September 17, 2014

Bears Show Heart in San Francisco (Actually, it’s Santa Clara Now, Isn’t It?)

 

September 14, 2014

Bears 28, 49ers 20 – The Good Guys Beat the Bad Guys

The Chicago Bears defeated the San Francisco 49ers 28-20 in the inaugural regular season game at the Niners’ new Levi’s Stadium on Sunday night in a contest that was at times sloppy, ugly and weird but was, ultimately, shocking, significant and wonderful.

Just as no one thought the Bears would lose to the Buffalo Bills a week ago, few sober mortals gave the Bears much of a chance to win this one, especially since most Bears’ games by the Bay are uglier than a Kardashian in the morning.

This was the Bears’ first victory in San Francisco since 1985, the only season the Bears won the Super Bowl. And with the way the Bears looked against Buffalo and they way they started out in this game, it appeared that unfortunate drought would continue.

The Bears began with a three-and-out series, got their punt blocked and quickly give up a three-yard scoring pass from Colin Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree and just like that it was 7-0 San Francisco before most 49ers fans had even taken their first sip of Chardonnay.

This game was so messy and mistake-prone early on that it felt more like a Dane Cook movie than a football game.

By the end there would be a total of 26 penalties called, 16 for the Niners, 10 for the Bears, and that was only the infractions that were accepted. There were more flags flying in the wind on Sunday night than outside the United Nations on moving day. It seemed as if the officiating crew found something wrong on every play. This must be what it’s like to have a mother-in-law who drinks, farts and owns fish.

The Niners made fewer mistakes in the first half than the Bears, whose offense was slowed by numerous injuries including starting wideouts Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery who were moving slower than Jack Benny reaching for the check after an expensive meal.

So it was the Bears defense – yes that Bears defense – the one that has fewer friends than North Korean censors, which stepped up and played well, if not heroically, and kept the Bears alive and the fact that it was only 17-0 in the second quarter felt almost like a victory because believe me you pal for a few minutes there it looked like it was going to be 77-0.

To be fair, and honest though, the Bears also had very little good fortune on their side. San Fran’s first TD should not have counted as the play clock expired before the ball was snapped. A Charles Tillman interception was waved off after review which was probably the right call but still bad luck, and a terrific 22-yard catch by Martellus Bennett from Jay Cutler for a first down early in the second quarter would have put the Bears in prime redzone real estate but the catch was waved off after review which was like getting a red light camera ticket for going 55.2 in a 55 mph zone.

Yes, there were bad calls, bad breaks and blustery winds blowing all over the beloved Bears in this one but they did not give up. They also, I’m pretty sure, kept whispering to the Niners “We got the Star Wars Museum and you didn’t. Chumps!”

Then, finally, the Bears offense stepped on the clutch after getting hit in the chest. It was just before halftime and Cutler got rocked by 49ers defensive end Quinton Dial who lowered his helmet and planted his medulla oblongata right on Jay’s #6, leaving Mr. C. staggered and slobknockered. This was the type of hit that sends lesser men to the sidelines and sends many fellows to the morgue. But Jay Cutler – love him, hate him, or, like Santa Claus, just don’t believe in him – has guts and stayed in there and three plays later, connected with Marshall on a beautiful 17-yard scoring strike.

It was a precise throw by Cutler, a terrific catch by Marshall and it was suddenly 17-7 at halftime and the Great San Francisco Massacre of 2014 was officially on hold.

What happened in the second half was a full-on headfirst dive into the football rabbit hole.

The Niners got the kickoff and marched down the field taking their sweet 49er time but the Bears defense, which by the time this game was over was playing without starting cornerback Charles Tillman, starting safety Chris Conte, (who had a brilliant first half interception) defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff, cornerback Sherick McManus and probably a few other guys, again was stout, holding San Fran to a field goal after a drive that lasted more than nine minutes.

The Niners led 20-7 and would not score again and the Bears would not stop scoring.

Chicago responded with a gutsy, ballsy, Bearsy 13-play, 80-yard drive that ended with Cutler finding Marshall again, this time on a five-yard strike in traffic as he was pinballed by two defenders. It was 20-14 and Chicagoans put down their Old Styles and said “Holy Joe, we might be able to win this thing.”

And now, friends, this is the part of the story when we introduce you to a nice young fellow named Kyle Fuller.

Mr. Fuller is a defensive back and was the Bears’ first round draft pick this past spring. And on the Niners’ next possession he stole the ball from Crabtree for a brilliant pick deep in 49ers territory and Kaepernick, whose nickname is not Captain Cool, used a cuss word and drew a flag to move the Bears to the Niners’ three. Cutler hits Bennett in the corner and you bet your sweet Tony Bennett the Bears had a 21-20 lead.

And Kyle was just getting started.

San Fran gets the ball back (because those are the rules) and a few plays later Fuller made another daring jump on the ball, he read it perfectly, and the rookie from Virginia Tech suddenly had his Bears team in position to put this thing away. And that they did. This Cutler-Marshall thing seems to work well for Chicago, and this time it was a three-yard connection on a pass to Marshall’s outside shoulder that was timed and placed precisely so only he could catch it. I guess they practice these things.

Bears 28, 49ers 20.

The only bad part at this point was the 49ers had plenty of time, more than six minutes. They marched down the field, but the Bears held, finally breaking up a fourth down pass in the endzone.

And there it is, the Bears are 1-1 and Chicagoans are still looking forward to hockey season but aren’t getting silly about it.

The Bears won this game despite rushing for 46 yards. Total.

The Bears won this game despite playing without two offensive starters, two others who were hobbled and losing four defensive players throughout the course of the game.

The Bears won this game on the West Coast while on the East Coast Kira Kazantsev of New York was being crowned Miss America which was fitting because this Bears-Niners game was no beauty.

Except it was.

Sure, Niners supporters and other oddballs will say Jim Harbaugh’s kids gave this one away with all their penalties, turnovers and unsightly tattoos. But all three of Kaepernick’s interceptions came on great plays by the Bears. The Niners didn’t cough up the ball so much as the Bears, just like they used to, took it from them.

The Niners were sloppy but the Bears got screwed on several calls which, had they been called properly, could have changed the whole course of the game early on. Imagine if Luke Skywalker hadn’t been knocked out by the Sand People. He could have gotten home to save Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. Or maybe, like Obi-Wan said, the storm troopers would have just killed him, too.

The Bears won because they stuck to the run even when they weren’t gaining ground. It’s often said that it doesn’t matter how many yards you rush for just so long as you keep running. The Bears beat the Niners because Cutler had good protection and when guys were covered he threw it away. The Bears won because Brandon Marshall made some sick catches. The Bears won because Kyle Fuller made two brilliant interceptions and the defense, overall, played with pride, discipline and urgency.

This was a fun football game. This was what Sunday nights in America should be. This was two storied franchises with playoff expectations punching each other to the end.

It wasn’t always pretty. It was far from heaven but it was also far from last week, which, for the Bears, was hell.

Bears 28, Evil Niners Empire 20. A great flight home. A promising week ahead?

Buffaloed: Bills 23, Bears 20 (OT)

September 7, 2014

 Buffaloed

The Chicago Bears dropped their season opener to the Buffalo Bills 23-20 in overtime at Soldier Field on Sunday, a result that, for Chicagoans, was as shocking as it was vexing.

No one expected this, no one wanted this and we’re all trying to forget it.  About the only thing Bears fans can salve themselves with is the knowledge that one game cannot sink a season unless you let it.

How does a team that has playoff aspirations and Super Bowl dreams fall to a squad that plays occasional home games in Canada?  

This isn’t just un-American, it’s unholy.

Give credit to the Buffalo Bills.  They opened a new season forgetting they’re supposed to be bad.  And wag your finger at the Bears maybe not for taking the Bills lightly but for simply not executing when it counted.

Things started well enough.  It was a gorgeous, warm, sunny day in Chicago, the type that will soon become an endangered species now that September is here and the Bears, after an inspirational rendition of the national anthem by Blackhawks’ tenor Jim Cornelison and a flyover of vintage military planes left over, it appeared, from the 1893 World’s Fair, took the opening drive and matriculated down the Soldier Field turf with urgency, ending with a 12-yard touchdown pass from Jay Cutler to Martellus Bennett for a 7-0 lead and much merriment.

After that, it got unfortunate.

The Bills, who are truth be told a bit of a rough and crude bunch, scored the game’s next 17 points, causing 60,000 at Soldier Field to think that if this were a movie the screenwriter should have his WGA card revoked. Maybe not everyone felt this way as there were a few Bills fans in town.  We saw one several hours after the game relaxing in a car near the lakefront looking satisfied.  If he had asked us for directions we would have charged him a quarter and then lied.

The Bills’ sudden return to the early 90s was aided in large part by three Bears turnovers: two interceptions by Cutler and a fumble by Brandon Marshall, resulting directly to 13 points on the day. 

The Bears did put up good offensive numbers, though.  Cutler threw for 349 yards, Matt Forte ran for 82 and received for 87 but this is a Bears offense that is supposed to carry the team, not pace it.

The Bears defense wasn’t that bad, really, as head coach Marc Trestman said afterwards if they give up 17 points or so that’s in the ballpark.

But overall it was just a “Buffalo is cold and lonely but better than Chicago” kind of afternoon.

This was supposed to be the “gimme” on the Bears early schedule.  Next up is a trip to San Francisco.  After that, it’s onto New York to play the Jets then home to host the Packers then two more road games.

