It doesn't take a tortured soul to appreciate what Brandon Marshall accomplished in his first season with the Bears a year ago, but for a city forever haunted by failed draft picks (David Terrell), free agent signings (Muhsin Muhammad) and injuries ( ) who have underscored one of the most pathetic passing attacks in recent league history, the added context certainly didn't hurt.
Marshall wasn't only the best receiver on the team and one of the best receivers in the league in 2012 -- he was also almost unequivocally the best receiver in the Bears' storied and eternal team history. Such is life when the man considered the best quarterback the franchise has ever known threw his first pass in 1939. These scars are real, and you can blame them on Craig Krenzel, Chad Hutchinson, Henry Burris and the rest of the incompetent schmucks Chicago has been running out at quarterback since Jim McMahon was finally concussed into oblivion.
It was Muhammad who once said Chicago is "where receivers go to die," and he wasn't wrong. That's why Marshall's 118-reception, 1,508-yard, 11-touchdown debut as a Bear felt as confounding as it did magical. When it comes to passing the football, Chicago simply isn't allowed to have nice things. Jay Cutler couldn't change that in his first three seasons in town with little-to-no help, but the arrival of Marshall served as a glimpse into the sunny reality of what a modern day offense is supposed to look like.
It's all very Bears, then, that Brandon Marshall's wonderful first year in Chicago ended with offseason hip surgery. It happened seven months ago, but the star receiver still doesn't feel fully recovered. You don't even have to ask him about it, he will bring it up out of the blue.
On Tuesday, Marshall was asked about Cutler's comfort level in the offense and responded with complaints about his hip. That it followed a performance in the third preseason game that saw Marshall drop a pair of passes that hit him square in the hands made it even more hair-raising:
"It's one of those things where you may be rushed a little bit, and some people might think I need to be farther on than where I am," Marshall said. "So it's a little frustrating not being where I want to be right now, and maybe pushed a little bit. So we'll see."
Marshall has been an exemplary citizen since arriving in Chicago after a past littered with transgressions, so it's best not to read this as a critique on the Bears' new coaching staff. Even still, it's a bit disconcerting to hear from a player who will be tasked with producing huge numbers for the second straight season if the Bears are going to make playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Marshall was targeted on 40.2 percent of the Bears' passes last year, the highest percentage for any receiver in the league since at least 1991 by a healthy margin. To put it in perspective, Cincinnati's A.J. Green finished a distant second by drawing just over 31 percent of his team's targets.
The Bears do have more passing options than ever this season, though, or at least it appears that way before the games start for real. Alshon Jeffery has looked great coming into his second pro season and has a city salivating at the thought of a legit No. 2 target. Martellus Bennett was signed to rid the franchise of the disease known as Kellen Davis. When Marshall, Jeffery and Bennett all line up out wide, the Bears have three pass catchers 6'3 and taller, with Marshall and Bennett doubling as Herculean-like physical monsters.
Combine it with the arrival of Marc Trestman, the purported offensive genius the Bears imported from the Canadian Football League this offseason, and it's easy to see why preseason optimism is flying high, just as it ever was. It's a cold reality that an injury to Marshall could derail the whole plan before it even starts.
For the Bears, there's nothing they can do but hope for the best. Brandon Marshall was a godsend for this offense, and it would be entirely too cruel to see that gift dissipate after only one dominant season.
Rookies making strong impressions
There were reasons to be skeptical of Phil Emery's 2013 draft class, his second since taking the reins from former GM Jerry Angelo. Few expected guard Kyle Long to go down as a first-round pick, not after making only six starts at Oregon, not after leaving Florida State after battles with drugs and alcohol, not as a rookie who will turn 25 years old at the end of this season. But through the preseason -- and only the preseason -- Long has looked like a world-beater, and he isn't the only one of the Bears' rookies already drawing rave reviews.
Pro Football Focus had Long as not only the best first-round pick regardless of position, but also the best guard in the entire NFL a week back. Scouts have said he's playing like a three-year pro already. For a Bears offensive line that has been bleeding since the team's run to the Super Bowl in 2006, the addition of even an average player on the line would be a massive upgrade. If Long indeed ends up as the star in the making he appears to be, it would be a major coup for Emery after so many failed first round draft picks spent on offensive linemen in recent years.
Long has been joined on the right side by fifth round rookie Jordan Mills, who has played well enough to let the team slash the pay of incumbent turnstile J'Marcus Webb. Webb has started 44 games with the Bears since becoming a seventh-round pick in 2010 -- by the far the most starts of any seventh-rounder from that draft -- but his playing time was mostly an indictment on just how pathetic the Bears' line really was. Webb has been the target of Cutler's vile plenty of times, most notably on the sidelines of Week 2 last season in an incident that morphed into a national talking point. Now it appears his time in Chicago may be over.
Then there's Jon Bostic. Bostic was supposed to be tutored by free agent signing D.J. Williams as a rookie, but after the veteran missed a month of training camp with a slowly recovering calf injury, Bostic may have already played himself into a starting role.
He had a pick-six in his first preseason game. In his second, he did this, which put him on every highlight reel in America and also earned him a hefty fine from the league:
The Bears were consistently an above-average team for nearly a decade under Lovie Smith, but it was mostly on the strength of veteran leadership. The Bears' struggles in the draft have been evident for a while now, and the list of first-round failures stacks all the way to the ceiling. From offensive tackles Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi to the likes of Michael Haynes, Rex Grossman and Cedric Benson, the Bears haven't had a first-round pick really hit since the team drafted Tommie Harris in 2004. That was nine years ago, and Harris' stay at the top of the league's defensive tackle hierarchy was notoriously short-lived.
Where the Bears used to make their bread was in the middle rounds, but even that has been absent the last few years. It's part of what makes this year's rookie class so exciting. When you toss in the early returns of seventh-round wide receiver Marquess Wilson, it looks like the Bears could have their best rookie class since 2003.
That was the year the Bears selected both Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs, laying a defensive foundation for over a decade. It might be too early to get this excited about a group of young players in the preseason, but if nothing else, Emery has earned the benefit of the doubt with his philosophy of bucking conventional draft grades in favor of his own personal favorites. If Long and the rest of the rookies are good as they look so far, the same skepticism won't be around a year from now.