Every offense wants its No. 1 wide receiver playing and doing what No. 1’s do. Brandon Marshall sat out the first preseason game, as he has a number of practices to rest a suspect hip, but he’ll play Thursday night against the San Diego Chargers.
It is up to Jay Cutler, in the big picture, whether this in fact is a good thing or a bad one.
For all of the attention that will rightly be paid to the rookie right side of the Bears offensive line, the river of the 2013 season still flows through Cutler:
- whether he gets rid of the ball more on time (he can help the kids to his right if he does);
- whether he uses the “weapons” he’s been given (Martellus Bennett, who saw none of Cutler’s eight passes last Friday, Alshon Jeffery in year two, and 6-foot-2-inch No. 3 receiver Devin Aromashodu, working at that spot with Earl Bennett still at risk with his concussion and a receiver Cutler liked when Aromashodu was here before;
- and whether he distributes the football as Marc Trestman, Aaron Kromer and Matt Cavanaugh are demanding designing in their plans. That Cutler is being greater latitude in audibles and play selection is a positive only as long as Cutler uses it in multiple directions, not just in Marshall’s.
Preseason is a form of extended practice, so whether Cutler uses everyone or falls back on his security blanket in Marshall won’t be truly apparent until the real season starts. But practices can provide indicators, good and bad.
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The first signs of trouble came last year in preseason game No. 3 when Cutler threw 10 of his 21 passes in the direction of Marshall. Only five were complete.
The “problem” with Marshall is that he can be quarterback-addictive. His first two Cutler “targets” as a Bear last preseason were completions of 41 and 20 yards. Against the Giants, of those 10 passes, one was for a 21-yard touchdown. An actual problem was that it was the only TD for the No. 1 offense as it played into the third quarter.
CSNChicago.com last year assessed that if Marshall caught 100 passes, the Bears would not make the playoffs. It was not a flippant prediction.
The reasons behind the analysis seemed obvious, and still are: Marshall caught 100 passes in three previous seasons and none of those seasons produced event playoffs, including 2007-08 with Cutler in Denver.
But look beyond just “playoffs,” which is just an objective, not a goal: A bigger point is that in the entire history of the NFL, only three teams have won a Super Bowl with a 100-catch receiver. Three. And there were common threads running through those three: a Hall of Fame quarterback, and overall offenses and defenses that both ranked top-six in the NFL.
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Troy Brown, 101 rec. 2001 New England Patriots Quarterback: Tom Brady (Drew Bledsoe injured i week two); offense sixth in points scored, defense sixth in points allowed.
Michael Irvin, 111 rec. 1995 Dallas Cowboys Quarterback: Troy Aikman; offense third in scoring, defense third in points allowed.
Jerry Rice, 112 rec. 1994 San Francisco 49ers Quarterback: Steve Young; offense first in scoring, defense sixth in points allowed.
Saying the right things
The 2012 Bears were top-three in points allowed on defense and even provided 10 touchdowns on defense and special teams.
They didn’t miss the playoffs directly because of too much Cutler-to-Marshall. And Cutler can be excused for not seeking out Kellen Davis or Devin Hester more.
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But Thursday’s game against the Chargers will be a pop-quiz, a chance to start establishing that less Cutler-to-Marshall is more. And for Marshall to accept a smaller share of the football, because the Bears have playmakers (Jeffery, Bennett, Matt Forte) to be more than just supporting actors to Marshall.
“They understand why we run certain plays and they’re not going to get the ball at certain times but they’ve got to help out their buddy to get him open,” Cutler said. “I think we’ve done a really good job of spreading it around and making sure that Marty [Bennett] gets balls, ‘B’ [Marshall] gets the ball, Alshon, Matt Forte, and I think we’ve tried to give certain guys days off so we can spread it around and keep everyone happy.”
That all runs through Cutler.
During their time at Olivet Nazarene University for training camp, Bears coaches get around by riding bicycles to and from dorms, dining and elsewhere. At the end of camp, every coach signs his bike, poses for photos with the local kids who have won the bikes through a charity lottery, and the bikes are donated.