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Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Season's greeting from Halas Hall

By Melissa Isaacson
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Perhaps in other cities this week, there has been a crush of media coverage and genuine fan interest for their NFL team's optional workouts.

But probably not.

Around New York Jets camp, one of the bigger stories Wednesday originated in Fort Myers, Fla., where, on a $5 bet with a friend, a graduating high school senior attempted "Tebowing" on the stage prior to getting his diploma.

But in New York, the attention is distributed among the Rangers, tied 2-2 in the NHL Eastern Conference finals, the Mets, four games above .500 in the National League East, and of course the Super Bowl champion Giants.

In Chicago, this May feels an awful lot like July, OTAs feel like training camp and the 2012 season seems almost upon us. At Halas Hall on Wednesday, reporters were charting plays, the quarterback was dissing the former offensive coordinator and radio shows have apologized to no one for turning to Bears talk.

Marshall
Brandon Marshall has finally given the Bears a threat in the passing game.

Now in many ways, this is no different than any football offseason in Chicago. But with the Bulls and Blackhawks bowing out of their respective playoffs rather prematurely, Bears newcomers have been struck by the high expectations already in place.

"I definitely feel the sense of urgency around here," said wide receiver Brandon Marshall, acquired in a trade with Miami for two third-round draft picks in mid-March. "I understand the passion, and that's the type of fans I want to be around. So hopefully, we give them something to cheer for."

"I haven't been around as long as (Marshall) has," said Michael Bush, probably the top running back available in free agency when the Bears signed him to a 4-year, $14 million contract a week and a half after they got Marshall. "But I went to the Cubs game and did the seventh-inning stretch, and people were excited and celebrating."

Coming from Oakland, where excitement is generally expressed by fans hurling things at players, Bush can be forgiven for interpreting Wrigley Field as thrilling these days. (Though it should be noted that the Cubs scored their only run that afternoon in the bottom of the seventh at Bush's urging, and went on to shut out the Braves, 1-0.)

But make no mistake, the Bears' optional workouts in shorts are bigger than the Cubs, bigger even than the BP Cup, however blasphemous that sounds.

"The (tradition) here is so great football-wise," Bush said. "I mean, coming up as a kid, you watch the Bears and coming up I used to hear [Brian] Urlacher's name, and you always want to play with those guys."

Along with the tradition, comes anticipation and more often than not, bloated optimism and this season may be no different. With all the hubbub over the new Cutler-Marshall pairing, even Marshall admitted that Cutler's Pro Bowl season of 2008, their best together, wasn't as glittery in retrospect.

"To be honest, I thought about this, and I think in 2008 we finished No. 2 in offense, and everyone said we were really successful, and even we walk around sometimes saying it," he said. "But when I look at film now, I think we were terrible, and I say that humbly. We were just young and immature out there on the field, not understanding the big picture of the offense and the game itself. To see where we're at now, where our football mind is now, it's going to be really dangerous. I'm excited to really fall into this offense with a new mind."

Marshall looked good in shorts Wednesday. Mostly, he looked tall. By Bears standards, Marshall and rookie Alshon Jeffery looked almost freakish. Also by Bears standards, there is every reason to be excited about Marshall when you consider that in his worst season over the past five -- in terms of receptions, it was last year in Miami -- he caught 81 passes.

The last time any Bears player cracked 80 was in '02, when Marty Booker caught 97. Last season, running back Matt Forte led the team in receptions with 52.

"He's a guy that I've missed," Cutler said of Marshall. "It's good having him back. He's a little bit different guy than he was in Denver, in a good way. He's a really good influence for those younger guys."

Make no mistake. If all goes as planned offensively, it will be a Cutler-Marshall-led Bears' team. And if not  with Cutler entering into his seventh NFL season and fourth with the Bears in which expectations have never been higher -- it will be their fault.

He pulled no punches Wednesday in saying he prefers the current atmosphere with new quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, his old coach in Denver, and without former Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz.

"I think Jeremy has a really good feel of what I like to do and what I don't like to do," Cutler said. "There are plays out here today that I told him, 'I don't like them. Let's think about getting rid of them.' He's fine with that. It's a give-and-take. That's a breath of fresh air around here, being able to give ideas and everyone giving ideas and let's pick the best ones that work for everybody."

Bears fans have been pining for a system that plays to Cutler's strengths since his arrival. And if you believe Marshall, the team's standards on offense have already risen.

"I think we all share the same type of mind, talking about coach Bates and Jay," he said. "We strive for greatness. Even in warmups and in route (running), we get upset when we drop balls or miss throws or call the wrong plays. We know what we expect out of each other, and we know what we expect of guys around us. So we're excited."

Even for May in Chicago.