What will these Bears be?  Was opening day an aberration and an anomaly or an omen on top of an eye gouge?

 

 

You Name It: The Football Four

So far it appears that the name for college football’s new playoff format is, flatly, the “College Football Playoff.”

Makes us want to watch from before kickoff to after probation.

Granted, it’s football and people will watch it even if it’s called by some other lame name like “night golf” or “neck shaving.”  But can’t we come up with something a little spicier for the loudest thing to happen to football since the tear-away jersey?

Regrettably, “Final Four” has long been appropriated and so has “Frozen Four” which would not make a lot of sense for football anyway but is still a splendid name.

 

What can we come up with?

 

“The Football Four.”  Simple, direct, honest, old school.

 

“The Pigskin Quartet.”  It has a classy ring to it but also would be a reminder that an animal, many animals, died for us to have so much fun.

 

“The Chosen Foursome.”  This sounds like something out of a martial arts movie or a religious ceremony, two things which, when combined, create football.

 

“The Stanley Cup.”  Umm…

 

“The Bryant-Schembechler-Rockne-Roosevelt.”

 

“Last Four Leatherheads.”  (Imagine the marketing!)

 

“January Is Not For Juco.”

 

“Quarternity For Eternity.”

 

“Ha-Ha, Boise State Will Never Be Here.”

 

“Alabama-FSU-Auburn-Ohio State.”

 

“Sugar Rose Cotton Orange.”  Who, incidentally, is the protagonist in a Faulkner novel.

 

“Joe Namath.”

 

“The Gorgeous Four.”

 

“Proof That Your Vote Counts.  Especially If You’re From a Power Conference.”

 

“For God and Saban.”

 

“Nobody Cares About Basketball Until After the Super Bowl, Anyway.”

 

“The Fonzie Four.”

 

“Keyser Soze.”

 

“As Above, So Below.”

 

“The Jim Thorpe Four.”

 

“Alabama Plans a Parade.”

 

“E Pluribus Champion.”

 

“We Don’t Call It Soccer.”

 

“The Freedom Four.”

 

“Four Teams and a Cloud of Losers.”

 

“The Few, The Proud, The SEC.”

 

“Four.”

 

“The Only Four.”

 

“Death Race 2015.”

 

“Union?  We Don’t No Stinking Union!”

 

“ESPN.”

 

“Eight Is Too Much, Three Would Be Silly.”

 

“The Four With More.”

 

“IV, But Not the Ivy League.”

 

“IV.”

 

“The Glory Four.”

 

“The Righteous Remaining.”

 

Any others? Surely you can do better. Send us your thoughts. Let’s give the event we’ve been waiting for a name worthy of the mighty stage. Just, please, don’t use the words “Super” or “Packer.”

Arizona Ascension: Cards Will Win Super Bowl

The Arizona Cardinals will win the Super Bowl this coming February, becoming the first team to ever win the Vince Lombardi Trophy on its home turf and giving the redbirds their first NFL title since 1947, when they played in Chicago.

The Cardinals play in perhaps the NFL’s toughest division, the NFC West, but have a favorable early schedule opening up on Sunday night with a home tilt against the San Diego Chargers before traveling to New York to face the Giants and then return home to host the San Francisco 49ers.

The Niners are tough but a bit in disarray and so the Cards have a very good chance to enter their bye week at 3-0.

After that the Cardinals travel to Denver which won’t have Wes Welker or Matt Prater and, in a nutshell and also considering the St. Louis Rams are not the team they hoped they would be before Sam Bradford’s injury, the Cardinals might not have a truly difficult test until visiting the Super Bowl champion Seahawks in Seattle on November 23rd.

The Cardinals also have hope for a hot start following their amazingly hot finish last season, when they won seven of their last nine to finish 10-6 and were widely considered the league’s top team among those that did not make the playoffs.

The Cardinals were a hot team last year.  This year, they will show they are a very good team.

The Cardinals have a very talented veteran quarterback in Carson Palmer who is entering his second year in the maroon and white and his second year under coach Bruce Arians.

Palmer and Arians have two terrific wideouts, Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd, a solid tight end in John Carlson and a snappy good running back in Andre Ellington.

Last year, in his rookie campaign, Ellington averaged five and-a-half yards per carry and ran for three scores – including an 80-yard doozy against the Atlanta Falcons that was pure speed, guts and Cardinal-ness.

This year, he’ll be even better.  (Right?)

On defense, the Cardinals certainly will feel the absences of Darnell Dockett, the spectacular defensive tackle who is gone for 2014 with a torn ACL, and linebacker Daryl Washington, out with a drug suspension. But the Cardinals are still armed with a defensive secondary of Tyrann Mathieu, Tony Jefferson, Antonio Cromartie and Patrick Peterson, four gentlemen who take serious umbrage with those who try to catch the ball in front of them or run past them.

