BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – For a few, disquieting hours last March, Brandon Marshall felt alone and vulnerable, like a receiver going up to catch a wobbly pass in a menacing safety's zone.
Marshall, the Miami Dolphins' Pro Bowl wideout, had just received news he never thought he'd hear – that a just-completed trade to the Chicago Bears would reunite him with Jay Cutler, the strong-armed quarterback with whom he'd blossomed into stardom during their days with the Denver Broncos.
Almost immediately, Marshall sent Cutler a jubilant text message. No reply. He called and left an excited voicemail. No reply. Marshall was unnerved. He and Cutler had fantasized about a reunion since the stunning 2009 trade that sent the quarterback to Chicago. Cutler had openly lobbied for the Bears to acquire Marshall on Twitter. Now, with Chicago having sent a pair of third-round draft picks to land its first elite receiver in forever, Cutler was giving him "The Heisman"?
You don't call … you don't text …
"I was like, 'Oh, you're not excited I'm here?' " Marshall recalled Tuesday from the cafeteria at Olivet Nazerene University, the Bears' training camp home. "All kinds of things were going through my head. Finally, he called me and said, 'Hey man, I was just on a flight back [from vacation]!' I'm like, 'Are you serious?' "
Five months later, the Cutler-to-Marshall connection has been conspicuously restored. As the two oft-scrutinized veterans prepare for their first game together in four years – Thursday night's preseason opener at Soldier Field against, of all teams, the Broncos – there's a sense that the Bears' offense is on the verge of attaining a potency to compete with those of high-powered NFC North rivals Green Bay and Detroit.
"You don't come across those guys very often," Cutler says of Marshall, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound menace to defensive backs. "So to be able to play with him twice, on two different teams, is very rare. Usually, when a team gets a guy of that caliber, they hang onto him as long as possible.
"He's such a special player, and he makes my job so much easier. As a quarterback, you need those guys. You have to have a guy like that if you really want to push the ball downfield – if you really want to be an explosive offense. He just makes the thing go."
The Bears believe Marshall, who caught 81 passes for 1,214 yards and six touchdowns for the Dolphins in 2011, can help them in a variety of ways. In addition to gashing defenses on short, intermediate and deep routes, Marshall should command attention from secondaries, freeing up the team's other wideouts (Devin Hester, second-round draft pick Alshon Jeffery, Earl Bennett) and opening up running lanes for standout halfback Matt Forte.
Having a wideout as prolific as Marshall, who caught more than 100 passes in three consecutive seasons with the Broncos, should also help keep Cutler from absorbing undue punishment. The Bears have allowed 140 sacks since Cutler's arrival in 2009, more than any other team. When the quarterback suffered a broken thumb during a 31-20 victory over the San Diego Chargers last November, Chicago's season collapsed, with the 7-3 Bears losing five consecutive games to fall from playoff contention.
With Mike Tice, a veteran offensive line coach, having replaced Mike Martz as offensive coordinator, there's a sense that Cutler won't be exposed to such punishment in 2012.
The Bears also hired Jeremy Bates as quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator – Bates was Cutler's quarterbacks coach with the Broncos in 2007 and '08, doubling as Marshall's receivers coach during the first of those seasons. Mike Shanahan, the head coach/GM who drafted Cutler and Marshall and hired Bates, has moved on to the Redskins, but his former pupils are excited that the band has gotten back together in Chicago.
Getting Bates, Cutler says, was "icing on the cake. He knows me and Brandon. He knows offensively what I like, what I dislike, what I feel comfortable with. And I have a good feel for what he's going to do game plan wise, week in and week out, so it's a good match for us.
"I think [pass protection] was probably my biggest concern coming into this year – the amount of sacks we've given up, the amount of hits I've taken over the first three years – and it's something that had to be corrected. I wasn't going to be able to continue down this road and be durable and productive at the same time. So protection has to shore up. That's definitely something we're gonna concentrate on."
Tice all but guaranteed that Cutler's days as a crash-test dummy are behind him.
"We're not gonna put him in that position," Tice said. "He's not gonna have to stand back there are get his ass kicked. We've got to protect him, because at the end of the day, he ain't going anywhere, but I sure could be – let's be realistic."
Tice then made a comparison that evoked his days as the Minnesota Vikings' head coach from late 2001 to 2005: "At some point [defenses will] say, 'We're not gonna let this guy [Marshall] catch the ball.' And then we get it to another guy, and another guy. It kind of reminds me of some other place I was, where we had one guy [Randy Moss], and they said, 'We're not gonna let him get the ball,' and then we hand it to Robert Smith, or get it to some other guy. Now, what are you gonna do?"
Marshall has heard plenty of Moss stories from Tice, and he welcomes the linkage to those prolific Vikings attacks. That said, he and Cutler thought they were in the process of forming an offensive juggernaut of their own in Denver, before Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired Shanahan and replaced him with Josh McDaniels following the 2008 season.
"We're playing the Broncos [Thursday], and I'm just looking at that logo," Marshall says, shaking his head. "It was one of those situations where a lot of us could have ended our career there. It sucked at the time when it was all blowing up but I think it happened for the best, and we're in a better place now because of it."
McDaniels, a Bill Belichick disciple who was also given control of the front office, clashed with Cutler from the start. Marshall hated the decision to trade Cutler then and mocks it now.
"Maybe Josh would have done it again," Marshall says, "but maybe not. I don't know what he was thinking. I know a lot of people on the outside consider that a very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very, very bad move.
"Did I say 'very'?"
Shortly after Cutler was dealt, Marshall, who was unhappy with his contract, asked Bowlen for a trade, a request he said the owner assured him would be granted. It never happened, however, and things degenerated. Shortly before the season Marshall was suspended for a week for conduct detrimental to the team after acting out in practice by punting away a football and purposely swatting a pass to the ground.
"It's kind of obvious that I handled it the wrong way," Marshall says. "But we were coming off an offseason where the owner and I sat down and he told me he would trade me, and it was kind of an emotional conversation. He let my agent start facilitating trades. We had a few teams that were ready. And I guess McDaniels went in and said, 'Let me have some more time.' And when I got back they said they weren't going to extend me or trade me."
Shortly before that infamous practice meltdown, Marshall recalls, McDaniels reversed course and told him the team was open to signing him to an extension. When Marshall balked at the team's offer, the conflict escalated.
"He sent over some numbers, and it was honestly one of those things where, 'If you rush for four touchdowns, you can earn your number … '– you know, stuff that they control," Marshall says. "I was like, 'There's no way I can agree to that.' So when I got back we still weren't seeing eye to eye and he brought me in the office and said, 'Well now, it's conduct detrimental to the team if you don't do this, this and that.' And I said, 'Well, what happened to the contract you said we were gonna get done?'
"He said, 'Well, you didn't agree and that's it.' And I said, 'So, because I didn't agree to a contract that basically said I have to have four rushing touchdowns, now you're saying you don't want to do anything?' He said, 'Yeah, that's it. … I want to show you this paperwork on conduct detrimental to the team.' I got frustrated and went out there and … was detrimental to the team."
Four games into the season, with the Broncos in the midst of a 6-0 start, it looked like Marshall might stay in Denver: He even made a point of hugging McDaniels on the sideline following his 51-yard touchdown catch against the Dallas Cowboys, and the two men embraced again during the coach's postgame media conference.
"That was for show," Marshall now concedes. "I definitely was excited at the time, but to be honest, I was just trying to patch things up with them."
Late in the '09 season, Marshall set an NFL single-game record with 21 receptions in a 28-16 defeat to the Colts. Yet in the regular-season finale against the Chiefs at Invesco Field at Mile High, as the Broncos' postseason hopes unraveled Marshall wasn't even in the stadium.
His recollection: "What happened was that Wednesday I pulled my hamstring, so I started doing rehab on it, and that Thursday or Friday [McDaniels] had a press conference and he said, 'Brandon won't be playing because of a coaching decision.' But I'd pulled my hamstring and I wasn't gonna play anyway; he knew that and said it was a coaching decision.
"Then, when I showed up to the team hotel [Saturday night] and they had security tell me, 'Leave, and don't come to the stadium, injured players aren't allowed,' I knew it was over. Right outside of the team meeting room, I remember [Broncos chief of security] Dave Abrams stepping to me and telling me, 'Well, sorry Brandon, I hate to do this, but you're not allowed to be here, and also Josh doesn't want you guys to come to the game tomorrow either.' I said, 'Well, all year injured guys have been showing up,' and he said, 'Well, you know, he changed it.'
"At that point you kind of understood what it was and where our relationship was."
The following April the Broncos traded Marshall to the Dolphins for two second-round draft picks, and Miami gave him a four-year, $47.5 million contract extension. His numbers dipped with the Dolphins, and he had only nine touchdown catches over two seasons. His history of off-the-field trouble persisted, including a domestic violence incident in which Marshall was stabbed by his wife with a kitchen knife, undergoing emergency surgery for a wound to the stomach. Aggravated battery charges against his wife were later dropped.
There was also an incident last November in which Marshall reportedly threw a football at the face of Dolphins teammate Vontae Davis after the two argued over what Marshall believed was unprofessional conduct by the cornerback.
To Marshall's credit, he has not shied away from what he concedes is a "checkered" past. Diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011, Marshall was the keynote speaker at the National Alliance on Mental Illness Convention in Seattle earlier this summer, telling audience members that "sometimes you have to hit rock bottom before things change in your life."
Cutler, who once called out the receiver for a lack of maturity during their time in Denver, believes Marshall has changed for the better.
"Watching that first press conference he did in Chicago, I mean, I was like, 'Man, this guy … it's for the better,'" Cutler says. "I'm proud of him. I think [off-the-field issues are] something we don't have to worry about anymore.
"On the field, he's so much smarter, just being able to know his body, know what he needs to do physically, to be ready to play each and every day; to know coverages, and know what routes we're running; and how he pushes the rest of that group. He's made the receiver room accountable each and every day."
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Adds Jason Campbell, the Bears' newly signed backup quarterback: "Truth being told, it's just his work ethic. A lot of times a guy gets paid and he takes it down a level. This guy he got paid and he's taken it up a level. He catches the ball in practice, and he sprints. He loves to compete. He doesn't take a play off. He wants to be in there every chance he can."
Cutler, too, has had his share of critics, many of who have questioned his demeanor and perceived aloofness. In Marshall's eyes the quarterback is a much more mature leader than he was during their time in Denver.
"He's just an older quarterback," Marshall says. "He has a lot of wisdom, a better understanding of the game. And, you know, he's a leader, on and off the field. You'll see a lot of guys, including myself, talk to Jay about football-related things and non-football related things.
"Also, you'll see him on the field coaching up receivers, and that's something that is different. And I appreciate that, because you want to be on the same page as your quarterback, and you want to run it the way he wants it run or the way he likes it. To have him put his hands on us in that way is very unique, and it's exciting to see that growth."
What makes it even more exciting is that neither player expected it to happen.
"It was quite a surprise," Cutler says. "In the past we'd talked and said, 'Man, we've got to find a way to get back together.' But, I mean, it was talk. You never really think those things are going to happen."
Says Marshall: "We'd been reminiscing and dreaming like one day it would be nice, but the reality of that happening is like, no chance. It had honestly gotten to the point where it was like, 'Just move on.'"
Shanahan, who will try to shape No. 2 overall draft pick Robert Griffin III into an elite NFL passer for the 'Skins, also was pleasantly surprised by the Cutler/Marshall/Bates reunion. In late June in Nashville, Cutler and Marshall caught up with their former coach at the charity golf tournament held to honor the memory of the late Mike Heimerdinger, a former Titans and Broncos assistant who died of cancer last October.
"[Shanahan] said, 'I don't know how you got these two [Marshall and Bates], but hold onto 'em,' " Cutler says, smiling. "He knows what we are."
If Cutler and Marshall have their way, they'll be the rest of the league's problem, starting Thursday night.
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