Six days after the Bears finished the 2011 season with an 8-8 record, Jay Cutler sent a Twitter message to his friend and former teammate, Brandon Marshall.
“I can get #15 out of storage!” Cutler said.
At the time, Cutler’s offer to retrieve an unused jersey seemed like playful banter.
In a surprise move announced minutes after the NFL’s new year started, the Bears acquired Marshall from the Miami Dolphins in exchange for a pair of undisclosed draft picks that both were reported to be third-round selections.
The trade marked the first bold stroke of new Bears general manager Phil Emery’s tenure and immediately upgraded one of the weakest positions on the team’s roster.
Marshall has more career receptions (494) and receiving yards (6,247) than any player in Bears history, and he will not turn 28 years old until later this month. He has a history of success with Cutler from their days with the Denver Broncos, and his presence will require extra attention from opposing defenses that could create more big-play opportunities for players such as Matt Forte, Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett.
By acquiring Marshall, the Bears gained a muscular, big-bodied target (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) who has the "go up and get it" receiving ability that Cutler has craved for three seasons. Marshall is not a speed burner, but he's fast enough with a 40-yard dash time of 4.55 seconds, and his three 100-catch seasons prove his sure-handedness.
Speaking of sure hands, Marshall, who stands accused of punching a woman Sunday at a New York City nightclub, went ahead and grabbed that No. 15 Bears jersey.
Bears chairman George McCaskey and president Ted Phillips mentioned a common goal when they announced the firing of ex-general manager Jerry Angelo in January.
A talent gap existed between the Bears and their division rivals such as the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, McCaskey and Phillips said. The Bears needed to close that gap and compete for division titles if they wanted to win a Super Bowl.
By adding Marshall, the Bears took a big step toward accomplishing that goal.
Bears players such as Forte, Bennett and Devin Hester celebrated the news on their Twitter accounts. So did thousands of Bears fans who have not seen a 1,000-yard receiver play for their team since Marty Booker in 2002.
NFL Network analyst Kurt Warner said he understood the reaction.
“I think they have to celebrate,” Warner said. “For the longest time, we’ve been waiting to see Jay Cutler become what we think he can become with all the talent in that right arm, with his ability to be able to move, to be able to throw. …
“But they’ve never given him the pieces to be able to do that in Chicago. We’ve looked at it year in and year out and you watch these receivers and you go, ‘Who is their go-to guy?’ I love this move.”
So did Warner’s NFL Network colleague, Hall of Fame receiver Sterling Sharpe.
“They’re making a serious run at not only winning the division,” Sharpe said, “but becoming a serious player [for] the Super Bowl.”
Although the acquisition of Marshall significantly bolsters the Bears’ offense, Emery’s work to rebuild a Super Bowl contender is far from complete.
The Bears lack depth on the offensive line, where left tackle J’Marcus Webb struggled at times during his first full season as a starter and right tackle Gabe Carimi played only two games as a rookie because of a knee injury.
Part of the reason why Cutler excelled with Marshall was because the Broncos’ offensive line kept him on his feet. Cutler was sacked 38 times in 32 games from 2007-08 with the Broncos, compared with 110 sacks in 41 games with the Bears.
When Cutler was given time, he found Marshall time and time again.
Marshall caught 102 passes for 1,325 yards and seven touchdowns in 2007. The next season, he caught 104 passes for 1,265 yards and six touchdowns.
By comparison, the Bears’ top receiver in 2011 was Johnny Knox, who caught 37 passes for 727 yards and two touchdowns. Forte led the team with 52 receptions, but most of those were on screen plays in Mike Martz’s system.
Martz has been replaced by offensive coordinator Mike Tice, who once coached another elite receiver, Randy Moss, with the Minnesota Vikings. The Bears also hired Jeremy Bates as quarterbacks coach, reuniting Cutler with his old position coach.
Like Moss, Marshall has a history of off-field problems to go along with his on-field talent. He was stabbed by his wife in April and testified in 2010 that he "probably escalated the situation" by participating in a New Year's Eve 2007 argument at a nightclub with a group of men who later were charged with killing Broncos cornerback Darrent Williams that night.
It's too soon to know whether the mercurial Marshall will avoid controversy with the Bears. His familiarity with Cutler and Bates should help as he adjusts to a new city and new teammates.
A trip to the playoffs also wouldn't hurt.