The Cards’ D is also still solid on the front seven, especially considering they still have defensive tackle Frostee Rucker.  When your name is Frostee, greatness will find you.

But really?  Can the Arizona Cardinals truly win a conference that has the Seahawks, Saints, 49ers, Packers, Bears and Eagles?

It will be tough.  It will be fun.

The Cardinals will make the playoffs and once you’ve reached January, anything can happen.  Just ask the ’07 and ’11 Giants.  Talk to the ’12 Ravens.  Talk to the teams they beat, too.

The Arizona Cardinals don’t have the most talent in the NFL, but they might have the most mojo.  They have a good defense, a quick-strike offense, a terrific head coach and they have those gray facemasks, God love ‘em.

The Arizona Cardinals will win the Super Bowl.  For the first time since Harry Truman was president and only the second time since the sound barrier was broken the Cardinals will be NFL champs.  They will shock, they will awe, they will win.

And who will the Cardinals beat in Super Bowl XLIX?  Why, the Chargers, of course.  The Redbirds and Bolts will meet Sunday night in Week One and then meet again in February.  Cardinals 30, Chargers 23.  Freaky fun for all.

 

 

 

Cleveland, the ’64 King

When Cleveland Was King

LeBron James and Johnny Manziel are giving Cleveland hope that it will finally win its first major sports championship since 1964. The smarter money at this point is on LeBron and the Cavaliers as they have a talented roster even before the addition of Kevin Love and, basketball being what it is; only a few great players are necessary to take a team from the lottery to a championship.

Mr. Manziel has a far tougher row to hoe. Even when he’s eventually named the Browns’ starting quarterback he still needs about 20 other great players around him before little number 2 makes Cleveland number 1.

Whoever does take the next title for Cleveland (oh yeah, there’s also a rumor out there that the Indians are still in the playoff race) they will supplant the 1964 Browns as the last Cleveland team to have a parade, hoist the hardware and make General Moses smile.

But what about those ’64 Brownies? How good were they?

Very.

The 1964 Cleveland Browns went 10-3-1, coached by Blanton Collier who, in his eight seasons as an NFL head coach from 1963 to 1970, all with the Browns, never had a losing season and made the playoffs five times.

On the field the Browns were led on offense by Jim Brown who topped the NFL with 1,446 yards, averaging better than 100 yards per game in the 14-game season. Brown’s 1,446 yards were nearly 300 better than his closest competition, Green Bay Packers fullback Jim Taylor. Brown also led the league in total yards from scrimmage by more than 200 yards and was tied for third that year in rushing touchdowns with seven.

He also attempted one pass and completed it, good for 13 yards and a touchdown.

Mostly thanks to Jim Brown, Cleveland was second in total offense in ’64, but was also helped by a capable quarterback named Frank Ryan who started all 14 games and threw 25 TD passes, good enough for tops in the league.

When you have the NFL’s best running back and also the league-leader in TD passes you’re probably going to be good even if your defense is terrible, but the ’64 Browns’ defense was far from terrible, ranking fifth in the league in fewest points allowed.

The ’64 Browns had All-Pros on defense in cornerback Bernie Parrish, linebacker Jim Houston, defensive end Bill Glass, kicker Lou Groza and, back on offense, guard Gene Hickerson, tackle Dick Schafrath, split end Paul Warfield, and, of course, Jim Brown in the backfield.

Other than a 23-7 loss to the lowly Pittsburgh Steelers on October 10 of that season (Jim Brown only carried the ball eight times) the ’64 Cleveland Browns handled the opposition with little shame though they did turn the ball over with alarming frequency, including a six-turnover victory against the Dallas Cowboys. Strangely, the only game in 1964 that the Browns did not turn over the ball was a 28-21 loss to the Packers on November 22.

The Browns won the Eastern Division by a game over the St. Louis Cardinals, the only other team in the East with a winning record that year and earned a spot in the NFL Championship Game against the mighty Baltimore Colts who were easily champions of the West with a 12-2 record under second year coach Don Shula and league MVP Johnny Unitas at quarterback.

The game was played in Cleveland Municipal Stadium on December 27, 1964 in 34-degree weather with mud, wind and animus. The Colts were heavy favorites.

Browns 27, Colts 0.

The game was scoreless at halftime but then in the second half Ryan connected with receiver Gary Collins for three TDs and Jim Brown, though he never scored, muddled through with 114 yards on 27 carries and also caught three passes for 37 yards.

On defense, the Browns held Unitas to just 95 yards passing and intercepted him twice.

Browns 27, Colts 0.

The Browns were awarded rings for winning the title and Jim Brown’s was later stolen and has recently been up for auction, something Mr. Brown is trying to stop.

Thirty-one years after the 1964 title game the Browns decided to move, to of all places, Baltimore, which had lost the Colts to Indianapolis a decade before.

One of the stipulations of that controversial move was that the Browns themselves actually would not move, only the coaches and players would go as the team became the Baltimore Ravens while the Cleveland Browns, the team records, trophies, etc., remained in Cleveland, dormant, until the Browns were reincarnated, as an expansion team, in 1999.

One of the things the Browns were forced to leave behind when they bolted for Baltimore was their trophy for winning the 1964 NFL title. The thing of it is, though, there really was no trophy for Cleveland to keep.

In those days the NFL used to hand out the Ed Thorp Memorial Trophy, which was named for an NFL official. But that trophy was, like hockey’s Stanley Cup, handed off to a new champion each year so the next year the Browns had to give it to the Packers who still have it because after the 1966 season, in which the Packers were champs again, teams got a new trophy every year which is now, of course, the Lombardi Trophy.

The 1964 Cleveland Browns didn’t get a trophy to keep until 2004 when the NFL commissioned a brand new trophy to present to an old champion.

Cleveland still has that trophy. And is still looking for another one.

 

In Praise of the Preseason

When does a 6-yard catch late in the fourth quarter of a 41-7 game by an undrafted receiver out of Huey Gablooey State College make a difference?

When it’s August.

The NFL preseason, often called the exhibition season, or “fake football,” and sometimes even “Roger Goodell’s foot bath,” is a period that many sad, grumpy Americans believe is just a waste, a pigskin folly that does nothing but eat up two game’s worth of season ticket holders’ dollars and gets Chad Greenway hurt.

But the more enlightened among us see the NFL’s four-game August lineup for what it really is: something pure, sanguine and happy because it gives hundreds of men a brief opportunity to put on an NFL uniform, soak up the lights and get their photo taken with Ed Hochuli.

And preseason honestly is quite dramatic.  In the regular season a touchdown goes toward determining the outcome of a game.  In the preseason every touchdown, every tackle, every missed tackle, goes on the coach’s report card and could mean that a kid spends one year with an NFL team, pocketing $420,000 and being able to forever say he was a bona fide NFL player, even if it was just for one year.  Even if it was in Jacksonville.

Or, it could mean that he goes back to Huey Gablooey State College and collects cans.

Sure, as the years go by he’ll say he lasted more than just a few exhibition games and if you don’t believe him look at this photo he just happens to have on his phone of him getting kicked by Ndamukong Suh. But then you’ll check Pro Football Reference and see that, no, September began without him.

And you’ll buy him another Fresca then sneak away when he’s crying in the bathroom.

Like a short story as compared to a novel, the preseason has the wit and flair of brevity that the 16-game slog of the regular season does not. Four August nights have the charm of the ephemeral, like a firefly that glides by proudly before drowning in your cousin’s Leinenkugel.

When the exhibition lights go bright we know summer is coming to an end and for many guys who have played football their whole life, the dream is reaching the end of the tunnel as well.

Training camps end and dorms will give way to college students. Instead of football four or five nights a week, in September it will only be on three or four.

Embrace the preseason.  Enjoy the moments when NFL sidelines have more men in uniform than the Swiss Army.  Relish seeing linebackers with jersey numbers in the 60s and running backs from BYU.

They say there is no trophy for the preseason, that the only winners are those who emerge healthy. They say a lot of things.  Maybe they should just shut up for a while.

 

Superstars Leave, Children Believe

March 12, 2014

Superstars Leave, Children Believe

Only God, and probably Ditka, know if the Chicago Bears will be better in 2014 than they were in 2013 but we all have knowledge that the Monsters of Merriment will be a bit younger and, at least to start, a tad less conspicuous.

The Bears have said goodbye to Devin Hester, the perennial All-Pro kick returner, future Hall of Famer and the closest thing to Bruce Lee the NFL has ever seen.  Hester is the greatest return man ever but he’s 31 which is like Abe Vigoda in special teams years and it long ago became apparent that when it comes to doing anything besides returning kicks Hester is really, really good at returning kicks.  So, the Bears thanked him for his broken records and Hester, in a very classy way, thanked Chicagoans for all their money and support and he is now standing at the goal line of free agency waiting for some new team to form a wedge and bring him in.

A couple of days ago, after being told by the Bears to pack up and hand in his key card, Hester referred to himself as the best all-around player in the NFL.  Hester also considers Keanu Reeves to be Hollywood’s most versatile actor.

It cannot be denied that Hester has been one of the most fun players to watch in the NFL over the last seven years and is one of the most exciting players in league history.  Bears fans of a certain age and alcohol dependency will likely rank Walter Payton as the greatest Bear of them all but Hester is neck-and-neck with Gale Sayers as the most entertaining guy to ever wear the orange, blue and blood.

