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Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Barber content as silent partner

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- This could be one of the most exciting and productive seasons for Chicago Bears running backs in years.

It could also be one of the glummest.

And yes, glummest is a word. It's good for a 13 in Scrabble.

Marion Barber
Marion Barber's physical running style figures to be the perfect complement to Matt Forte.

Watching Marion Barber, his knees high, his dreadlocks higher, streak through the -- OK, second-string -- Bills' defense Saturday, breaking tackles and knocking people down, was to imagine a one-two Bears punch this season that could make it one of the top running games in the league.

And while we're imagining, Barber looks to be ideal in goal-line situations, just the kind of strong, punishing runner and perfect change-of-pace back to complement Matt Forte, who appears poised to have a career year.

With an offensive line that should be fairly solid at run-blocking, there still is no guarantee offensive coordinator Mike Martz will recognize what he has in his backfield and pick up with the balanced offense he left off with last season.

Nevertheless, Martz didn't back off totally from the idea.

"The run will always be a very, very important factor in our ability to win," he said. "So that mix we had, I would expect to be very similar to [last season]."

Heck, if the line can provide Jay Cutler with enough protection to at least have the passing game serve as a viable threat while keeping him upright more times than not, there is no reason not to be hopeful. Maybe even optimistic.

So why does it also promise to be glum? (Surprise, it has nothing to do with Cutler.)

More and more, there is the ominous feeling that Forte's contract extension is not going to be the done deal he once expected. If it was, it would be done by now. In defense of the Bears, they still have the upper hand here and cannot be expected to come in with an offer commensurate to market value because Forte is not yet on the open market.

Though they may well have misled him, expect general manager Jerry Angelo to string things out at least until midseason, when he can see the kind of season Forte is having. But once it goes that long and if Forte is having the kind of year he should have, he may well be motivated to just wait until the end of the season and enter free agency.

Barber On that field, he comes alive. Once he's on that field, it's no holds barred. He's just going to be him. But when he's not, he's keeping to himself, contemplating a lot. But on that field, that's the Barbarian, that's how he got his name.

-- Sam Hurd on Marion Barber

All of this may not necessarily make for a contentious situation, but it doesn't make for a happy featured running back, either. But at least if Forte shuts down off the field, we have Barber!

Possibly the worst quote since Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton, who stopped giving interviews entirely the second half of his career, Barber has told people he hasn't liked being interviewed since high school. Then as a freshman in college at Minnesota, an upperclassman on the team apparently told all the youngsters they should avoid the media at all costs and that's all Barber needed to hear.

In Dallas, where his bruising running style translated directly to the bruising on his body, which couldn't sustain the pounding over the course of a season, Barber was more confrontational than "No comment."

It could not have helped when team owner Jerry Jones publicly questioned Barber's toughness a few years after signing him to a seven-year, $45 million contract including a $16 million guarantee. "His toughness was his whole core identity," one Cowboys observer said of Barber. "And Jerry doesn't criticize players like that. No one got to the bottom of that."

Soon, Barber was not just abstaining from interviews but disrupting others, once inexplicably shouting to interrupt a nearby interview with Patrick Crayton during the Cowboys' OTAs last preseason and then punctuating the scene by spraying deodorant at the reporters speaking to Crayton.

Once, when his very media-friendly brother Dominique, a Houston Texans safety, was asked about his brother's aversion to publicity, he said Marion had just always been that way.

After his first interview as a Bear on Monday, Barber told team personnel, "That's cool for this year," as he extricated himself from the 1 minute, 15 second ordeal. But if Monday's "interview" was typical -- "I'm just here to play football" a highlight -- those requests probably won't be a big problem in the future.

Marion Barber
Marion Barber, who made a Pro Bowl with the Cowboys, had his toughness questioned by team owner Jerry Jones.

What is weird is how animated and well, fun, he is on the field, punctuating long runs (11, 12 and 11 yards on his first five carries Saturday) by jawing with opponents, rallying the crowd and generally slapping himself silly.

"On that field, he comes alive," said Dallas and now Chicago teammate Sam Hurd. "Once he's on that field, it's no holds barred. He's just going to be him. But when he's not, he's keeping to himself, contemplating a lot. But on that field, that's the Barbarian, that's how he got his name. He's at home, he's having fun.

"On the field, everybody has a different type of personality. Everybody turns into a different type of beast and the beast he turns into is the Barbarian and obviously it's self-explanatory."

I may have to see a little more for it to be self-explanatory, but I'll go with the play on his name. And obviously, Bears fans won't care if Barber spends his spare time in a sand cave on Oak St. Beach as long as he runs as hard as he did against Buffalo in a preseason game.

It's just too bad that he doesn't appear anxious to embrace a fan base that is sure to embrace him and his playing style. Heck, this is a city where a guy who barely played last year and then was released, Desmond Clark, had his own radio gig thanks to a great personality. Now that Dez is back, he could probably get his own TV talk show.

"It's a blessing for him," Hurd said of Barber's move to Chicago. "Everyone needs a new start some time and here's his chance."

Hopefully for the Bears, Barber, a one-time Pro Bowler, will embrace a supporting role.

Hopefully for the Chicago media, he'll switch to a roll-on.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.