Charles Tillman approached reporters with the same level of enthusiasm that Jake and Elwood Blues once mustered for their meeting with Sister Mary Stigmata (who lamented, you may recall, their "filthy mouths and bad attitudes"). "All right," said the Bears' cornerback, striding toward a bank of TV cameras outside of Halas Hall last Thursday, "let's knock this thing out. Five minutes."
Word had come down from the league office that Peanut, as teammates call him, had been named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month for October, a distinction made more remarkable by the fact that Chicago's other starting corner, Tim Jennings, won the award in September.
"We all make plays," said a fidgety Tillman, visibly uncomfortable with the idea of individual recognition. "It's not just me." He then ticked off a list of teammates who were having strong seasons, to make the point that he wasn't a star. "The star of our defense is our defense."
Three days later, after his brilliant performance in Chicago's 51--20 demolition of the Titans in Nashville, it would have been harder for Tillman to argue that he wasn't the team's brightest star—on offense or defense. True, there were plenty of Bears highlights to go around. After a typically feckless start, quarterback Jay Cutler found a rhythm, then found his go-to wideout, the beastly Brandon Marshall, for three touchdowns. Following a series of hot-and-cold games, running back Matt Forte erupted for 103 yards and a score. And linebacker Brian Urlacher, whose glowering mug is still the face of this franchise, returned an interception 46 yards for a TD. While he reminded no one of Willie Gault, chugging down the left sideline, Urlacher did throw a little shimmy at Matt Hasselbeck, juking the Tennessee quarterback into the turf on his way to the end zone.
Yet Peanut stole the show. Tillman is a physical corner equally at home in man or zone coverage, but mostly he's known for his insane ball hawking skills. Since coming into the league out of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2003, he has forced 36 fumbles (no other defensive back has more than 21 in that time) and picked off 32 passes (six short of the Bears' record). The subject of takeaways arose at that Thursday gaggle. Asked by a Chicago TV reporter whether he'd also been an accomplished stripper in college, Tillman deadpanned, "That's how I paid my tuition."
This guy is money. He set the tone on the game's first play on Sunday, punching a ball from the grasp of receiver Kenny Britt, who told him, "Good job," after Chicago recovered. Peanut was just warming up. He had another strip later in the quarter, yet another in the second, and a fourth in the fourth. His takeaways led to 14 points.
"I don't punch the ball out every time," Tillman pointed out after the game. (He was right—he was also credited with a team-leading nine solo tackles.) On Sunday it only seemed that way.
Tillman, 31, was one of four Bears defenders named to last January's Pro Bowl, along with Urlacher, linebacker Lance Briggs and defensive end Julius Peppers. Due to their advancing years—Urlacher is 34, Briggs and Peppers, 32—conventional wisdom held that the 2012 Monsters of the Midway would be slightly less monstrous. The decline of the defense would be offset, the thinking went, by a seriously upgraded offense. But the converse has been the case: Coach Lovie Smith's defense is playing with a ferocity not seen in a half-dozen years. (Which, in Halas Hall, is saying something.) Elderly though it may be, Chicago's D has spent the season so far carrying an offense that's been less than the sum of its parts.
I'd like to open with a moment of silence," Brandon Marshall said to start his Oct. 31 press conference. For the victims of Superstorm Sandy? "For last week's game." The line got some laughs. The Bears offense had been MIA for most of an ugly 23--22 win over the Panthers. "We're not talking about last week," Marshall went on, smiling. "Why are we living in the past?" It's understandable that the 28-year-old wouldn't want to linger on days gone by.
Phil Emery was hired as Chicago's general manager last January, replacing the fired Jerry Angelo. Two months later he traded a pair of third-round picks to the Dolphins for Marshall, a 6'4", 230-pound blur out of Central Florida with 6,247 receiving yards in six NFL season. (The Bears' leader in that category, Johnny Morris, had 5,059 yards over a decade.) The trade reunited Marshall with Cutler—both were drafted by the Broncos in 2006 and spent three seasons together—and gave the quarterback a much better chance to fulfill his potential. It also created, instantly, the best quarterback-receiver tandem in franchise history. It was a huge move—and no small risk.
Days before the trade, it later came out, Marshall had allegedly been involved in a melee at a New York City nightclub. A woman was struck in the eye; she accused Marshall of punching her. (Marshall was never charged.) In the spring of 2011, Marshall was stabbed in the abdomen by his wife, Michi, who told police she had acted in self-defense. (Charges of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon were later dropped.)
That July, three months after the stabbing, Marshall revealed that he'd been found to have borderline personality disorder, a mental illness that often leads to impulsive behavior and uncontrolled emotions. While he declined to discuss his condition with SI, Marshall talks about it at length in a video on The Noc, an athlete-focused YouTube channel.
"When I entered the NFL, the stresses and the tugging from people, from all different directions—I didn't cope with it, I didn't handle it the right way," he says. "When you hold so many resentments and angers and frustrations inside, and you're not expressing them and releasing them, you're just a ticking time bomb."
In addition to treating his condition with psychotherapy and attending couples counseling with his wife, Marshall told the Chicago Tribune in June that he and Michi had devoted their lives to Christianity in 2011 at a retreat for pro athletes.
"Brandon is saved now," says his father, Fred. Brandon had lost his way—had "got outside of who he was" on account of "all the money and fame and stuff like that," says Fred. "I can actually say my son is back. It's a beautiful thing, where Brandon is in his life right now."
The Bears, so far, have no reason to disagree. In addition to being a model citizen, Marshall has been Chicago's most consistently productive player. With 59 catches for 797 yards and seven touchdowns, he's on pace for career highs in all three categories (including his fourth 100-catch season) and his fourth Pro Bowl. "He's a different receiver," says Cutler, reunited with Marshall after three years. "He understands the game a lot better. He takes care of his body. In Denver you didn't know what you were going to get at practice or what you were going to get at games.
"Physically, we all know what he can do. But I don't think people realize how gifted he is mentally. He knows my reads. He knows where everybody lines up. His ability to adjust in the middle of routes depending on coverage is extraordinary."
On their first touchdown against the Titans, Marshall, who was lined up wide to the left, made such an adjustment. Instead of breaking inside, as the play called for him to do, he floated toward the pylon in the far left corner of the end zone. Stepping up in a collapsing pocket, Cutler threw high, to a spot where only Marshall could get the ball. His leaping, 13-yard snag gave the Bears a 28--2 lead late in the first quarter. For all practical purposes, the game was over.
The Bears are 7--1 and sit atop the NFC North. But their real season is only about to begin: It's safe to say they won't be hanging half a hundred on the Texans or the 49ers, their next two opponents. There will come a time when Cutler & Co. will be called upon to win a game. Right now it's not clear whether they can do that against the NFL's elite defenses.
Cutler's arm strength, accuracy and athleticism make him the most talented quarterback in franchise history, but his play in 2012 has been marked by inconsistency. His passer rating in the first half of games this season is 61.7, dead last in the NFL. But his rating in the fourth quarter—a sizzling 135.0—is the league's best (nearly six points clear of No. 2, Peyton Manning), prompting Marshall to suggest as a nickname the Closer. It certainly beats Mr. Sourpuss.
Can Cutler be irascible and aloof? Absolutely. Has he been known to turn his verbal fire on teammates and coaches? With regularity. Of course, you'd be cranky too if you were ragdolled and manhandled the way the gorilla treats suitcases in those old American Tourister commercials. After four years at Vanderbilt, where he was sacked a school-record 80 times, Cutler is now one of the NFL's most flattened quarterbacks, having gone down 189 times since he entered the league, second only to Ben Roethlisberger. Did you see the rib-torquing body slam that Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh subjected him to in Week 7? "I thought Suh was gonna break him in two over his knee," says Bobby Johnson, Cutler's coach at Vandy. "Watching the replay, you can see the thought cross [Suh's] mind."
Cutler was sacked six times in the first half of Chicago's next game, that close-shave win over Carolina. As the team left at halftime, Soldier Field fans showered the offense with boos. TV cameras caught Cutler responding with some salty language of his own.
Any other quarterback gets a pass on that one, but a GIF of Cutler's tantrum had gone viral before he returned to the field. Such is Cutler's reputation for surliness that he rates extra scrutiny from fans and media. Amateur lip-readers pore over slow motion footage of his utterances; self-styled body-language experts (including, but not limited to the humorists at SmokinJayCutler.tumblr.com) read deeply into his gestures and posture. Following a failed third-and-short against the Cowboys in Week 4, first-year offensive coordinator Mike Tice sat beside Cutler on the bench. The quarterback promptly stood and walked away. A dis for sure, although not as overt as Cutler's blunt message last season to Tice's predecessor, Mike Martz. Displeased with a run call on third down, Cutler yelled, "Tell [Martz] I said F--- him."
Yes, Cutler aggressively chest-bumped J'Marcus Webb, then told the left tackle to "Get your f------ head in the game" during Chicago's 23--10 loss at Green Bay in Week 2. But Webb had just surrendered a sack to Clay Matthews, one of seven by the Packers on the night. (Since arriving in Chicago, Cutler has been sacked at least five times in a game on eight occasions, the worst being a nine-sack night against the Giants from which he was removed with a concussion.)
Cutler's churlishness has prompted Terry Bradshaw to suggest that he "learn to be a little nicer." Scolded Bradshaw: "I like everybody. I'd like to like you, but right now I don't like you."
The issue isn't what Bradshaw bloviates on Fox NFL Sunday. The issue is, What do the Bears think of Cutler's act?
The short answer: They're fine with it. Because it's not an act.
"He is who he is," says Urlacher, another Bear who can get testy talking about anything but the game. "And I love it. Here's the thing: Lovie can't win with the media because they say he doesn't show enough emotion. Jay shows emotion, and gets criticized for it.
"Jay's a fiery guy. If someone does something wrong, he lets 'em know. We do the same thing on defense. Someone screws up—you let 'em know. It's nothing malicious. It's just ... you get mad. Jay's competitive as hell. If that means being a jerk sometimes, so be it."
"We love playing for him," says center Roberto Garza, sounding only a little like the victim in a codependent relationship. "He's a guy that shows a lot of passion. Obviously we have to do our job, and when we don't do that, we deserve to get yelled at."
The Bears' offense has been dragging several anchors this season. Tice is still finding his way as a play-caller, and the O-line is generously described as a work in progress. Chicago opened the Carolina game with a seven-step play-action pass, using maximum protection. That means only two receivers ran routes, with everyone else staying in to block. They gave up a sack anyway.
Later, a lineman setting up to pass-protect lost his footing. "He does a split," recalls Tice, "and his guy sacks the quarterback. Now, did he try to do a split? I hope he wasn't trying to do a split, because that could've hurt."
The lopsided score in Nashville papered over another sluggish start for the offense. The Bears opened with successive three-and-outs. Webb's illegal-use-of-hands penalty in the end zone on Chicago's third possession resulted in a safety. Cutler's second-quarter fumble in the red zone killed a drive.
"We stumbled a little bit," allowed Cutler. "We have some things to work on, but we're headed in the right direction."
"We're gonna work our trade," vowed Tice following practice on Halloween. "We're gonna get better every day, every week."
The sky was blue, but the wind off Lake Michigan had a bite. The weather is about to get nasty in Chicago, along with the schedule, but Tillman and this defense seem prepared. Someone asked Tice if he'd been saving his best plays for the end of games. "We're saving our best plays for the end of the season," he answered. "I hope."
"I'd like to open with a moment of silence—for last week's game," Marshall joked, tweaking the Bears' offense.
"Jay's competitive as hell," says Urlacher. "If that means being a jerk, so be it."
Photograph by SIMON BRUTY
MARSHALL ARTS Chicago needed offensive firepower and found it in the form of the much-maligned Marshall, who on Sunday had his fourth 100-yard performance (122 on nine catches) in eight games.
AL TIELEMANS (URLACHER)
TURNOVER, AND OVER Urlacher's pick-six (the Bears' seventh in 2012, two behind San Diego's single-season record, set in 1961) and Tillman's punch-outs (here on Britt) brought the defense's turnover total to a league-leading 28.
SIMON BRUTY (TILLMAN)
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JOE ROBBINS (CUTLER AND MARSHALL WITH DENVER)
ORANGE YOU GLAD TO SEE ME? Brothers in orange-and-blue, Cutler and Marshall have combined for 21 touchdowns—14 in Denver and, so far, seven in a half-season in Chicago.
[See caption above]