It's a common refrain among Bears fans, media, and the usual Cutler critics that Jay targets Brandon Marshall too much. This seems a pretty fair assessment when you consider that Marshall represented over 40% of the Bears targets last year, and 46% of their total passing yardage last year. Add in the fact that Jay targeted Marshall on all 5 of his passes in the second preseason game last week, and the fear remains that Phil Emery's big offseason addition of Martellus Bennett, or the continued development of Alshon Jeffery, is all for naught: Jay will continue to look Brandon's way on every play.
Is this true? Well, the overall numbers from 2012 certainly support this hypothesis, as I said above. I think the truth, however, isn't quite as bad as many people think.
For one, when Brandon Marshall and Jay Cutler were together in Denver from 2007-2008, Jay attempted over 1083 passes, and completed 681 of them. Unfortunately, targeting data is unavailable from those years, but we do know that Marshall came down with 206 of those passes. That means Marshall accounted for roughly 30% of Jay's completions, a fairly standard number for a number one receiver, and well below the 41% of Bears completions that Marshall accounted for last year.
I can feel Iggins! eyes rolling as I've brought up the 2007-2008 Broncos again, but they're not really the crux of my argument. That was merely to establish that 30% of targets or total completions for a #1 receiver is a fairly healthy #. Consider that Tom Brady's top target last year, Wes Welker, got 27.5% of Brady's targets and 29% of Brady's completions in a much-more diverse offense than whatever the hell it was Mike Tice thought he was doing last year.
There are two things to consider when arguing that Jay targeted Brandon too much last year: injuries and incompetence, the former in terms of Earl Bennet and Alshon Jeffery, and the latter notably in the form of two individuals named Kellen Davis and Devin Hester. In the first two games last year when Jay had his entire depth chart to throw to (Marshall, Jeffery, Bennett, Hester, Forte, and Davis), Marshall accounted for 32% of Jay's targets and 34% of his completions. Slightly higher than their old numbers in Denver, but still reasonable.
In week three, Matt Forte was out with an injury, the first of the year for the offense, but Jay still distributed the ball fairly evenly, targeting Marshall on 11 of his 31 passes while targeting Jeffery on 7, Bennett, Hester, and Davis on 9 total, and Bush on 4.
Week four, however, is where the trouble started. Earl Bennett missed the game with an injury, and Jay targeted Hester and Davis with a combined eight passes, while targeting Marshall with eight as well. Marshall caught seven of his eight targets, while Hester and Davis caught 6/8. Balance was good, everyone was happy.
Over the next eight games, however, either Bennett or Jeffery (and sometimes both) were out of the lineup. In that time, with Hester and Davis now serving as two of Jay's top four targets, Marshall's target % shot all the way up 47.5%. The reason? Well my theory is that it had something to do with Davis catching a very mediocre 8 of 19 targets (42% catch rate, and I know you're thinking "holy shit, was it ever that high?") while Hester, who, to his credit, caught 13 of 20 balls, racked up just a mediocre 11 yards a catch in that span and had several absolutely brutal drops. Compared with the absolutely masterful performance of Marshall in that time period (he caught an absurd 63% of those targets while averaging 12.4 YPC, in case you needed me to remind you that Brandon Marshall is fucking awesome), it makes sense that Jay said "to hell with balance." By the end of the season, the ineptitude of Hester and Davis led Jay to simply ignore them, as the two of them combined for just two targets in the last three games.
It's worth noting that Forte's % of Jay's targets remained pretty consistent throughout the season at about 12% (which is too damn low, but I think we all know Tice is to blame for that more than Jay), and that in the five games where Jay had all three of his top three wideouts, he targeted the Jeffery and Bennett duo (39%) just as often as he did Marshall (39%).
So does Jay target Marshall too much? It's hard to say that when it works so damn well. It's pretty clear that for the Bears to have a healthy passing game in 2013, however, he is going to have to spread the ball around. I don't think it's fundamentally against Jay's nature to do so. He did it quite well in Denver, and he was always pretty even-handed with all of his shitty receivers in the years before Marshall came to Chicago, so I think he's capable of it. I just think crucifying him based on last year seems a bit harsh, since he clearly started with good intentions and the stats show that he was more than willing to throw to people who weren't Kellen Davis and Devin Hester.
The key for balance in 2013, then, is not some fundamental change in Jay's approach, as some have suggested, so much as it is important that his other receivers stay healthy, his tight end maybe try catching more than one out of every three passes thrown his way, and Marc Trestman hopefully understanding that Matt Forte can do some beautiful things downfield if you let him try.