When boys grow up they want to be Devin Hester.  There is nothing more electrifying than watching a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown.  Seeing the blocking form in front of a returner, watching him dart back and forth before finding a crack of daylight and accelerating toward green is a thrill matched only by donuts and Schlitz with the woman you love.

You will be missed, Devin.

Hester is leaving Chicago and he might be hitching a ride with Julius Peppers.  The Bears are not bringing back the Pro Bowl defensive end, a move that will save them $9.8 million against this year’s salary cap and at least that much money in Q-tips.

Just as important as Peppers’ salary is his age, 34, which is the age most pass rush specialists consider switching to a different position called “guy who doesn’t play in the NFL anymore.”

Some other germane numbers in the Peppers discussion are 7.5, the relatively low number of sacks he registered last season, and 30, which was what the Bears ranked on defense in 2013.  Peppers is a good guy, a legendary player, and probably still has gas in the tank but he’s expensive, he’s elderly and the Bears’ defense was as solid as the U.S. speedskating team in Sochi so things probably can’t get worse without him.

Everyone in Chicago, in between cursing the latest snowstorm and sucking down a French fry, believes Hester, Peppers and other ex-Bears or soon to be ex-Bears will end up with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a reunion with former Bears coach Lovie Smith.  If so they’ll be following the lead of a defecting Bear whose departure could end up being the one that truly stings: Josh McCown.

McCown had the best job in the world last year.  He was a backup quarterback who played great and when you do that everyone loves you, except for the starting quarterback.  McCown was terrific in place of Jay Cutler in 2013 throwing 13 touchdowns against just one interception and throwing for 1,829 yards while seeing action in eight games.

But almost immediately after the Bears’ season ended the team announced a long term deal with Cutler, committing to a younger guy with a better arm and, from almost all perspectives, a brighter future.  Still, McCown said he wanted to come back but at age 34, he’ll be 35 in July, he knows that this is likely his last chance to cash in so he took more money, two years $10 million, from Tampa and also received a promise that he is now the starter.

More money, a better job, a warmer city.  Well done, Josh.

If Cutler is healthy and the Bears’ offense plays as well as it did in 2013 and there’s every reason to believe it could actually be better with one more year of studying Marc Trestman’s playbook, no one in Cook County will even remember Josh McCown.  But Cutler has only played all 16 games one time in his five seasons in Chicago (OK, OK, he’s played 15 games twice) but he played just 11 games last season and 10 in 2011.  There were those who believed, and still profess, that the Bears should have let Cutler go and saved on his new $18 million a year salary.  They could have given McCown about $5 million a year, what he’s getting in Tampa, and the Bears would have had that much more money to rebuild the defense.

It makes sense.  We’ll find out if the Bears made the right move or not this coming season.  Or it could all become apparent on one afternoon when the Bucs visit Chicago.

The Bears are not just saying goodbye (they are also not bringing back punter Adam Podlesh, running back Michael Bush and a few others) but are also bringing in some new guys, now that they have the locker space.  They have signed defensive end Lamarr Houston from the Raiders, safety Ryan Mundy who was with the Giants, linebacker-special teamer Jordan Senn of the Panthers and safety M.D. Jennings, formerly of the Packers.

Take two puffs of your cigarette if you’ve heard of any of these guys.

Just kidding. These gentlemen are not All-Pros but are all solid players who are getting a lot of good press and there’s no doubt the Bears need help in all the areas they specialize in.  The Bears seem determined not to break the bank in free agency but to be sensible by bringing in solid players while looking to build primarily through the draft, which is how they should be doing it.

But wouldn’t Darrelle Revis have been nice?

Mr. Revis was let go by the Buccaneers because he’s making more money than Sandra Bullock and he was not available for long, quickly signing with the New England Patriots who needed him after losing their top cornerback, Aqib Talib (who also used to play for Tampa), to the Broncos who have also added former Cowboys Pro Bowl defensive end DeMarcus Ware. (Though Denver has lost receiver Eric Decker to the Jets.)

This is why the Broncos and Patriots are always good: they have great quarterbacks and they do not mess around.  When they want a guy they either go get him or say mean things about him.  –TK

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

March 13, 2014

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer

The University of Alabama wins all the time now.   On any given fall Saturday predicting the Crimson Tide will win a football game is about the safest bet in all of sports.  This past season, Alabama actually lost twice and did not play for the national championship but it took one of the craziest plays in college football history, in a loss to Auburn, to stop them and Florida State’s eventual national title almost doesn’t feel whole because the Seminoles didn’t have to fight through Nick Saban’s bunch to get it.

That’s not fair but for many of that’s just how it feels.

But there was a blip in time not so very long ago when Alabama was not a juggernaut.  A decade ago Alabama had fallen far from its Bear Bryant-Gene Stallings’ perch and had not yet brought in the southern St. Nick and was actually just another college football team that won some, lost some, and did not attract much attention outside of Dixie.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer is a reminder of those days and a study of the obsession that many sports fans have, the good and the bad and the bad of it.  The book is written by ‘Bama fan Warren St. John who spent the 1999 season diving deeper into his lifelong love than ever before.

