Brandon Marshall trade is short-term step backward for long-term leap forward

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Brandon Marshall was one of the best wide receivers in the game during his time with the Bears. He racked up 279 receptions for 3,524 yards and 31 touchdowns in three seasons with the team, some of the best statistics of any receiver in the league in that time. Those numbers arguably would have been much higher if not for battling an ankle injury all of last season and playing for a team that couldn’t get out of its own way on the field.

Watching these great numbers go out the door is just one of the reasons why many Bears fans are experiencing mixed emotions after Marshall was traded to the New York Jets this week.

For years, the Bears were mired in a funk of “midget” receivers, underachievers and hopeful Canadian League superstars. Not only could the Bears not identify the solution to their quarterback problems — like a lot of teams in the NFL — but the well was dry at the receiver position, too.

The desire to find that long-awaited, elusive “No. 1” receiver, for which so many Bears fans were clamoring on sports talk shows, was finally fulfilled when former general manager Phil Emery gave up two third-round picks for Marshall in 2012.

The trade was met with cautious optimism as Marshall came to town with baggage. He had a history of domestic abuse, assault and battery chargers, and a host of other off-field arrests and transgressions. Marshall was showing signs of personal growth in identifying his borderline personality disorder and growing in his faith. That, plus the fact that the Bears needed a top-flight receiver and that Marshall and Jay Cutler had previously teamed up in Denver and were very successful, led the Bears to give him a chance.

In terms of on-field production, the Marshall deal was a steal. He was worth his weight — and 6-foot-4 frame — in gold, and then some. He caught deep passes down the field by using his separation skills and field vision shared by friend and quarterback Cutler. He used his large frame and jumping ability to shield defenders in the red zone. And his toughness and catch radius enabled him to secure the difficult receptions in traffic over the middle of the field.

But when the chips were down and the Bears were faced with a myriad of problems, Marshall’s competitive fire and volatile personality caused him to get into verbal battles with teammates and led to locker room confrontations.

Internally, the Bears organization, led by new general manager Ryan Pace, felt it prudent to go in a different direction. Pace spoke of fielding a team of high-character, football-focused players, and the combination of Marshall’s high salary, locker room problems, and decision to fly to New York every week to film a TV show, just didn’t jive with the new outlook of the team.

Pace and the Bears face a host of decisions this offseason as the free agency period begins. Perhaps the most difficult decision has already been made. Deciding whether Marshall’s play on the field justified his salary and personality was a tough choice, but Pace showed the gumption to pull the trigger on a deal with the Jets, one that landed them a paltry fifth-round pick.

That’s where a lot of Bears fans are having trouble swallowing the bitter pill of Pace’s decision. Marshall, soon to be 31 years old, is still relatively young and has a few good years left in him. So, trading his on-field production for a fifth-round pick seems insultingly low.

But this is where Bears fans need to have patience. With every roster cut the Bears make — which could include Cutler at some point — the Bears could fall further out of contention. They could look like they are gutting the roster of some of its better players without getting much more than cap room in exchange. This is fine. This is the Bears taking one step back in order to take two steps forward in the next couple years.

As I outlined in my five-year plan back in January when Pace was hired, Year 1 of the project involves cutting the fat on the roster and “cleansing” the salary cap to make it more palatable for prospects who are younger and give the franchise better bang for their buck.

It’s difficult to get rid of a player who fills a need that the Bears have had for so long. In that sense, it’s hard to see Marshall go. But on the other hand, the Bears have far more needs than just a No. 1 receiver, and the sacrifice of Marshall might end up working out for the best, after all.

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