Chicago Bears wide receiver Brandon Marshall began this season the way he finished off the 2012 campaign, a year in which he broke franchise single-season records in catches (118) and receiving yards (1,508). In the first two games this year, Marshall combined for 15 catches, 217 yards and two touchdowns.
Yet since then, he's seen a steady diet of double- and triple-teams from opposing secondaries. As a result, his production has dropped off considerably. The past three weeks combined he has just 16 catches for 161 yards and 1 TD. For some players, that might constitute a solid three-game stretch but for Marshall, one of the most dominant receivers in the league the past seven years, that isn't good enough.
And not surprisingly, amidst Marshall's limited production the past three games, the Bears have gone 1-2 and fell to second place in the NFC North.
"As a receiver, you always want the ball because you think you can help the offense or the team move the ball down the field," Marshall said after last week's loss to the Saints. "The past few weeks have been frustrating, but it's part of the game. Each year is different."
Marshall has expressed his desire for touches throughout his career and this rough stretch is no different.
"If you pay a receiver $10 million, for them to be OK with not being productive, get out of here," said Marshall today. "If I'm a coach or an owner of a team some day and I'm paying a receiver that much money and he's happy and he's not complaining or communicating with me about wanting more, he's got to go.
"It's not a greedy instinct. I broke this down a few years ago. The quarterback touches the ball every single play. He controls the game. Offensive linemen, they don't care about anything outside of their box. Running backs, they're going to touch the ball — they have like 20 opportunities. Wide receivers, it's on everybody: coaching, the offensive line, the guy on the other side, the running game. You only get a few opportunities. So guys, they want to be productive and make plays.
"I think that comes off as selfish, but there's so many other variables that go into a wide receiver being successful. I don't think any receiver ... there might be a few guys out there who really don't care. I don't think any receiver would be happy playing in the NFL and not catching balls. So yeah, I want to catch footballs. I want to score touchdowns."
But the fact remains that Marshall has had guys bracketing him, with cornerbacks underneath and safeties over the top, for three weeks. Unless Jay Cutler is looking to break records for interceptions, it's wise for him to spread the ball around to open receivers, right?
"I mean, yeah, that's obvious but there's so much more that comes into it, like schemes and different things we can do," Marshall said. "Of course it makes sense that you can't throw the ball in double coverage."
Cutler's reluctance to force the ball to Marshall, as he did all of last year, has resulted in some big games for second-year wideout Alshon Jeffery. Last week, Jeffery's 218 receiving yards broke a 58-year-old single-game franchise record. In the long term, that should pay dividends to Marshall, as opposing defenses now must pay Jeffery more attention.
"That's the reason why I wanted him down in Florida with me [this offseason]," said Marshall. "Last year when you look at some of the things teams were able to do to us. You look at the statistics, 40 percent of our passing game came to me or through me. Alshon was banged up. Earl [Bennett] was banged up with a hand a little bit. We didn't have a stable guy on the other side or at the tight end position to really help. Alshon, the only thing with him was just his body, the maturity of his body, getting him strong. Taking those hits so he could go for 218 yards and then turn around and play a game in three or four days. Alshon put in the work and he's definitely getting the reward right now."
For Marshall, the key to dealing with stretches of less-than-ideal production is to put the team first, particularly on game day.
"They're not paying me 10 million bucks just to not make a play. There's validity behind that," Marshall said. "Now it's what you do in that frustration, what do you do when you're angry. Those are the things. Do you blow up? Are you a distraction in the locker room? Are you a cancer, or do you communicate the right way? There are some things I still fail at.
"The first few weeks, Coach Trestman calls it a ‘palms up guy.' I'm coming off the sideline like ‘man what's going on? It's been three drives?' So I go to coach and say ‘man I'm sorry, I won't be a palms up guy,' and I've gotten better. I'll work on that. It's a process. I'm human. I'm still proud of the track that we're on as a team and my role on it."
For his part, Marc Trestman says Marshall has been nothing but a team-first player this season, which is a far stretch from some of his notorious past behavior.
"He's been as important to leading this team as anybody. He's been doing it all winter," Trestman said today. "As I said, he's brought players in here. I mean Alshon Jeffery, he's playing the way he's playing because he spent time offseason with Brandon learning how to treat his body, get himself in shape, how to eat properly. He helped recruit D.J [Williams]. He helped recruit Martellus [Bennett]. I've seen nothing but a guy who when he's been on the field and has worked and has been locked in to try to help this football team. That's what I've seen."
The cure for Marshall's recent woes could come this Thursday when the Bears take on the New York Giants and their porous defense.
"This is my kind of game," said Marshall. "If they're going to double me, that's fine. We'll go to our other guys. But if they're not, man, they're going to have to pay. That's where I'm at: confident. If they want to put one guy out there, [that's why] I get paid."
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his third season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter and discuss this topic on our message boards. To become a subscriber to the Bear Report Web site or magazine, click here.