During the ‘99 season Alabama actually had, by most metrics, a quality season but as we quickly learn in Rammer Jammer, if we were not aware already, winning for Alabama fans is not winning unless they win it all.  Everything.  In convincing fashion, loudly and unapologetically.

St. John already knew this from the time he got his photo taken with Bear Bryant as a kid in 1982 until he was a grown man living in New York in the 1990s, still living and dying with every ‘Bama game even while 1,100 miles away.  But even he did not realize how engrossed in, how defined by, some people allow themselves to be by the outcome of a football game until he spent the better part of four months driving from game to game throughout the Southeast, tailgating with ‘Bama diehards, jousting with fans other schools and generally marveling at the relentless spectacle of college football Saturdays.

In short, think of spending a very hot and sunny day next to a very loud person.  If you have enough sunscreen and fluids and that person is interesting, that day is just great.  If you’re getting sunburned and that loudmouth has no idea what they’re speaking of, it’s a sentence in misery.  When Alabama wins, St. John’s days are the former.  When they lose, or don’t win in the most convincing fashion, they’re the latter not solely because of his feelings for Alabama – the very point of his book is to study his own behavior and that of others – but because so many Crimson Tide fans are inconsolable and, worse, unbearable if you even so much as suggest that losing a football game is not so bad. There really, really are worse things in the world.  No, traitor, there aren’t.  This is what St. John encounters time and time again.

How do you explain obsession?  Why is it that the result of young men playing a game defines so much else?  Why do we let this happen?  Why do we this to ourselves?

St. John asks these questions over and over again and his smartly researched effort, not just examined by his own empirical efforts but by citing numerous studies on sports fans throughout the world, spends 275 lively and entertaining pages searching for the answer just as Alabama spends the 1999 season battling for victories while head coach Mike DuBose struggles to keep his job.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer causes us to cringe at times when considering the behavior of fans, especially how they so quickly turn on those they once supported.  And at some junctures, Rammer Jammer makes us very ashamed of ourselves when we realize it isn’t just Alabama fans who are, at times, boorish, unfair, prejudiced and makers of mountains out of molehills, but all of us who have ever spent three hours screaming at the TV or in the bleachers because God and the guys wearing the uniforms we like better are not giving us the results we desire.

Unsurprisingly, the opinion here is that books about football are best enjoyed by those who love football.  But just as obvious is the conviction that nearly every one appreciates good writing.   Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer is a smart, passionate and a very honest book that’s very well written and refreshingly sincere.  If you love sports and have a particular unwavering affection for a team then Rammer Jammer is a long, candid, humorous look into the mirror.  Sometimes it’s a funhouse mirror, but it’s still your own reflection.

If you don’t like sports, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer serves as a glimpse into the inner workings of those goofy people you know who shout at the TV, wear faded t-shirts and never stop hoping that the next Saturday just might be the best one yet.  And it may make you decide to spend more time sitting next to them. — TK

Packers 33, Bears 28 – Agony and Epitaph

January 3, 2014

Packers 33, Bears 28 – Agony and Epitaph

Any good will Chicagoans enjoyed on Christmas was quickly destroyed when the Bears lost to the Green Bay Packers, 33-28, in the season-ender at Soldier Field, a defeat which kept the Bears out of the playoffs, put the Packers in, and made Aaron Rodgers laugh harder than Kim Jong Un watching The Killing.

We know how it happened and really don’t want to talk about it but maybe doing so will be somehow therapeutic, like hitting oneself in the face with a chunk of yellow ice.

The Bears led, 28-27, with 46 seconds to play.  The Packers had the ball on Chicago’s 48-yard line.  It was 4th-and-8.  The Packers had already converted twice on fourth down on that drive.  Rodgers goes back to pass, the Bears blitz, the season and the good grace of God are on the line and then how the hell did Randall Cobb get so wide open?

Packers 33, Bears 28.

Once again the Bears’ defense found a way to not find a way and the result was the saddest Sunday night in Chicago history.

The Bears had an 8-6 record and were in the NFC North driver’s seat.  All they had to do was win of their final two games and they were in.  Instead, they drove Mom’s Pinto straight through the doors at 7-11 and asked for a rancid Slurpee.

The defeat to the Packers came 50 years to the day after the Bears won the 1963 NFL title by defeating the New York Giants at Wrigley Field and two days before the 25th anniversary of the “Fog Bowl” playoff win over the Eagles at Soldier Field.

This means there were Bear ghosts all over the place but, painfully, none of them could play safety.

A season that had such promise ended with a kick in the crotch, a pinch on the nose and a promise to aim better in the bathroom the next time.

