15.7, and they gained 471 yards and scored 28. But that improvement did come against a Broncos team that yielded 70 points the previous week to the Miami Dolphins, and it did come in a 31-28 loss.

“When you’re 0-4, no one’s done the job well enough,” Eberflus said. “That’s just facts.

“It’s a results business, and we have to do a better job collectively as a group.”

Without Claypool, there will be pressure on Mooney to regain his 2021 form, when he caught 81 passes for 1,055 yards and four TDs. But optimism about a Fields-Mooney connection faded last season when he caught 40 passes for 493 yards and two scores.

That’s one of the reasons Mooney wanted to revisit the play vs. Washington: to learn from his mistakes. He was optimistic the addition of Moore would allow this group to rehabilitate the image of the Bears’ receiving corps, but that was before the Claypool saga.

“I don’t believe … where it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, this team is cursed,”’ Marshall said in reference to Muhammad’s quote. “I just believe that you go out there and do your job.”

Claypool’s absence also means receivers such as rookie Tyler Scott will have to contribute sooner than expected.

“I definitely heard [Muhammad’s quote],” Scott said. “I don’t put too much stock into it. That’s how he felt, and that’s his opinion.

“At the end of the day, each generation comes and everybody has a new opportunity. That’s how I see it. Why can’t you change that stigma or culture that Chicago may have, or that he felt that they had?”

Marshall and Alshon Jeffery were the Bears’ most recent Pro Bowl receivers in 2013. In the nine seasons since, Chicago receivers have ranked 28th in targets, 31st in receiving yards and 30th in first-down receptions, and they are tied for 28th in receiving touchdowns.

Since the start of modern NFL free agency in 1993, the Bears’ biggest free agent acquisition at wide receiver was Robinson in 2018. Like Moore, Marshall had come via trade, and the Bears drafted Jeffery.

Lucas said the timing was perfect to sign Robinson. Mitch Trubisky, whom the Bears traded up to take at No. 2 overall, was entering his second season and Matt Nagy was taking over as head coach. Nagy had spent the previous 10 seasons under Andy Reid in Philadelphia and Kansas City.

Robinson thrived with 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns in 2019 and 1,250 yards and six TDs the following year. But Trubisky left as a free agent for the Buffalo Bills in 2021, and Robinson grew unhappy over his contract situation and left as a free agent for the Los Angeles Rams last season.

The Bears are hoping Fields can develop into the type of quarterback who can attract free agents, but there’s another scenario in which Fields’ future may lie elsewhere. It’s possible the Bears could land the No. 1 overall pick for the second year in a row. Chicago not only has its No. 1 pick, but also Carolina’s. The Bears and Panthers are the only 0-4 teams in the NFL.

If that happens, the Bears would be in position to draft the overwhelming choice for the top pick in USC quarterback Caleb Williams, which would put Fields on the trading block.

And while Williams might help attract free agents, it would mean another spin on the QB revolving door. Muhammad’s frustration with the Bears was linked to the quarterback carousel he dealt with over three seasons (2005-07), having played with Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, Brian Griese and Jeff Blake. That played a role in Muhammad’s output taking a step back from the first nine years of his career in Carolina, where he earned first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl honors.

“We’d have to take a hard look at who’s playing quarterback for them before signing with Chicago,” one agent told ESPN. “Few receivers can truly produce no matter [who’s throwing them the ball], and even then there’s no guarantee that will continue if the quarterback situation isn’t good.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I got them to a place where their career could fall off a cliff.”

ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini contributed to this report.

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