By late afternoon on Nov. 20, 2011, the Chicago Bears were among the NFL's darlings. They had just wrapped up their fifth straight victory, an 11-point win over the Chargers. With this coming one week after a 24-point blowout of the Detroit Lions, Chicago had the league's full attention.
Then, word came that Cutler had broken his thumb during the win over San Diego. Suddenly, everything changed.
"Everybody knew at the time when we were 7-3, there wasn't a hotter team in the NFL," Briggs told NFL.com this week. "Obviously, it was disappointing the rest of those games and not making the playoffs -- we were sitting in great position for the playoffs. But I think everyone knows the potential and knows how good we can be."
Briggs hasn't shied away from expectations. In a radio interview earlier this week, he stated that he believed this version of the Bears could be the best team he's been on. Considering their standing in a brutal NFC North, that's saying a lot. The Green Bay Packers are back, the Detroit Lions are fully loaded with talent and the Minnesota Vikings are ... well, we'll see. But Chicago feels like it's right in the mix.
Changes were made on the heels of last season's collapse. General manager Jerry Angelo lost his job, and his successor Phil Emery went to work.
In came receiver Brandon Marshall, a Pro Bowl talent whose freakish athletic ability is now housed in its third NFL locker room in four years. In came defensive end Shea McClellin, the 19th overall pick who may help take a load off star Julius Peppers on a sack-starved unit. In came veteran running back Michael Bush, a proven competitor who also serves as insurance in case Matt Forte holds out. Throw in a more secure backup quarterback in Jason Campbell and defensive backfield depth in the form of Jonathan Wilhite and Kelvin Hayden, and the Bears' fortunes appear to have improved.
Oh, and did we mention Cutler is healthy?
"Adding to the team that we had last year can only make it better," said Briggs, who spent the week serving as the ambassador to New Era's NFL sideline hats. "That should only make it better. We made some great pickups, we got really aggressive, grabbing Brandon Marshall, bringing in Kelvin Hayden, Wilhite, [return specialist Eric] Weems. It gives us a chance to make a championship run this year."
Marshall, it appears, is the wild card. A 6-foot-4, 230-pound freakazoid, Marshall has bounced in and out of the headlines. A locker room mystery who has recently unveiled himself by publicly speaking about borderline personality disorder, he hasn't always behaved. But he's said all the right things this time. He wants to lead.
"It took seven years to harness (my talents) and put it in a positive direction, and I'm excited about it," said Marshall, as quoted by ChicagoBears.com. "This is the first year that I actually felt pressure as far as, 'I've got to work because there are some young guys and I'm getting older.' I'm recognizing how important it is to bring those guys along."
How that plays out remains to be seen. For his part, Briggs is confident this is the perfect environment for Marshall. And it's not just because he's reuniting with Cutler, though the two did connect 206 times for 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns during two seasons together in Denver.
"We have a great locker room -- a great locker room and great leadership," Briggs said. "Brandon fits right in. Obviously we're going to go through our ups and downs as far as how this season goes. But he's a great addition to our team, our squad, and he'll be a great leader for us."
Briggs is a nine-year veteran, a sturdy playmaker who has four defensive touchdowns in his career to go along with 13 interceptions. He has shined next to stars like Brian Urlacher and behind the dynamic Peppers. He has a supreme appreciation for playing with such decorated teammates, saying he was "amazed" the first time he saw the way Peppers can move. He spoke with the same reverence for cornerback Charles Tillman, who came into the league when he did.
With all this talent around him on defense -- and with a suddenly rejuvenated, deep offense -- Briggs might be right. It could be the most talented Bears team in a decade. But as they learned last year, it's nothing to take for granted.
"I'll tell you one thing, winning in the NFL is not easy against any team," Briggs said. "But what we can do is build off of what we started in the summer, be as sharp as possible, be able to execute. As long as we're executing and we're sharp fundamentally, a lot of our athletic ability will take over. And that, I think we have plenty of."
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