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Brandon Marshall and the Crumbling, Bumbling Chicago Bears

We look at the stats to try to explain why the Bears have struggled so mightily and find one player who has regressed massively from his previous years in Chicago.

Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Spor

Brandon Marshall has always been a crazy guy, but he's also generally been one of the league's best wide receivers. Last year he was Pro Football Focus's best wideout by far with a +33.0 overall grade. In 2012, his first year with the Bears, he was 8th. Marshall doesn't look quite as good by Football Outsider standards (in 2013 he ranked 10th in DYAR and 22nd in DVOA), but that's still very good.

Crazy is okay if the crazy is producing, but this season Marshall has been anything but productive. He is, perhaps, the single biggest disaster on the Bears, and one of the main reasons for their early struggles. Down here in Chicago (note: I live in Chicago), everyone who writes anything has cranked out something on their terrible clubhouse chemistry which seems to stem from Marshall's rambling, incoherent, victim-blaming press conference held in the wake of the Ray Rice incident.

I don't care much for team chemistry analysis as it's often an ex post facto explanation of a team's struggles more than a cause, but it's the talk of the town. Leading up to the Packer/Bear game, it will be something every Bear is asked about by every reporter multiple times. It's kind of fun. But I'm not here to tell you about why Brandon Marshall might be bad. I'm here to tell you just how bad he's been.

One of the differences between Football Outsiders and PFF in how they treat Marshall is that PFF included his blocking. Marshall has excelled as a blocker for as long as he's been in the league. In fact, Marshall's blocking is so good that his current blocking grade in 2014 (+6.8) is actually higher than his overall grade (+4.4). This is a good example of how PFF numbers can be misleading if you don't look closely. Marshall is 12th overall among WRs with that 4.4 score, but if you rank only pass-catching, he falls to 68th, just behind Paul Richardson of the Seahawks. Marshall is 62nd in FO's DVOA, just behind Carolina's Jason Avant. As a receiver, he has been a total failure.

Marshall started the season hot in his first two games, catching 65% of balls thrown his way for 13 receptions, 119 yards, and 4 TDs. After the Bears' week 2 victory over the 49ers Marshall fell apart, catching only 45.6% of passes thrown his way since then for 21 catches, 265 yards (44 yards per game), and only 1 TD.

While Martellus Bennett's high catch rate stems from running shorter routes, Alshon Jeffrey is catching 11% more balls despite running deep routes on 39% of his chances as opposed to just 26% for Marshall. This also shows up in their yards per receptions, as Jeffery is averaging 14.8 while Marshall is only averaging 11.3, barely more than Bennett's 11.0.

Having watched every Bear game this year I can tell you that Marshall's drops are often conspicuous. Cutler has hit him in the hands plenty of times only to see the ball fall to the ground (or worse). And while Marshall's role in the Bear offense has shrunk, he still leads the WRs in targets despite his struggles.

Marshall has thus far posted his lowest catch percentage as a Bear by a good amount, his lowest yards per catch as a Bear, and his lowest yards per target. He has, in short, caught fewer targets for fewer yards. I'd be tempted to blame this on simple flakiness by Marshall, except that his blocking, a high-effort activity if ever there was one, is still there. It's possible this decline isn't just a product of chemistry, and possible that he is simply not the player he once was.

It's tempting to blame Jay Cutler for...well, basically everything, but...

Jay Cutler's stats, projected for 16 games:

2013: 365 completions, 63.1%, 4275 yards, 31 TDs, 20 INT
2014: 394 completions, 67.2%, 4186 yards, 34 TDs, 16 INT

Cutler really hasn't been much different than last year. In fact, I would argue that Cutler is having a better season than last year. His completion percentage, I suspect, reflects more balls going to Forte (as does the slightly fewer total yards and possibly the slight downtick in interceptions), but really, this is just Jay Cutler being his old Jay Cutler self.

Note: I predicted here in the preseason that the Bears QB play as a whole would take a step back this year even if Jay Cutler actually improved slightly, and that seems to be exactly what is happening so far. Of course, not all interceptions are the quarterback's fault - the receivers deserve some blame. As for Marshall, he was the targeted receiver on three of Cutler's eight interceptions this year (Bennett also was targeted on three picks as well).

The Bear defense is still bad, but much better than last year (up from "worst by far" to around 23rd by FO and 21st by PFF). Forte has played well. Cutler has basically been Cutler. Marshall is the blight on this team. If he doesn't start playing like his old self, this team will continue to struggle mightily.

Finally, the Bears are a great matchup for the Packers. The Packers are built to play from ahead, and to put pressure on their opponents to keep up with them. You can beat the Packers if, like the Saints, you can rely on Drew Brees to put up points, and then grind out the game with a Mark Ingram type against the atrocious Packer run defense. But with the Bears, they're always going to live dangerously when attempting to keep up with someone. Jay Cutler throws a pick every thirty attempts whereas Aaron Rodgers averages a pick every fifty-eight attempts. The more of a shootout a game becomes, the more likely Cutler implodes. In theory the Bears should be able to make use of Forte, but the most likely outcome on Sunday given the current status of the Bears is a turnover-filled disaster for Chicago and a fun victory for the Packers.