Marshall plan: Dolphins place title hopes in hands of receiver

The interview's about to wrap up and Brandon Marshall beams from ear to ear and throws on the charm. Seems natural, though, not some public relations-induced polish on his tarnished image.

It's hard not to be charmed by Marshall. Great demeanor. Smooth talker. Awesome smile. And when you see him play football, well, none of that stuff even matters because he's so special.

But when is he going to act up again? That's been the million-dollar question ever since he forced a trade that jettisoned him out of Denver back in April.

The Pro Bowl wide receiver's petulant behavior last season -- punting the ball and batting down passes during a Broncos practice that was captured by local TV cameras and replayed around the country -- along with his brooding got him suspended twice and eventually traded to the Miami Dolphins. It's only a matter of time before it happens in South Florida, right?

By most accounts, Marshall has been a model citizen on and off the field since arriving in Miami, but escaping his behavioral past is something he knows he'll have to prove over time.

"I think the guy did turn the corner a little," said one NFC general manager who wished to remain anonymous, quickly adding that the trappings of South Florida aren't the most ideal for a young, wealthy athlete.

Marshall swears he's matured, even though his behavior in Denver might state otherwise. If nothing else, it did generate the desired result -- getting shipped out and paid. Handsomely. He signed a four-year extension with the Dolphins worth $47.5 million ($24 million guaranteed), making him the NFL's highest-paid wide receiver, ahead of Carolina's Steve Smith ($10.9 million per season), Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald ($10 million), Detroit's Calvin Johnson ($9.67 million) and New England's Randy Moss ($9.01 million).

The Dolphins say they don't pay much attention to Marshall's past. It's his future -- and theirs together -- that concerns them more. The honeymoon is in full effect, and while the glow is still hovering, Miami hopes its newest star is the catalyst that leads them to a place they haven't visited in a quarter century -- the Super Bowl. And Marshall is that type of player, a difference-maker that could turn the tide for a team that was a few difference-makers away in 2009 when it finished a disappointing 7-9, one season after winning the division.

A blissful Marshall appears up for the challenge.

"This is the first year since I've been in the NFL that I'm going into a season totally happy with nothing but football on my mind," said the wideout who spent his previous four seasons in Denver playing for two head coaches, Mike Shanahan and Josh McDaniels, with whom he butted heads. "It's a different type of motivation. It's a positive motivation.

"In the past, I think what drove me was playing with a chip on my shoulder. I still have that chip on my shoulder, but at the same time I want to be accountable. I want to be the guy that his team can turn to and say, 'Hey he's going to be there.' I think that's a positive thing."

Marshall, who wasn't always there for his teammates in Denver, declines to talk about his past with the Broncos, but his message is clear: He's glad to be gone, he's glad he got the contract he wanted and thought he deserved, and he's happy to be in Miami. The Broncos might feel the same way about the first part, even though they sent packing one of the NFL's more dynamic players.

"I got a lot of things behind me and I'm in a place where a team came out and got me and wanted me and embraced me," he said. "I'm excited and ready to see where things take us."

Of all the players who changed teams this offseason, including some of the NFL's bigger names -- Donovan McNabb, Anquan Boldin, LaDainian Tomlinson, Julius Peppers, Terrell Owens, Jason Campbell, Karlos Dansby -- none likley has a better chance at casting a bigger swing vote in getting his team over the top like Marshall.

Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 102 receptions, 1,237 yards and nearly eight touchdowns. Only his new divisional foe, Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker (346), has more catches over that time. Marshall also has the second-most yards after catch since 2007 with 1,515 (Welker has 2,131).

Marshall might have been a distraction and he might have been distracted, but he has been productive. Now, he says, he's even more focused, and his new teammates are expecting greater things.

"He is very dynamic," said Dansby, the free agent linebacker from Arizona who knows a thing or two about wide receivers having played with Fitzgerald and Boldin. "I told him a few years ago, 'I like the way you play. You play the game from the ground up, are really physical, and you make plays.' Like Larry, he gives you that comfort level that when the quarterback puts the ball in play, nine times out of 10 he's going to make a play.

"Defenses respect that kind of player. If they put a lot of coverage on him, that frees up everybody else."

Because of his size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), athleticism and skill level, Marshall has the ability to make a quarterback look more accurate. He can snatch balls from double-covering defensive backs, harness short passes and turn 6-yard gains into 30 yards and a cloud of trailing dust.

In Denver, he did it with Jay Cutler and Kyle Orton. Now, he's set to pair with Chad Henne, the second-year starter who is coming off a so-so season in which he completed 61 percent (274 of 451) of his passes for 2,878 yards, 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions in 14 games.

"What I've seen out here in practice," Henne said when asked about Marshall, "he's going to be one of the greatest."

As would be expected, Marshall and Henne are still working through things. The wide receiver fumbled a ball in the Dolphins' third preseason game on Friday and has dropped a few more passes than he would like, both in practice and in the games that don't yet count.

After one recent drop in practice, it happened. In front of fans and media, Marshall punted the ball in disgust. The bomb was about to blow ... and his detractors were set to pounce.

It didn't and they couldn't. As it turned out, it was just a spark.

While Marshall admits he can't afford those type of antics any longer -- particularly punting -- this particular blowup was out of personal frustration, not to show up his coach or teammates, as was the case in Denver when his defiant and videotaped channeling of punter Ray Guy kick-started his exit out of town.

"When you look at the history, as far as media-wise, you know they're quick to pick up a pen and eyes get wide; they are waiting for something to happen," Marshall said of his Dolphins punting incident. "But when you look at it, it's getting our team better. We compete here. I got a guy in front of me, (cornerback) Vontae Davis and another guy, (cornerback) Sean Smith. Those guys are pushing me every day (in practice) and vice versa. The level of competition here is high and sometimes it gets frustrating."

Nobody with the Dolphins is complaining, especially Henne, who didn't have any receiver last season with skills that came remotely close to those of Marshall. Miami's leading receiver was Davone Bess (76 receptions, 768 yards, two touchdowns). Bess is still around but Marshall has altered the pecking order -- and maybe not just in Miami.

In coming to the AFC East, Marshall joins New England's Moss and Welker, the Jets' Santonio Holmes and Braylon Edwards, and Buffalo's Lee Evans. If he does what he's done in the past, he'll likely move to the top of that list, too -- especially if he's able to elevate Henne's game like he did for Cutler and Orton in Denver.

When asked how teams should game-plan him, Marshall answered the second part first: "Well, tackle. I think that's the biggest thing they need to put into their game plan that week. Swarm the ball. I'm a totally different receiver than the (other) guys (in the AFC East). Those are great receivers, they've accomplished a lot in this league, but the way I approach the game on Sundays is totally different."

The way he's approached the game is what has been the most pleasant surprise to Dolphins coach Tony Sparano.

"This guy prepares like a pro, goes hard in practice all the time," said Sparano, who typically is restrained with his praise of players. "You guys (media) see the couple that he drops. I see the ones he catches, and I see what he does away from the ball."

While Marshall is a pre-eminent receiving threat, the Dolphins are a physical, run-first football team. Philosophically, that won't change. With Marshall drawing safeties out of the box to protect from big plays in the passing game, production in the running game could be enhanced. Production for Marshall could dip. He's says he's cool with that.

"It's going to be tough for guys to match up against us," he says.

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