March 6, 2015

The Bears and the Fox

January 22, 2015

The Bears and the Fox

The Chicago Bears’ season ended on a cold day in Minnesota and not long after the team plane touched down back in Chicago the team fired head coach Marc Trestman and the man who hired him, general manager Phil Emery.

Trestman coached just two years in Chicago, going 8-8 and then 5-11, presiding over a team that had talent but was in a tailspin, seemingly going a thousand miles-per-hour in the wrong direction. The disaster was not all Trestman’s fault but what type of progress could he honestly say he made?

Phil Emery made a lot of good moves at Halas Hall including acquiring offensive lineman Kyle Long, cornerback Kyle Fuller and receiver Alshon Jeffery but apparently stumbled on the two biggest decisions a GM has to make: the coach and the quarterback, as Jay Cutler, given a $126 million dollar contract after last season, responded with the worst campaign of his career.

Chicago erupted with applause at Emery and Trestman’s departure, with most fans not wanting, it seemed, to wish ill-will on either of these decent gentlemen but after a fourth straight year without the playoffs and with few beams of sunshine pouring onto Soldier Field everyone believed changes had to be made.

When the Emery-Trestman regime was sacked Chicago wondered where the Bears would turn next, as a swarm of dancing ping-pong balls bubbled out of fate’s lottery machine, each containing the name of a possibly promising offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, assistant GM, scout or superhero, men whose names we usually hear of only during a coaching or front office search.

Everyone in Bearland fully and reasonably expected Chicago would turn to a young and-or inexperienced GM and coach, someone who had been rising through the ranks of either the Bears or some other team and whose proverbial “time had come” and, unspoken by the team but uttered by everyone else, had come cheap.

This prediction came true when the Bears hired 37-year-old Ryan Pace away from the Saints front office and named him General Manager. No one can say for certain how Pace will be, though he comes with promising credentials, and neither can anyone attest to whom Pace had hoped or planned to hire as head coach the day he took the Bears job.

What we do is Mr. Pace, whatever his plans were, did not object to seeing them disrupted because when the Denver Broncos decided to let John Fox go Pace and the Bears did exactly what they should have done: they pounced.

In hiring Fox after a tornado of activity in the days following Denver’s playoff elimination the Bears did something the team had not done since the 1950s; hire a head coach who had previously been an NFL head coach.

The Bears, as we have said, have a tradition of opting for the up-and-comer when it comes to coaches and GMs perhaps because that’s frugal, perhaps because they don’t like retreads and maybe because they, unlike their fans, the Bears honestly don’t see Chicago as the ultimate destination. And maybe coaching candidates have not always seen Chicago that way, either.

But it’s not as if the Bears always erred in hiring neophytes. Jack Pardee, Neill Armstrong, Mike Ditka, Dave Wannstedt, Dick Jauron and Lovie Smith each took the Bears to the playoffs. Smith reached two NFC title games and a Super Bowl. Ditka reached three title games and won a Super Bowl and, thirty years later, remains Chicago’s most-beloved sports figure.

But the three decades since the Chicago Bears last were kings of the NFL seem more like three centuries. The Bears have been champs three times since World War II ended, twice since Kennedy was shot and never since we started using the Internet. Seriously.

The team the Bears defeated in Super Bowl XX, the New England Patriots, was, like the Bears, appearing in its first Super Bowl that day in January 1986. Now the Patriots are playing in their eighth.

Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, was born in 1977 and he has 20 career playoff wins. The Chicago Bears, born in 1920, have 17.

New England’s opponent this time, the Seattle Seahawks, are in their third Super Bowl. The Seahawks were born in 1976 and have now reached more Super Bowls than the Bears, the NFL’s charter franchise.

Chicago’s most bitter rival, and the bitterness resides mostly south of Kenosha these days, is the Green Bay Packers. The Packers have 18 playoff victories…since the 1993 season…the year after the Bears fired Ditka.

John Fox has no magic stardust in his playbook to reverse all these negative numbers but he does have experience. He has taken two franchises from mediocrity to the final Sunday. He stresses discipline, accountability and tackling. He has made mistakes. He has learned. It is far too early to wager that the Bears will win a significant number of more games under Fox this coming year than they did with Trestman this past year but it seems a safe bet that Chicago will play better football and will be on a more steady path to perennial contention.