One year after going 10-6 with a good defense and a suspect offense the Bears, in their first year under head coach Marc Trestman, slid to 8-8 with a good offense and a defense with slower reactions than a drunken gang of sloths.

The Bears finished with 445 points this year, second most in the NFL.  They surrendered 478 points, tied for second worst in the league.  They are schizophrenic, bipolar and odd.

So, what do the Bears do?  The very thing they should have done.  They re-signed quarterback Jay Cutler.

Some Bears fans love Jay Cutler, some hate him, and all would like to borrow some money from him.  The Bears gave Cutler a new seven-year deal worth at least $50 million and are counting on him to continue to learn Trestman’s offense and become the Pro Bowl championship quarterback we have been waiting for for nearly 30 years.

Cutler is not as good as Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers or Amy Adams but he’s good enough.  The Bears have a dynamic offense and, in Cutler and Josh McCown, two good quarterbacks.  The Bears did the right thing.  They did not waste time.  They are going head-on into their offseason with no uncertainty on offense and a determination and focus on using the draft and free agency to make the defense, seriously now, mediocre.

If Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Matt Forte, Martellus Bennett and the offensive line perform as well in 2014 as they did in 2013 and, seeing as it will be their second season in this offense there’s every reason to think they might get even better, then all Chicago’s defense will need to do is be OK.

Cutler is coming back, so are guard Matt Slauson and cornerback Tim Jennings but many others will likely go, especially on defense and especially because Lovie Smith now coaches the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and will likely bring in some of his old pals.

Bears defenders Chris Conte, Julius Peppers, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman are likely gone, but Brian Urlacher is coming back.  Just kidding.

The Bears will look a lot different the next time they take the field.  They are heading into a brave new world of offensive football but cannot, like they did this year, completely leave their defensive roots behind.  They must think back to that ’63 team that won by hitting hard.  They must remember that ’88 team that won in a fog.   The Chicago Bears must push on through the cloud of the future and the hiss of the past.

They must win 12 regular season games.

They must win the Super Bowl.

They have two more seasons of reasonably expecting this offense to be dominant.  Two more seasons to fix the defense.

After that, the fog gets thicker.  The past grows less forgiving.  The future becomes stuck in fear.

 

 

Eagles 54, Bears 11: The Christmas Crapathon

December 22, 2013

The Chicago Bears were given an early Christmas gift by the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers on Sunday when both teams lost, opening the way for the Bears to clinch the NFC North.

All the Bears had to do was beat the Philadelphia Eagles.

Final score: Eagles 54, Bears 11.

Repeat: Eagles 54, Bears 11.

What went wrong on this unseasonably warm night in Philadelphia?

Everything.

Breaking down this defeat is like contemplating your navel lint in a dark room while getting hit over the head with a pillowcase full of nickels by Santa’s elves.

No, it’s more difficult than that.

This was a farce, a fart and not at all funny.

This was…aw hell fellas, how did this happen?

The Bears were dominated from start to finish.  This was like watching a clown lick a kitten.  This was the worst primetime offering on NBC since “The Jay Leno Show.”

Everyone can have a bad day.  Tell that to the captain of the Hindenburg.

Oh, let’s stop.  Here’s what happened: the Bears have the worst run defense in the NFL and the Eagles have the best running game in the league.  The result was Philadelphia disemboweled the Bears for 289 yards on 36 carries.  The Eagles did what you’re supposed to do against the Bears, which is run, run, run, take a sip of eggnog and run again.

Giving up 8.2 yards per carry isn’t the only reason the Bears lost – Jay Cutler wasn’t good, Matt Forte was so-so and they were outcoached – but the defense was the biggest reason.

But, disturbingly, the only thing more absent than good tackling was passion.  From the outset, the Eagles were determined to punch the Bears in the mouth and the Bears appeared dead set on lifting their jaws.

This was the second worst defeat in Bears history but might be the single most confounding.

It’s just one game, though.  All is not lost, though it certainly feels like it.

The Bears, because they have played well at stretches this season and because the NFC North is weak, can still win the division.  They can still make the playoffs.  It’s all still there for them like the last spoonful of Christmas pudding screaming, “Eat me, Tootsie-Ray!”

Sorry, that was inappropriate.

But it is all still there.  All the Bears have to do is beat the Green Bay Packers in Chicago on Sunday.  That’s it.  Beat an ordinary Packers team they’ve already beaten once.  Beat your oldest and most hated rival.  Line up and hit, feel the cold and hear the roar and a disastrous night in Philadelphia will suddenly be forgotten.

Just do it.

What’s that?  Aaron Rodgers might play?

Good.  Bring ‘em all on.  Just dig deep.

And watch the tape.  Don’t burn it.  Watch it over and over and over and over again.  Learn from your mistakes and punch those Packers in the jingle bells.

Please.