Chicago Bear tight end Kellen Davis catches a pass over Minnesota Viking E.J. Henderson for a first down. The Bears won 39 to 10 in game at Soldier Field. | Thomas Delany Jr.~ Sun-Times Media
NEW ORLEANS — When he took over as coach of the University of San Diego, former Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh called one of his mentors to share in the good news.
But Bo Schembechler didn’t immediately offer any congratulations.
“He said, ‘Tell me you’re going to have a tight end that puts his hand in that ground on every snap,’ ” Harbaugh recalled his coach at Michigan saying to him.
Schembechler also insisted that he emphasize the fullback, and Harbaugh confirmed he would be covered at both positions.
“ ‘Good, congratulations on getting the job,’ ” Harbaugh recalled Schembechler telling him.
The 49ers reached the Super Bowl in large part because of a tight end, arguably the most athletic one in the league. Vernon Davis torched the Atlanta Falcons with five catches for 106 yards, including one touchdown. Falcons coach Mike Smith lamented his defense’s inability to hold Davis in check.
“The tight end was an issue,’’ Smith said. ‘‘They made a number of explosive plays with the tight end. When you have a game plan in place and you put resources to one area, one of our main goals was to stop the quarterback from running the football. We did not cover the tight end as well as we needed to.”
The NFL’s final four playoff teams featured at least one dynamic pass-catching tight end, and each was acquired in different ways. Davis was the sixth pick in the 2006 draft. Tony Gonzalez, a future Hall of Famer, was acquired by the Falcons in free agency. In the 2010 draft, the New England Patriots drafted Rob Gronkowski in the second round and Aaron Hernandez in the fourth round, and the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens selected Dennis Pitta one spot after Hernandez.
The Bears scored a playmaker at the position when they selected Greg Olsen with the 31st pick in the 2007 draft. But offensive coordinator Mike Martz didn’t value the position, so the Bears shipped Olsen to the Carolina Panthers before the 2011 season and counted on Kellen Davis to fill the void.
The results have been disastrous.
In the last two seasons, Davis had 37 catches for 235 yards with seven touchdowns. This season, Davis, Matt Spaeth, Evan Rodriguez and Kyle Adams combined for 33 catches for 318 yards and three touchdowns.
Gonzalez had 93 catches for 930 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012.
Bears general manager Phil Emery noted in his postseason news conference that Davis had a rough year but pointed to a few plays he made for the Bears. New coach Marc Trestman hasn’t shied away from highlighting the position, most notably last season when — due to circumstances — he often was forced to play three tight ends.
“He adapted, and he moved the ball and won games,” Emery said of Trestman’s adjustment.
Trestman acknowledged during his news conference that the tight end has “become more of a featured player in the last few years in the NFL.”
And the Bears certainly will be emphasizing the position, whether it’s through the draft or free agency.