- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Everything is ranked. Everyone has their place. Everyone has an opinion, sometimes supported by fact, but an opinion nonetheless.
Such is the state of sports debate today.
Or for that matter, Marshall and Cutler against the rest of the quarterback-receiver tandems in the pass-first NFL?
It's a fun question to bounce around (like we did with a Hot Button) and one that Marshall desperately tried to avoid when it was brought up Thursday at Halas Hall.
"Man, I try so hard not to give sound bites," he said to peals of laughter from a group of people desperate for sound bites after he followed Cutler at the podium. "Save me right now, I'm about to give them a sound bite."
Marshall went on to give a long non-sound bite about how Cutler and himself jump-started his trade by reminiscing over their on-field relationship, compared to others during last year's playoffs, via Twitter; how "it's special playing with Jay" again; and how he thinks about what they would have accomplished if they had never parted when Cutler came first to Chicago in 2009.
But Marshall did not answer the question.
"Jay and I right now, it's our first year back together," Marshall said. "But I'm going to leave it at that."
We all got the picture. This duo wants to be the best. They believe they can be the best -- neither is short on confidence -- but now they just have to prove it. That's the hard part, and it's where the narrative has to fight with the reality.
The narrative says yes. But as of now, the reality is the Bears have the 20th-ranked offense (346.2 yards per game) and the 23rd-best passing offense (222.6). The team just dumped a failed first-round lineman in Chris Williams this week, and its current tackles, J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, are unproven at best, dangerous to Cutler's health at worst. Matt Forte isn't being used to bounce outside, where his speed is deadly. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice is in his first year in this job and there is surely a learning curve.
In his first season as a Bear, Marshall has 35 catches for 496 yards, both ninth in the league, and three touchdowns. He's had some drops, a career trend he acknowledges and laments, but he's been very good. With another new offensive coordinator, Cutler is off to an uneven start. He is ranked near the bottom of the league in many quarterback categories. He has a 57.7 completion percentage to go with a 1-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (7-7), but he's had some promising games.
It's no newsflash that Marshall is the receiver Cutler has been waiting for since coming to Chicago, and only now can we really judge the franchise quarterback on his performance. And that's all I'm judging Cutler on.
After being asked his umpteenth question about Cutler's personality, Marshall said Thursday, "I'm tired of talking about Jay, honestly."
Most of us are too. Well, at least about his personality. We know Cutler cares about football, isn't unhappy, but kind of fits into that JerkJock archetype we remember from high school. But every week, it comes up. Cutler was terse Thursday with repeated questions about "Monday Night Football" cameras and media scrutiny. It was vintage stuff, but given that this is an early Super Bowl contender, meaningless.
"I can't wait to see when it's all said and done, the legacy he leaves behind," Marshall said. "How the stories are going to be written. I'm definitely excited where we're at today, and we have a long way to go, but I'm excited and when it's all said and done, that's when I'm going to pick up papers and watch the news, the sports stations, and see how they're talking about Jay Cutler and the Bears."
This season could be the start of the Cutler legacy becoming a thing. The Bears' defense is having an era-defining season, but the offense is still searching for a consistent identity. At 4-1, with the bye week come and gone, the next 3½ months will decide the future of this franchise and yes, Cutler. And all things remaining equal, it's on the offense.
Will Forte be the dynamic running back who leads by example? Can Cutler handle the pressure of performing at an elite level all season? Can Marshall be that steady 100-yard-a-game receiver?
Marshall said the Bears' defense takes away some pressure to be the best, even if he knows it's within the offense's reach.
"We would love to be the No. 1 offense in the league," Marshall said. "We would love to throw for 4-5,000 yards. We would love to have Matt [Forte] run for 200 yards, control the ball, be 70 percent on third down. But we don't have to be that way when we have an amazing defense like that."
But no one thinks the Bears are going to keep this kind of run going. How good is this defense playing? It has given up just seven touchdowns and scored five touchdowns. I think this defense is better than the Super Bowl one (Brian Urlacher, among others, agrees) but wait until the Bears start playing good offenses, like say, Monday night against Detroit. Things will even out and that's when the offense needs to be dominant.
Which brings me back to my original point. I wouldn't rank Marshall and Cutler up there with Johnson and Stafford (receivers are more valuable than the quarterbacks), just yet. Stafford is a more consistent passer and Johnson drops fewer balls and is a scary deep threat. Cutler's arm ranks up there with anyone's and Marshall's physicality, and desire to go across the middle, is awe-inspiring.
Last year, Stafford threw for 41 touchdowns and Johnson caught 16. This year, Johnson has only one, the product of defenses taking away some looks in the red zone, Stafford said Thursday, but the Lions' offense is ranked second in the NFL despite a shaky run game. Johnson will get his touchdowns in bunches.
Marshall isn't immune to our national desire to rank everything. He said he keeps track of the exploits of his secret top 10 receiver list on his iPad. The Bengals' A.J. Green and the Cardinals' Larry Fitzgerald are on there with Johnson. Marshall strives to emulate their strengths, like Fitzgerald's aggressiveness for the ball and Green's routes. As for Johnson, "A lot of us guys are trying to keep up with the pace that he's set," Marshall said.
While Marshall one minute might say he's only trying to be the best receiver for the Bears, stats be damned, the next he will willfully admit he likes the spotlight on him against Johnson. He wants to see Megatron versus the Beast on a marquee as it will be Monday. He wants to win that battle.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't," Marshall said. "So I'm watching some of the little 'Monday Night Football' commercials, and they have he and I matched up. I look at it as an honor. I definitely love some attention. But when you have that spotlight on you, you have to show up and perform. It definitely makes it harder."
The spotlight will be there Monday night. Will Cutler and Marshall steal it?
2hJohn Keim and Adam Caplan