And now, after striking gold twice (albeit at steep prices), the Chicago Bears are upping the ante a notch in their pursuit of that elusive second Super Bowl ring, with a roster aging in some spots and just hitting its prime in others.
Brandon Marshall arrived in Chicago in March, with the Bears sending two third-round picks to the Miami Dolphins and inheriting the three years and $28.1 million remaining on his contract. The allure is obvious. Start with the 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame, continue with the Bears' need at receiver, and don't forget the built-in advantage of Marshall's Denver-born relationship with Cutler. The risk is just as clear. His next off-field misstep could lead to a lengthy suspension, and his reputation as a teammate hasn't been great.
So what exactly pushed the Bears to roll the dice? It's not necessarily that the Cutler trade and the Peppers signing worked. More so, it's why those moves worked that helped push Chicago forward.
"Perception and reality isn't always exactly what you think it is," ninth-year Bears coach Lovie Smith told me as his team ate lunch last week. "We've done our research on all the guys we've brought in. And nobody's past is ever perfect. But I do believe in giving a guy a second chance. I don't know many perfect people that haven't made some mistakes, or had it where some things just haven't worked out for them. Divorce, sometimes, is a good thing. I hate to say it, but it is.
"For us, we give them a fresh start here, we have an excellent locker room, we have an excellent group of teammates. So if you want a second chance, you want to win football games and you want to do it the right way, this is a perfect place for you."
Marshall, indeed, thinks Chicago is the perfect place for him. He likes the platform; the nation's third-largest metropolis provides him with the opportunity to promote awareness of borderline personality disorder, to which he attributes many of his past issues. He likes the team's setup, and the offense, which has traces of what he played in as a member of the Denver Broncos, with ex-Mike Shanahan assistant Jeremy Bates running the Bears' passing game.
But most of all, he likes the way Smith runs the show. Maybe 10th-year Bear Charles Tillman explains it best: "We police ourselves. Coach Smith's very open about how he treats us as men. And he'll be the first to tell he runs his club like that -- 'I treat them like men.' He gives us that respect, and we respect him that much more because of it, so you really try not to disappoint him or do anything to embarrass him, yourself, your family or the organization."
Really, Marshall sees it as that simple.
"I've been in situations in the past where we were treated like kids, like a high school football team, and guys would rebel," Marshall said. "Guys police themselves here. So when it comes to curfew, things like that, you don't see guys sneaking out their rooms during camp. Everyone understands their position, everyone understands that, 'Hey, he's treating us like men and we need to be professionals.' I appreciate that part of it -- it makes you wanna work that much harder."
Of course, Marshall wasn't some run-of-the-mill acquisition. He brought his immense ability. He brought considerable baggage, as well. So Smith made it easy. As he does with all new Bears, he laid out the expectations. Yes, some of the ground rules may read like they were written specifically for Marshall. But everyone plays under them. And the fact that the receiver wasn't treated like a problem child was appreciated.
"I've never had a coach come up to me and tell me what he was thinking, and be honest about that on and off the field," Marshall said. "Off the field, they expect me to communicate, and be a pro and a leader in the community. On the field, it was shocking when he walked to me and told me, 'Hey, you're one of the pieces to get us to the Super Bowl.' That says a lot. That says what they think of you, how they think of you, how he thinks of you. For him to come up to me, it made it real simple for me."
Now, this doesn't mean that the Bears are going into this with their hands over their eyes.
Marshall may have a fresh start in Chicago, but one reason he was jettisoned by the Dolphins was to give new coach Joe Philbin a fresh start in Miami, indicative of the headaches that the big-play receiver has caused in the past. His new team is aware, of course, and like Smith said, the Bears did their homework.
The difference in Chicago, at least on the surface, is twofold. First, Marshall says he's not changed, but transformed, grown up, confronting his problems head-on -- "Being a professional and a true leader off the field, those are the things I was behind on" -- and no longer letting those issues build up to the point where he used to feel like "a ticking time bomb." Second, he's now in a place where he won't be lorded over, a place where personal responsibility is king.
"Coach Lovie expects you to be accountable for what you do and to do your job as any man would," said eighth-year Bear Roberto Garza. "He treats you like a man, and you go out there knowing you're accountable for your actions."
The way Marshall sees it, that the dynamic converges with his own maturation. He says the recent suicides of Junior Seau and O.J. Murdock, as well as ex-Broncos teammate Kenny McKinley, hit him hard and pushed him harder to continue to address his demons directly. As he explains, "I've never been suicidal, but I can definitely understand how those guys could feel so overwhelmed with all the stress and pressure."
And that process for Marshall plays right into how Smith laid things out for him prior to the trade.
"Be a man, do what's right. It's kind of as simple as that," Smith said. "There's nothing magical. Everyone knows what's right. If you make mistakes, you're gonna be punished for it. But we expect everyone here to be a man. When you're a teammate, everybody has to do their job or we're all going to fail. Guys take on that responsibility."
Marshall, on what now could well be his last chance, plans to do just that, appreciative of where he's landed, given the circuitous route he's taken in getting here.
"I'm not just here to play football -- that's why you'll see some of these guys, the transition from football to retirement or football being taken away from them is so hard, because all their lives, they think their purpose is football," Marshall said. "That being said, I love playing football and I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It's amazing, sometimes I have to pinch myself to see if I'm dreaming.
"I tweeted out a couple days ago, 'Am I really a Bear?' after a practice. I really can't explain it. I come to work happy. It's fun. And it's not always easy. It still isn't easy. It's not easy all the time giving Jay what he wants or the offensive coordinator what he wants, it's a lot of pressure. At the same time, we're all in it together and it feels so good to be in an atmosphere like this."
Given his past, it's hard to think of this marriage between the Bears and Marshall as any sort of sure thing. Even if the early signs are encouraging -- to the point where Smith calls him "just a great player, in every way," and raves about the off-field strides Marshall is taking -- it's important to remember he was traded twice in 23 months.
But if the fortunes of Cutler and Peppers are any indication, Marshall now, finally, has his best chance at a better ending. And the most important part might be that he certainly knows it.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer