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Wednesday, December 19, 2012
From wild card to ace

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- In the wake of the annual full-blown civic meltdown about the Chicago Bears, Brandon Marshall stood before the media at Halas Hall on Wednesday, even taller than his 6-foot-4 frame.

Being the best receiver the Chicago Bears have had since, well, ever, isn't enough. Marshall has taken on the role of team mouthpiece, pulse taker and notebook filler.

The wild card has become the ace.

Marshall talked, joked and extrapolated about his frustration Sunday, which led him to vaguely call for jobs and definitively call for accountability in the wake of the Bears' fifth loss in six games. He has assumed his newfound role as team leader.

As the Bears prepare for a possible sea change at Halas Hall, we were witnessing the maturation of Marshall.

When the Bears traded for Marshall, it was fair to wonder what they were getting: a franchise receiver or a time bomb? You can't escape your past, but you can change your future.

What the Bears got was the franchise receiver and an unexpected team leader. The one upside to this season has been an inside look at a man's journey from trouble to triumph. I don't profess to know what's really going on in Marshall's head and his personal life, and I have no idea what the future holds for him, but I like what I see.

How can you not? Marshall is the best addition to the Bears in years, and I'm counting Jay Cutler. After years of being cast as a diva receiver, a troubled athlete, in many ways, he's the face of the franchise.

As the Bears go into an uncertain future, this season and beyond, we can only hope that Marshall's path stays clear and his rise as team leader continues. Because in a town where the media and fans want to know everything, Marshall bares his mind, if not his soul, every time he approaches a microphone. This is a good thing.

Brandon Marshall, team leader? Yes.

"This is a new role for me as far as leadership," he said Wednesday. "I know I'm not perfect. Maybe I'm approaching it the wrong way, but there are different ways you can lead. You can lead by example. You can lead by encouragement. You can lead by speaking, creative energy. There are so many different ways. You can lead sometimes by calling guys out. That depends on the situation. I've been reading a lot of books on leadership, studying documentaries on some of the greats like Ray Lewis and Michael Jordan and their approach to the game and more importantly just leadership.

"This is my first year of really being in this role in a positive way. I've always been a guy in the locker room that guys counted on on the field making plays. But as far as bringing a group together, help bringing a group together and having a common goal and all of us work toward that, it's different. I just have to be patient and continue to learn and continue to control what I can control. And if I do that, I could sleep good at night."

Brandon Marshall
Brandon Marshall has not only been one of the most dynamic players in the NFL, but he has also ascended to role of team leader off the field.

Marshall's journey from boyhood strife in a rough section of Pittsburgh to here, the star of Chicago's storied franchise, is the stuff of movies, if not self-help books. Marshall is still guarded about many details of his life, as he should be, but his openness in talking about his issues with borderline personality disorder can only be a good thing. His positive approach to being a part of the Bears has been refreshing.

"I remember when I first got here, I told you guys that the NFL saved my life," he said. "I look at where I come from, from a boy, the environment. I look at my journey's past six years. If it wasn't for the NFL, I don't know where I'd be. And now, I'm starting to see a difference in my family and my community. People are changing. I'm getting phone calls from around the league, guys asking for counseling as far as how to attack mental illness or different situations. This is a new season for me on and off the field. You just have to stay on the journey."

Yes, it's all about the journey. For now, the next stop is Arizona. Where we once thought this win-or-bust team had a real chance for New Orleans after a 7-1 start, the Cardinals game is the next step toward an unlikely two-game fight for the franchise's future.

Coach Lovie Smith will be in a contract year, so it's thought to be extension or bust for his future. If Smith goes, it will have major repercussions throughout the roster and front office. A new defense after a near decade of LovieBall? Another new offensive coordinator?

There is no certitude that the next coach will be better than Smith, who has kept the Bears competitive nearly every season of his tenure, if not always busy in January.

Can the Bears turn this season around? The smart money is on no. Marshall knows the difficulty. He's waiting to make his playoff debut in his seventh season.

Yeah, I mean ... winning is contagious and unfortunately losing is too," Marshall said. "It's all about a mindset. I look back on teams I've been on the last six years. I've never been to the playoffs. So I understand as someone who sitting back and watching and observing, I understand what losing is and I understand what winning is. And this is a winning team. This is a winning organization."

(Pause for a "This is a winning organization?" quizzical look.)

"So that's what really frustrates me and other guys. When you look at what's been going on these past few weeks. This is a winning team. You have high-character guys. You have guys that fight. You have guys that respond to adversity the right way. You have guys that work hard. So, we're close. We're close and we have the guys. We have the guys upstairs, in the locker room to really get it done and we just need to do it."

While some guys pass the burden onto others, Marshall has taken it on. I'm sure this year he has learned why the Bears have an annual offensive crisis. He also has learned how seriously Chicagoans take their football. But what has Marshall learned about himself?

"Things I've learned about myself this year is that I am a leader," he said. "I remember [quarterback coach] Jeremy Bates, back in 2007, used to tell me, he took me to the side in one practice and he said, 'Brandon, this offense goes as you go.' Because I used to have a lot of energy and I used to practice really hard. That was my approach every single day. There was a little period there where I was kind of banged up and I couldn't go as hard as I wanted to. I didn't bring enough energy and our offense started going down. I never understood why Coach would say that when you had Rod Smith and Jay Cutler and all those other big names on offense.

"But now I do. I understand that comes with responsibility, it comes with pressure, and I know that I can carry that. Whatever I need to do to get better as an individual or to be a better teammate, that's what I need to do."

Marshall has more than done his part this season to get the Bears to the playoffs. Statistically -- 107 catches, a Bears single-season record; 1,398 yards, three shy of a team record; 10 touchdowns, four shy of a team record -- and by setting a good example.

While Brian Urlacher, the best teammate nearly every Bear has ever had, is grinching his way toward the end of his career, and Cutler is salvaging his image, Marshall is the new voice of the team.

A few months ago, I would've thought that was crazy. But it's been a winding journey this season. An NFL season is always packed with surprise twists and turns. But this has been a good one for the Bears.