By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — When Zach Miller got back to the visiting locker room at Qualcomm Stadium earlier this season, having just become a hero on Monday Night Football, his phone was full of text messages.
Support from family, friends and more flooded into Miller’s phone, including one from a familiar number. Former Bears general manager Phil Emery had reached out with his congratulations.
“He was a guy that gave me a shot when not of other people were willing to do that,” Miller said of Emery.
Following an injury-riddled run in Jacksonville, Miller was without a job prior to the 2014 season — until Emery and the Bears extended him an opportunity. Once more, Miller suffered a season-ending injury, a Lizfranc injury coming in the preseason. It could’ve been the devastating blow that crushed his promising career, but general manager Ryan Pace and the Chicago’s new regime offered a chance.
A 31-year-old who played quarterback at Nebraska-Omaha, Miller wouldn’t be where he is without the belief of those around him. NFL personnel felt his skill set out of college projected as a tight end, and he’s sustained a career despite injuries because of that faith in his talent.
Now, amid his breakout season with the Bears, Miller’s about to receive his greatest opportunity yet. Martellus Bennett was placed on season-ending IR on Tuesday due to fractured ribs, meaning Miller will get his chance to prove he’s a top tight end.
“I’ve been trying to do that all year long,” Miller said. “I’m obviously going to have more opportunities now, but you can’t put all the pressure on yourself. I’m going to take it the same way I’ve approached it all year long.”
In 12 games this season, Miller has 16 catches for 228 yards and four touchdowns, though his role didn’t truly emerge until that night in San Diego. The Bears began to give Miller more chances in the passing game — trusting his ability to block, too — and he’s made the most of it.
Prior to 2015, Miller had gone three seasons without a touchdown, and he tallied just four catches in four games during that 2011 campaign. He’s currently playing through a ribs injury and working to be productive despite the pain.
Miller has developed a great rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler and has become a prominent target in the Bears’ offense.
“What we look for is a guy that can do it all,” Bears offensive coordinator Adam Gase said. “Be able to run block, pass protection and be an effective pass catcher. I think he has all three of those traits.”
Added Cutler: “He’s done a fabulous job for us.”
Throughout Miller’s rise, the Bears have seen question marks surround the future of Bennett. While he hasn’t become a problem, Bennett expressed apparent frustration with his contract situation by skipping offseason workouts, then has been open with unease as he received fewer targets in the red zone. Bennett leads the Bears with 53 receptions but took a drop in production before his season ended.
Given the circumstances, plus with the way Pace moved out the outspoken Brandon Marshall last season, it’s natural to wonder whether Bennett could be traded, too. Miller could influence the decision by showing his talents in the role of No. 1 tight end. He’s certainly come a long way to get there.
“You look at his career, his journey, he’s went through a lot of ups and downs,” Cutler said. “I couldn’t be more happy for a guy like him.”
Miller has made the most of the chances that have come his way during a tough NFL career, but none may be more important than this one.