A good coach without a quality general manager is like a fine-tuned convertible with holes in the top. Will Pace be good? His pedigree is intriguing. First off, he played defensive end at the quiet cradle of NFL success: Eastern Illinois University. Seriously, EIU has produced many NFL players and coaches including Saints head coach Sean Payton; whom Pace worked with for many years, former Broncos Super Bowl winning coach and former Raiders and Redskins coach Mike Shanahan; whom many thought might be a good fit for the job John Fox now has, and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

Still, a marketing degree from Eastern and a senior year captainship were not enough to get teams knocking down Pace’s door. So, 14 years ago Pace paid $50 to attend a job fair and applied for an internship with the Saints. He got it and has spent every day since learning and climbing.

And he apparently learned to go with an obvious thing. When the Bears hired Marc Trestman out of the CFL two years ago no other NFL teams were fighting for him. Sometimes when you’re the only one who sees something you’re a genius. Other times you’re crazy.

Long before Trestman’s two seasons in Chicago were complete everyone wondered just what glasses Phil Emery and the Bears brass were wearing when they went after Trestman. The result was a lot of people lost their jobs. If Fox fizzles with the Bears no one will turn to Ryan Pace and ask him what the heck he was thinking. In other words, he will probably get a second chance at picking a head coach, which is rare among NFL GMs.

Does Pace know how to draft? Can he see the difference between burst and speed in a 22-year-old kid? Does he know the difference between who can play and who will play? And can he pick over the pile of NFL discards and find those guys with something left in the tank, that linebacker or wideout who just needs a different setting or system?

If Bears fans had a magic wand, and perhaps a few of us do but we just don’t like to use it much, many of us would have raided the Baltimore Ravens and taken GM Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh. That, apparently, was never even a remote possibility. So the Bears, like many other teams, sought the next best thing to getting the best GM-coach combination in the league and hoped to woo Baltimore assistant GM Eric DeCosta, but he was not interested, likely knowing Ozzie’s office will someday be his.

What’s also interesting is whom the Ravens brain trust has now turned to run the offense: Marc Trestman. Maybe with just one job, with a couple of really good bosses and a stacked roster Trestman will enjoy the success in Baltimore that he hoped for, worked very hard for, but could not achieve in Chicago.

In Baltimore Trestman will be working with quarterback Joe Flacco who, by all rational accounts, is a significant upgrade over Bears QB Jay Cutler, which brings us back to Pace. Pace has a lot of work ahead as the Bears need help at every position. But in fairness, there is not a single NFL team that is not one or two injuries away from needing help at just about every single position. Men are breakable, veterans are expensive and rosters are fluid.

But quarterback is the big tuna. Pace will have to draft a quarterback this year but the question is how far will he reach for one? Let’s put on the crazy hat for just a moment. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the top pick in the draft and there is copious speculation they will choose Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. What about the Bears offering Cutler, their first round pick (7th overall) and a first rounder in 2016 to Tampa for that top spot? Cutler would be reunited with Lovie Smith, his former coach with the Bears, the Bucs would have plenty of picks to rebuild their roster and the Bears would get the most gifted and polarizing player in college football.

Insane, we know.

Pace isn’t likely to pull such a blockbuster move if, for no other reason, the Bucs would never go for it. Maybe that’s just as well as it seems as if few NFL champs are built on blockbuster trades. Instead, it’s smart moves here and there, the researching of players who put their pads under the other guy’s pads, the painstaking film study, the tireless analysis of salary, scheme and attitude that usually builds a winner.

Pace should look north. The Bears hate looking up to the Packers but Green Bay, maybe even more so than Baltimore, New England, Seattle or Pittsburgh, knows how to make the draft your friend, not your downfall.

The Packers roster is almost exclusively made up of guys who have only played for the Packers. The Packers don’t draft well, they draft superbly.

The Bears will draft a quarterback this year, for sure, but whoever that is he might not be the guy to eventually replace Cutler and they cannot insist that he be. Cutler, it has been said many times, is just good enough to get you fired. That won’t happen to Fox or Pace. They’ll handle him for one season, maybe even two if that’s what it takes to make sure they get a better quarterback ready, one who will go a large way toward defining Pace and Fox’s legacies in Chicago.

Other than quarterback the Bears need, literally, everything. Offense, defense, special teams, cheerleaders and maybe even a psi gauge.

Pace and Fox are not starting from ground zero, though. The Bears have talent on both sides of the ball and NFL rosters can be rebuilt quickly. And free agents must know they could do far worse than playing in Chicago for a coach who has been to Super Bowls.

So our beloved Bears head into a mysterious winter and spring after a calamitous, embarrassing fall. And they do so with a fan base that is impatient, demanding and angry, yet also forgiving. And forever ready for the next fight.

And now all of Chicago moves ahead armed with a young gun. And an old Fox.

Dolphins 27, Bears 14: The Fish That Squished Our Dream

October 19, 2014

The Miami Dolphins are mean characters, uncaring of the feelings of others and utterly disrespectful of tradition and norms.

We say this because these Dolphins came to Chicago on Sunday and phin-slapped the Bears 27-14 at Soldier Field, dominating the proceedings from start to finish.

It was sort of like a date with Lucy Liu but you never even got a goodnight kiss.

The Dolphins outgained the Bears, 393-224, won the time of possession, 37:22–22:38 and won the turnover battle 0-3. That’s a recipe for a one-side game. That’s letting talking fish enter your house and drink the good brandy.

The defeat leaves the Bears 0-3 at home this year, 3-4 overall and feeling inadequate, insecure and desperately grasping for that magic reset button hidden somewhere in George Clooney’s glove compartment.

The Bears, one week after trouncing the Falcons in Atlanta, were expected to take this one because the Dolphins haven’t been good since Bible times and the Bears really, really needed to get in the win column especially considering they now go to New England and then Green Bay so, yes churchgoers, the Bears could be 3-6 before we finish our Halloween candy.

How did it come to this? The Bears were supposed to be good, offensive, virile and hearty. Instead, their offense, thought to be among the best in the league entering the season, is a very pedestrian 14th. The much-maligned Chicago defense, meanwhile, is 16th. If you had told Bears fans in August they would have the 16th best defense in the league in late October they would have kissed you, pinched you and maybe even let you pinch them back.

That’s because we (they!) estimated Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte and all their pals would roll thunder and rob and plunder. Instead, they are stopping, starting, stalling and not reaching the endzone too often. They are ordinary at best, so far, and they themselves are starting to get sick of it. Marshall lost his temper after the game and told reporters the Bears’ performance has been “unacceptable.”

Can it be reversed in time? The defense, bitten by injuries and new faces is holding its own. The offense has had some guys sidelined too, but these fellas are supposed to know each other as they’ve been in the same system for a few years. So has the league simply caught up to Marc Trestman and Aaron Kromer’s offense?

The Bears probably need to go 8-1 to make the playoffs. But let’s not worry about that. Let’s worry only about New England. Let’s focus simply on gripping the football and sustaining drives. Good teams always play with a chip on their shoulder. Our chip has been knocked off. Don’t go looking for it, just smash the bloke who did the knocking. — TK

Bears 27, Falcons 13: The Undead March Ahead

October 16, 2014

Bears 27, Falcons 13: The Undead March Ahead

The Chicago Bears defeated the Atlanta Falcons 27-13 at the Georgia Dome on the same day that a record 17 million people watched the season premiere of “The Walking Dead” and 40,000 runners back in Illinois completed the Chicago Marathon.

We intersect these things because the metaphors are so easily within our grasp. If the Bears had lost to the Falcons they would have been 2-4 and the rest of the season might have unfolded like a marathon of the undead.

Instead, the Bears prevailed in Atlanta the place where, allegories unite, “The Walking Dead” is set.

On Sunday’s return episode, our hero survivors of the zombie apocalypse were victorious in a deadly battle at a place called Terminus (Atlanta’s original name) and the Bears earned the name Notdeadyetus, which was Chicago’s original name.

The Bears defeated the Falcons behind the arm of quarterback Jay Cutler who, statistically, had his best day as a Bear throwing for 381 yards, one touchdown and no turnovers, and on the legs of Matt Forte who is quietly putting together another Pro Bowl season, rushing for 80 yards and two scores and catching 10 passes for 77 yards.

Walter Payton was the greatest running back in Bears history, (NFL history?) Gale Sayers was the second greatest and Forte is solidly third on that list. Will he follow Sayers and Payton into the Hall of Fame someday?

Mr. 22 long ago reserved a seat in the Hall of Better Than Most and now, in his seventh season, could be sneaking toward Canton territory. Forte has more than 7,000 career yards rushing, more than 3,000 receiving and 81 career touchdowns. Is he getting close? A few more good seasons – and maybe a couple of playoff appearances – are certainly needed. But for now we can say the Bears nailed it in 2008 when they took Forte with the 44th overall selection, 11 picks ahead of the Ravens who took Ray Rice.

The running backs taken ahead of Forte in 2008 were Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson. Bears win.

The Falcons are not a very good team but are usually stubborn at home. The problem for the birds, though, is they weren’t really home in this one. All day long the Georgia Dome was filled with the shouts and cheers of Bears fans and the Falcons actually had to go to a silent count a few times because of the crowd noise. And, late in the game, Bears defensive end Jared Allen was actually encouraging the crowd to make more noise.

Poor Atlanta. It’s a great city, even when overrun by ambulatory corpses, but the problem Atlanta’s pro teams have always had is so many Atlantans grew up elsewhere and their allegiances often remain with other teams, especially since it’s easier now than ever to follow a team in a different place. And many of those born in raised in Terminus prefer college football, high school football, NASCAR and Waffle House to pro sports.

The Bears also won because of an impressive defensive effort, especially considering it came from a defense that has more scratches than a drunken janitor in a cat shelter. Chicago finished this game with these three guys at linebacker: Khaseem Greene, Darryl Sharpton and Christian Jones. They were good. The Bears’ regular starters – Lance Briggs, Shea McLellin and D.J. Williams -were sidelined. They also should be a bit worried.

Why else did the Bears win? They’re magic, they’re cool and they like the road (especially when it’s not the road) as they’re now 3-1 away from Soldier Field in 2014.

Perhaps this coming Sunday in Chicago the Bears should convince themselves it’s Miami. Mind games shouldn’t be necessary to beat the Dolphins but the visit by the Fish is followed for the Bears by trips to New England and Green Bay: places where hypnosis, trickery, hocus pocus and beer are all needed and turnovers are not. –TK

Carolina Crash: Panthers 31, Bears 24

October 5, 2014

Carolina Crash: Panthers 31, Bears 24

The Chicago Bears led the Carolina Panthers 21-7 late in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte on Sunday afternoon when, just after the Bears forced their third turnover of the game, Bears running back Matt Forte took a short Jay Cutler pass 56 yards down to the Carolina 25.

It looked at this point that the Bears were going to score again and would lead by three touchdowns at halftime, or at least by two TDs and a field goal. But the drive stalled and Robbie Gould, who is normally as reliable as Matthew McConaughey at an after-party, shanked a 35-yard field goal.

The Panthers took over, marched down the field, Cam Newton hit former Bear Greg Olsen for a nine-yard score and it was only 21-14 in favor of the Bears at the half and oh hell, you know where this movie is taking us.

Panthers 31, Bears 24.

How do you lose to a team with uniforms so garish they would not have been allowed in the XFL and probably would lead to arrests in the CFL?

The Bears turned the ball over four times – two interceptions from Cutler, a fumble from Cutler and also a gut-wrenching fumble by Forte in the final minutes that led to Carolina’s winning score (Greg Olsen’s revenge! Never should have traded him! And maybe Panthers head coach Ron Rivera, the former Bears defensive coordinator, should have been kept around, too. Just maybe.) – and committed ten penalties for 80 yards whereas the Panthers were only flagged three times.

The Bears also fell behind, 7-0, to begin with when, after failing to move the ball on their first possession, Pat O’Donnell booted a 63-yard punt which landed, bounced around and then Carolina’s Philly Brown scooped it up while everyone else was standing around smelling the Carolina air and Brown returned that sucker 79 yards for a score. (“Coming to Fox this fall: He’s slick, he’s cool, he’s bad, he’s not your Dad. He’s Philly Brown!”)

Did the Bears think the ball was dead? If so, they were dead wrong.

OK, I know this narrative is jumping around all-Tarantino like but the point is there were mistakes at the beginning, mistakes at the end and oddness in the middle and the good football played by the Monsters in-between was not enough to overcome all of that and the result was this ugly loss and a 2-3 record and a big bowl of early October sadness.

It also comes down to the fact that for the second straight week the Bears put together a pretty good first half only to fall apart just before the break and then never get it together in the third and fourth quarters. After halftime in their last two games, losses to the Packers and Panthers, the Bears have scored a total of three points. So unless you’re scoring 30 in the first half, you’re going to lose.

Everyone knows that Bears coach Marc Trestman is smart as a whip and probably takes a backseat to no coach when it comes to game planning but for whatever reason the Bears, at least these last few weeks, have not been able to make adjustments on the fly to keep the offense going and the mistakes at bay.

Or maybe it all comes down to bad luck that the second most reliable kicker in NFL history missed a gimme and your Pro Bowl running back uncharacteristically coughed up the ball deep in his own territory in crunch time.

There’s all of that and there’s also the matter of the other team, a Carolina squad that had gotten slapped ugly in two straight and desperately needed a home win.

Sometimes the other guy is just better than you. We’re trusting that sometimes doesn’t become most of the time.

Packer Blasted

October 2, 2014

Packer Blast

Forgive the tardiness but it has taken a few days to pull out the splinters after another loss by the Chicago Bears against the Green Bay Packers.

The Pack did what they often do by coming to Chicago and sucking the life out of Soldier Field worse than a parole officer at a bachelor party. This time the final tally was 38-17 as the Bears fell apart in the second half getting outscored, 17-0 as Green Bay blew open what had for the first 30 minutes been a close, fun game on a sunny day.

Aaron Rodgers and friends don’t just rain on your parade; they toss marbles under the feet of the marchers and then padlock all the public bathrooms.

Rodgers earned an A+ in this one, to be sure, as he was nearly flawless by completing 22 of 28 for 302 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. What do those numbers spell out? R-e-l-a-x.

I really wish Aaron Rodgers would defect to Iceland.

Rodgers was sensational, which we expect, but in Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler have been absorbing much of the blame for this loss. Cutler threw for two scores but was picked off twice, one of which was not his fault, though, but couldn’t engineer big plays when it would have been nice.

Trestman has been catching heck for a few things including a curious onside kick the Bears tried and failed on in the second quarter. The Packers recovered and took over at the Bears’ 46 and Jolly Rodgers marched them down the field for a score and the Pack led 21-17 with a minute left before halftime.

The Bears not only would never lead again they would never score again.

It was not as if the Bears just gave up, though. In fact they responded impressively after Green Bay’s third score by zipping down the field into Packers’ territory but then fate – and the officials – turned up the noise and threw down the funk. Cutler hit tight end Martellus Bennett at the goal line with time running out but was gangtackled by the Packers just as he was trying to stretch the ball into the endzone.

The officials ruled no touchdown; replay said no touchdown and it probably was, indeed, no touchdown. In other words, it would have been a nice time for the officials to get it wrong, or a little bit less right. But they didn’t.

The Bears only have themselves to blame. They could have thrown into the endzone. They could have kicked a field goal. They could have done better.

After a bad game against the Lions it was inevitable that Rodgers and the Packers were going to play well against the Bears. They’re just too good and too smart to stumble two straight weeks. And, without starting defensive linemen Jeremiah Ratliff and Jared Allen, the evolving Bears defense had even more trouble pressuring Rodgers and standing in anyone’s way than they normally would have.

This game was less fun than Liam Neeson without his morning coffee and target practice.

The Bears are 2-2. They are sometimes good, sometimes not and don’t seem to like their home cow pasture of Soldier Field very much as they are now 0-2 there this young season. Right now that’s not a problem as they play their next two games at Carolina (winnable) and in Atlanta (loseable) before coming home to host Miami’s fighting fish.

As a result of so much first half peregrination, the Bears will play five of their final seven games at home including three in December. Most teams would relish this. The Bears might fear it.

The Lions are good, the Packers look better, and the Bears feel bland.

September is when you get your feet wet; December is when you check your gut. What is October? We know it ends scary, but the best horror shows have plenty of laughs along the way.   –TK

Monday Monsters: Bears 27, Jets 19

September 22, 2014

Monsters of the Monday

The Chicago Bears defeated the New York Jets 27-19 at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Monday night, improving to 12-3 on Monday Night Football since 2006.

This was the Bears’ second straight primetime road win which means the Bears not only like the bright lights but are not bothered by Jet lag as their win tonight came one week after playing 3,000 miles west in their victory in San Francisco.

So, from coast to coast, the Monsters of the Midwest may have more moxie than just about anyone thought.

The Bears won this game for several reasons, including the fact that orange is more pleasant than green, but largely because, for the second straight week, they won the turnover battle, this time, 3-1, including picking off Jets quarterback Geno Smith on the second play from scrimmage.

That pick was made by Bears safety Ryan Mundy who wasn’t satisfied with just stealing the ball from his hosts but insisted on running it 45 yards for a touchdown. So, it was 7-0 Bears when half the crowd was still driving through Hoboken.

The Jets fumbled a punt return just a few series later then committed pass interference giving the Bears prime field position and Jay Cutler hit tight end Martellus Bennett with a rocket shot in the back of the endzone for a 7-yard score and the Bears led 14-0 and it looked like Falcons-Buccaneers all over again.

There was an odd moment after that second score as the official informed the crowd that those nasty Jets had roughed up Cutler and so there was an “automatic first down,” when the rest of the zebras informed their pal that there was a touchdown on the play so no, thank you though, a first down would not be necessary as the Bears had actually scored, buddy.

The Jets broke the rules a few times in this one, penalized six times for 78 yards but the Bears cheated and got caught even more, nine flags for 95 yards.

Give the Jets an “attaboy” though for hanging in there. They were down 14-0 before Tirico and Gruden had even grown annoying, yet New York hung in there, eventually clawing back to make it 17-13 at the break which meant this was indeed a game and anyone who wanted to catch up on Ken Burns’ The Roosevelts on their DVR would have to wait until Tuesday.

Early in the third, Cutler hit Bennett again for a 13-yard score capping off an 80-yard drive and it was 24-13, good guys. The Jets responded with, well, not much. It was three plays and a punt and then on their next possession they were driving for a score when Beas rookie defensive back Kyle Fuller, who had two sweet picks in last week’s win over the 49ers, proved he might just be pretty good at this thing and picked old Geno in the endzone.

This was crucial because not only does Fuller like the smell of leather but the Bears were in the midst of three straight drives that ended in punts as the Jets’ proud defense flexed its wings.

By now you get what we’re trying to tell you and I don’t have to pull you close and whisper into your collar with whiskey-breath. What we’re saying is, neither of those teams played masterfully but the Bears made the Jets make more mistakes and while that sounds like saying your girlfriend is not nearly as homely in person as she looks on Facebook, it really is a compliment.

Jay Cutler, for the second straight week, did not throw an interception. The Bears, despite drawing a few too many flags, played disciplined and within themselves as that whole out-of-body thing just doesn’t suit them. Chicago’s performance might not have beaten the Seahawks or the Mean Machine, but it was good enough to top a Jets team that hits hard but doesn’t dance well, sort of like Rocky against Spider Rico. (Shouldn’t all NFL teams have at least one guy named “Spider”?)

And, the Bears are also a popcorn pleaser, which Chicago is getting used to as all three of its games this season have gone down to the wire. This one was not decided until the final minute when the Bears defense – a battered but game bunch to be sure – stopped the Jets on downs at the 9 yard line, once again bending but not breaking in the redzone.

Hang on to the ball, make the other team settle for field goals, spit with the wind and you’ll probably be OK.

To say this was a huge win for the Bears might be an exaggeration but we sort of like hyperbole so let’s say this was a huge win for the Bears because it not only makes them 2-1, not only gives them confidence, not only showed a national audience for the second straight week that they can be grizzly tough when it counts but it’s also large because the Packers now come to Chicago and the Bears will probably lose.

Why did I have to write that? Not nice at all.  The thought here should be that the Bears are riding high and ready sink a 1-2 Packers team that couldn’t do diddly against the Lions. But we can’t look you in the eye and say the Bears will beat the Packers because, simply, they usually don’t and do we really expect Aaron Rodgers and his merry band of pass catchers to have two straight bad games?

If they do, splendid. The Bears will be 3-1; the Packers 1-3 and those numbers need no addendum.

But the Bears are still bleeding with injuries and their run game is stuck in Bourbonnais – they ran for just 60 yards against the Jets – and their special teams are more specious than special so far.

But it’s Packer Week and, for Chicagoans, beating Green Bay is more fun than licking frozen doorknobs. Therefore let’s be optimistic yet stoic. Let’s be like a large clown statue that can see from sea to shining sea. Let’s get a bit healthier and watch that tape of how the Lions beat the Packers and hopefully glean a few things.

Let’s scratch that Packer itch. Let’s be 3-1.

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?

 

 

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