Once Considered A Distraction, Wideout Has Matured -- And Raised Awareness For Condition That Plagued Him

By Jason Keidel
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This has to be a haunting but familiar refrain for Jets fans. Another somber December for a solemn franchise. For the 47th consecutive year, there will be no goods under your Christmas tree. The most comforting image you’ll watch on television is the Yule log, jamming to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, who still were stars the lone time the Jets played in the Super Bowl.

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As with all awful NFL teams, the Jets will be forced to purge the players who helped them plunge down the rungs of relevance. When you’re 4-9, few jobs are secure, from the 53rd man on the roster all the way up to the general manager. There are too many cracked limbs on this corporate tree.

And while it’s obvious the Jets won’t require — or even request — the services of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who fooled us all in 2015 before reverting to the form that made him a career NFL gypsy, there are young players worth keeping, and perhaps a few vets worth saving.

Among the latter is perhaps the last person you’d expect to call a calming influence, a leader or a pillar of a professional football team.

Brandon Marshall.

Few NFL players have had the kaleidoscopic career that Marshall has. From impetuous to irrepressible to irresistible. No one ever doubted Marshall’s talent. Yet he was almost as transient as Fitzpatrick. Someone that good shouldn’t play for four teams in 10 years. But for all his ability, Marshall’s maturity kept him from the sport’s aristocracy.

When on his game, he was unstoppable. But he was equally uncontrollable outside the huddle, hence he hopscotched the map from Denver to Miami to Chicago, until reaching his current home, with the Jets. On a team that has no tangible leadership, Marshall has been a fine ambassador. Which is not something anyone expected to say some years ago.

For the first half of his career, Marshall was a cliche, a baller from central casting, whipping teams on Sunday and suspended on Monday. It seemed he was spiraling from football with a drunken-driving charge and an arrest for domestic violence.

And it reminds you of his original handle — “Blackjack.”

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And “Blackjack” could split into several metaphors. Not only a symbol of the day he caught 21 passes, but also the notion that any team that signed him was gambling, doubling down, if you will, on a headcase.

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But Marshall turned the football orthodoxy on its head, embracing the one trait NFL players aren’t allowed — weakness. Which, in Marshall’s case, was an illness. And it existed in that netherworld that scares humans and NFL commissioners alike — the brain. In the testosterone-drenched world of pro football, Marshall sought help. The diagnosis was bipolar disorder. No need to parse the particulars. What matters is Marshall, a hulking man in general and a behemoth for a wide receiver in particular, decided to get more info, not more macho.

In a sport that loves its street and military metaphors, you’re bound to lie about concussions out of fear of losing your place on the field. So imagine the stigma tethered to mental illness. Marshall’s decision to not only address his problem but also reveal it was quite counterintuitive. Football players are taught to hide problems. If you can’t wrap a bandage around it or jam a needle into it, then just lie about it.

But Marshall has a rare quality among the myopic, macho template of the modern player — foresight. The all-world wideout actually realized, long before his talent dried out, that his career will dry out. And he’s long since groomed himself for a career without cleats, swapping his jersey for a suit, his helmet for a microphone, using the iconic TV show “Inside the NFL” as a de facto audition for life after his playing days.

Marshall has one year left on the three-year, $26 million contract he signed with the Jets before the 2015 season. Fans can probably recite his epic stat sheet last year — 109 receptions, 1,502 yards and 14 touchdowns in his best season as a pro. And there was his bromance with Fitzpatrick, which led many of us to expect the same stats this year. Marshall’s numbers have suffered in 2016, but that’s more by dint of the QB play than any erosion in his skills.

Marshall will make $7.5 million next year, if the cash-strapped Jets don’t cut him early. His pay would consume 4.8 percent of the club’s salary cap, according to spotrac.com. That’s a bargain by current standards. Up to seven Jets could consume a greater cap chunk next year. But none of them have come as long, or as far, as Marshall.

On a team sure to be full of turmoil and torment this offseason, the Jets could use a player who has already conquered his.

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Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel