In Brandon Marshall, Bears’ offense has elite receiver it lacked
BY SEAN JENSEN firstname.lastname@example.org September 6, 2012 10:52PM
Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall is glad to be reunited with quarterback Jay Cutler, his former teammate with the Broncos. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
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To find out the 10 NFL receivers Sean Jensen says are worthy of lofty No. 1 status.
Updated: October 9, 2012 2:46PM
Look at him.
The 6-4 frame, the massive mitts.
Watch the highlights.
The end-zone snatches over helpless — and sometimes hapless — cornerbacks and safeties. The explosive run-after-catch sprints down the field.
Now don’t stare; Brandon Marshall isn’t a diva-type receiver. Sure, he has had turbulent times on the football field and in his private life, but since coming to the Bears via trade, Marshall’s sole goal was fitting in, not standing out, which is why he dramatically reduced the number of interviews he granted toward the end of training camp.
But behold, Bears fans, what a No. 1 receiver looks like.
“There’s no doubt about it,” receivers coach Darryl Drake said, “he’s a true No. 1. And he epitomizes a true No. 1.”
Marty Booker was the Bears’ last Pro Bowl receiver in 2002. But before Marshall’s arrival, the only credible No. 1 candidate in Bears history was Harlon Hill, a former MVP who starred in the mid-’50s.
Even Hill, however, is a stretch.
Marshall’s career and season numbers would dominate the Bears’ record books: His 494 catches would edge Walter Payton by two; his 104 catches in 2008 would top Booker’s total in 2001 by four; and his 6,247 receiving yards would crush Johnny Morris’ 5,059. The only notable records Marshall wouldn’t own are most yards in a season (1,400 by Marcus Robinson in 1999) and 50 career touchdown receptions by Ken Kavanaugh (Marshall has 34).
And he’s only 28.
Marshall said he’s not familiar with Bears receivers of the past, but he’s optimistic about his future.
“I know it’s a great opportunity for me to make a mark here,” he said. “But if I do what I’m capable of — and take advantage of my opportunities — all that stuff will fall into place.”
When he was a kid, Marshall didn’t look up to Jerry Rice.
He closely watched running backs because that’s what he mostly played, and his favorite NFL player was Barry Sanders.
“You can see it in my game now, what I do when I have the ball in my hands,” Marshall said. “I grew up playing running back.”
Not surprisingly, Marshall is one of the top receivers at generating YAC, or yards after catch. But he’s more Christian Okoye than Sanders.
Four-time All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha of the Philadelphia Eagles once noted that Marshall was the toughest receiver to bring down one-on-one.
Renowned for forcing fumbles, Charles Tillman is one of the best tackling defensive backs in the NFL, but even he acknowledged the battles with Marshall throughout training camp.
“It’s hard on the body,’’ Tillman said. ‘‘He wins some, I win some. I try to win more than I lose, but he’s really good.”
Six-time Pro Bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald of the Arizona Cardinals watches a lot of film of other players at his position, and he has come to admire Marshall for his “competitive spirit.”
“He’s a fierce, fierce competitor,” Fitzgerald said. “I love how he takes on the challenges week in and week out.”
Slipping down the ranks
But Marshall isn’t so sure he’s considered among the elite receivers anymore.
“That’s very humbling, but at the same time it’s pretty cool because I have an amazing opportunity with the guys I’m surrounded by,” Marshall said. “I kind of like being under the radar. I’m excited to be back with my quarterback [Jay Cutler] and a guy on the offensive staff [Jeremy Bates] who knows what I’m capable of, so there are no excuses this year.”
Like Fitzgerald, Marshall closely monitors the performance of other top receivers in the NFL.
“Shoot, I got everyone on my iPad, and I watch a little bit of everyone,” Marshall said. “There are the obvious: Andre Johnson, Calvin Johnson, Fitzgerald. But, man, there are so many guys out there.”
This season, Marshall said he’s focused on catching more passes in the red zone.
“Having more patience and being more productive,” he said. “Also, taking advantage of my opportunities, whether it’s a bad pass or a deflected pass or a dropped ball. That’s where I’m looking to improve.”
Not much stock is put in the Pro Bowl, but Fitzgerald marveled at how Marshall dominated the last game and earned the MVP award. In the AFC’s 59-41 victory, Marshall caught six passes for 176 yards and four touchdowns.
“I was there; I saw it,” Fitzgerald said. “He definitely has it, and he’s getting back with Jay Cutler, so it’s going to be even more potent.
“He’s a phenomenal, phenomenal talent.”
Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey, an 11-time Pro Bowl selection, acknowledges Marshall’s physical tools, but he adds that he isn’t on the same level as Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson.
“I’m not going to put Brandon in that category yet,’’ Bailey said. ‘‘He’s got a great quarterback, and that’s what he lacked in Miami. He can put himself there this year because there’s no reason he can’t.
“As far as talent, he’s up there with them. But production-wise, not yet.”
Marshall, Fitzgerald and Roddy White are the only receivers to top 1,000 receiving yards in each of the last five seasons. Marshall doesn’t usually pen specific goals, but he did for this season.
“I have them written down somewhere where the world can see it, but no one knows,” he coyly said. “So when it happens, I’m going to say, ‘Go look at that number.’ ’’