By Brad Biggs
11:50 PM EST, February 8, 2013
General manager Phil Emery was on the job for less than two months when he accomplished something Jerry Angelo failed to do in more than a decade — acquire a legitimate No. 1 wide receiver.
The addition of Brandon Marshall in a trade with the Dolphins, who essentially gave away the Pro Bowl performer, outfitted the Bears a game-changing receiver, something quarterback Jay Cutler had been without for three seasons.
It was a calculated gamble. The Dolphins didn’t peddle Marshall for a pair of third-round picks because they didn’t believe in his talent. They didn’t believe he was worth the trouble, given his history, for an incoming coaching staff. But Marshall, in his first season with the Bears, was a model citizen and a dynamic performer in rewriting some team receiving records.
Marshall joined Irving Fryar, Tony Martin, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens as the only receivers in NFL history to have 1,000-yard seasons with three franchises. His 118 receptions and 1,508 yards both set club marks. Marshall tied a Bears record with seven 100-yard games. He tied for second in the NFL in receptions and trailed only the Lions’ Calvin Johnson and the Texans’ Andre Johnson in yardage. Marshall became the first Bears wide receiver to reach the Pro Bowl since Marty Booker in 2002. Marshall is now tied with Jerry Rice, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne and Johnson with four 100-catch seasons. Only the Patriots’ Wes Welker, with five, has more.
Former wide receiver coach Darryl Drake might not have had much luck developing wide receivers, but he proved adept at handling Marshall in the meeting room, on the practice field and during games. That is why one former Bears assistant said new coach Marc Trestman’s pending hire of a wide receivers coach is significant.
Marshall is coming off arthroscopic hip surgery last month and will be recovering for several weeks. It’s not the first time he has had hip issues, and he played through minor injuries in 2012. But he was available every week moving the chains as the only consistent threat in a one-dimensional passing attack.
Roll call: Joe Anderson (signed through 2013), Earl Bennett (signed through 2015), Devin Hester (signed through 2013), Alshon Jeffery (signed through 2015), Johnny Knox (free agent unless Bears tender one-year offer for value of 2012 contract), Brandon Marshall (signed through 2014), Eric Weems (signed through 2014).
Season review: Marshall’s seven 100-yard games were significant because the Bears were devoid of a consistent threat during coach Lovie Smith’s previous eight seasons. Consider that from 2004 to 2011, Bears receivers had only 18 such games.
So, when Marshall broke out in the season-opening victory over the Colts with nine receptions for 119 yards and a touchdown it was a sign of big things to come. He made three touchdown receptions in the Nov. 4 victory at Tennessee. In the Dec. 2 loss to the Seahawks, he had 10 catches for 165 yards against big-talking cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner. The following week at Minnesota he made 10 more grabs for 160 yards and a touchdown.
Marshall made such a difference because he has freakish athletic ability at nearly 6 foot 5 and 230 pounds.
He can handle press coverage at the line of scrimmage. In fact, he invites it because so few cornerbacks will have success challenging him physically and it gives him an opportunity to spring open early in his route.
He proved adept at making plays downfield, too. Drops plagued Marshall at times as they have previously in his career, but he was the only target Cutler turned to on a regular basis.
But something odd happened with Cutler and Marshall connecting at a high rate. The rest of the passing game went by the wayside as Marshall was a one-man gang, accounting for 1,508 of the team’s 3,298 passing yards. That’s 45.7 percent.
Earl Bennett, signed to a $16.2 million, five-year extension at the end of the 2011 season, battled injuries throughout the year. When he was on the field, he had difficulty establishing that rapport with Cutler that had been played up so much in the past. In 12 games, Bennett made just 29 receptions for 375 yards with two touchdowns. He caught five balls for 109 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown, in the season finale at Detroit.
Rookie second-round draft pick Alshon Jeffery showed flashes but missed six games with injuries. When he looked ready to assume a spot in the starting lineup, he suffered a broken hand at Jacksonville. He made 24 catches for 367 yards and three scores. Paired with Marshall, the Bears have two big, physical wide receivers.
Devin Hester’s clear divide with Cutler was an issue. His playing time dipped and he caught only 23 passes for 242 yards with one touchdown. The Bears needed Hester to be a speedy vertical threat with Johnny Knox sidelined for the season (perhaps for his career) and that didn’t happen. Dane Sanzenbacher wasn’t a good fit before he was waived Dec. 24 because Cutler isn’t a timing passer. While the Bears talked about Eric Weems being an addition to the passing game, he didn’t fit in either.
In 2012, the Bears ranked 28th in passing yards and 23rd in passer rating with Marshall propping up the position. In 2011, when the Bears clearly lacked a No. 1 wide receiver, they were 24th in yardage and 24th in passer rating. In 2010, they ranked 24th in yardage and 20th in passer rating.
A No. 1 wide receiver didn’t make Cutler and the passing offense better. It gave Cutler a target he could throw to almost exclusively but that didn’t make the Bears more dangerous or productive.
Free agency/draft priority: It will be difficult for Emery to add much here. Trestman’s system should be a fix, or at least that is what the Bears are selling. But the offense does need a vertical threat, and could get one with a mid-round draft pick. That would give Marshall, Jeffery and a yet-to-be-acquired tight end more space to operate. It would give Cutler a deep target.
Perhaps Knox can make a comeback. The Bears can tender him at the contract he had in 2012 — $1.26 million — and control him for the 2013 season. But he was nowhere near being able to return to the football field when the season ended. Re-signing Knox could allow the Bears to evaluate him in training camp but if the club counts on him returning, that could prove to be a disappointment.
Change in coaching staff means: It should mean big things for the passing game. Trestman has been a part of dynamic passing attacks in the past where multiple wide receivers put up big numbers. The Bears need to de-emphasize Marshall to a degree and get others more involved. Bennett should benefit from a fresh start and he needs to have a complete breakout season, the one everyone has been awaiting. Jeffery should make strides too. This could become a position of strength quickly if Trestman can work the magic with Cutler the club is banking on.
Bottom line: Marshall put on a show nearly every week but it didn’t do anything to solve deep-running problems on offense. More work is needed.
Fifth in a 10-part series. Coming Monday: Cornerbacks