By Robert Zeglinski
Individual success in the NFL isn’t just about possessing the necessary talent and physique. A player must land in a situation where his abilities are maximized and he’s coached properly. Once that happens, circumstances of fortune in staying healthy in an inherently brutal game have to swing in your favor.
An average career life span is three years in the NFL for a reason and it’s why the continuous grinder of promising careers stays at the forefront. It’s inevitable that many a superstar talent will fall victim to this vicious cycle. The human body can only take so much punishment and injury.
Everyone once thought Bears tight end, Zach Miller, was set to spin in the same unfortunate wheel of fate.
After being drafted in the sixth round of the 2009 draft out of the unheralded Nebraska-Omaha by the Jacksonville Jaguars, there weren’t many expectations for Miller. The quarterback-convert was described as someone with innate speed, route running ability, and a natural dynamic 6-foot-5 frame. However he didn’t have the necessary size and girth to succeed at one of the more physical and versatile positions in football.
It would take time and patience with the developmental project and at first everything seemed to go quite swimmingly.
Most of Miller’s first two seasons in Jacksonville went off without a hitch as the number-two tight end to the incumbent Marcedes Lewis. Miller appeared in 29 games amassing 41 receptions as a reliable check down option for Jaguars quarterbacks. He began to flash the potential coaches and scouts originally believed the raw product could produce.
But the best-laid plans are laid to waste and sometimes completely forgotten.
A dislocated shoulder ended Miller’s 2011 season prematurely before he was really getting into a groove. With no horseshoe present for the young Miller, he later partially tore his Achilles and calf muscle while flashing in a preseason game the following season.
With that, another promising career seemed like a flash in the pan.
While Miller seemed like damaged goods and another also ran in the pile of lost potential, a dirty secret of the league, is that it’s cyclical. Players will go through gates multiple times before they’re completely run dry as everyone’s fighting for a job and looking to fill roster spots.
Tampa Bay would give him that second winding shot, but another preseason injury, this time a concussion, would pre-empt any honeymoon phase, and in this instance probably permanently end Miller’s career.
It is here where many professional athletes in their mid-20s may have taken stock of their shortcomings and terrible fortune and given in. Thus, Miller’s perseverance became a testament to breaking that trend and recognizing there was still a chance, no matter how faint.
The Bears, in a flier to add depth, given that Martellus Bennett was still with the team, signed Miller in 2013, allowing him to prove himself. It’s funny how the football gods seemingly laughed in the face of this plan. After showcasing his ability in a dynamic contest against Philadelphia in 2014, Miller suffered a Lisfranc injury the following exhibition.
Most justifiably wondered whether Miller’s body could absorb the toll of the league before this injury, and now most were eulogizing a promising talent.
A man who had worked through mental, physical, and emotional strain in a perplexing NFL career just couldn’t catch a break. To the Bears’ credit, even with his extensive injury history, they stuck with the 31-year-old. Maybe it was blind faith or maybe it was genuine belief in Miller’s abilities, it doesn’t matter.
The ramifications to move forward with the determined Miller have had nothing but positive ramifications for a franchise in much more than a transitional phase. This is a franchise looking to end a drought of contention that is now relying on a player once considered scrap heap by others.
A 2015 relative breakout season where Miller had 34 receptions, 439 yards, and 5 touchdowns, wasn’t as explosive as say someone like Rob Gronkowski, but it pointed the arrow in the right direction.
For the first time in over three seasons, Miller appeared in at least 15 games and as he transitioned to the number-one tight end role over the course of the season with Bennett losing favor, he only successively grew into the player he was envisioned to be.
Trust isn’t something easy to earn in the NFL yet everyone within the organization can appreciate how Miller has evolved into his current budding star role.
It’s why head coach John Fox and his staff gradually handed over the reins to the 32-year-old as they grew tired of Bennett’s antics. Miller proved to be a responsible team player.
It’s why Jay Cutler routinely uses Miller as a safety blanket when things are collapsing in the pocket. Take a look at any highlight tape of Cutler to Miller and you’ll see most of the quality plays between the two, being made under adverse pressure. Miller proved to be a playmaking teammate.
There’s a chemistry and close-knit relationship with everyone who supports Miller because he’s proven worthy of that respect. He’s been humbled by his past experiences and is maximizing his current opportunity in a way that those close to him innately notice and appreciate his effort.
Now, the Bears go into the 2016 season with Miller as the alpha dog of the tight end group. The big target and safety valve who controls the middle of the field the way the position inherently dictates. It is no doubt exciting and harrowing for Miller to understand his platform.
While Chicago’s ultimate success moving forward now and in the future won’t completely hedge on Miller’s transformation into a star, it will certainly still play a factor.
Some will still question his health, especially now that he’s the guy and will be expected to appear on a regular basis, but that’s the wrong focus.
By centering in on his troubled past as the sole indicator of his career worth, you’re ignoring Miller’s final destination. They say you cannot grow into greatness and learn without failure.
If you’re not sure what that means, take a look at the glowing current Miller and you’ll understand.
Robert Zeglinski is a staff writer for SB Nation and managing editor at No Coast Bias. Follow Robert on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.