March 27, 2017

Goodbye, Brian

After they shot the sheriff the deputy didn’t have much of a chance.

Two and-a-half months after firing head coach Lovie Smith, the Chicago Bears announced on Wednesday that the team was unable to agree on a new deal with All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher and thus, after 13 seasons, #54 has been told to clean out his locker.

Urlacher’s departure is not a shock.  Due to age, injuries and perhaps the sequestration, he is not nearly the player he once was, thus giving the new coaching staff and management a perfect opportunity to tear up that shag carpet that the previous owner insisted was holding up the walls.

It’s going to be weird seeing the Bears take the field without Urlacher, a man who has been the face and barbed wire bicep tattoo of the franchise since 2000.  The Bears now seem to be a team without leadership and identity but they do have the $2 million they were willing to pay Urlacher for one season.  Brian believes he is worth more than that but the Bears don’t think so and neither does any other team and once the Bears realized they were in a bidding war with themselves they quickly put away the wallet and told the icon to take it or leave it.

He left it.

Urlacher says he still wants to play and if he is healthy he can certainly help a lot of teams, at least on first and second down.  It creates a strange situation.  Urlacher didn’t want to play in Chicago for $2 million but now will certainly be offered even less than that to play for a new team in a strange city with different rules about whether the ketchup is kept in the refrigerator and the peanut butter is stored in the pantry.

Urlacher continued Chicago’s long legacy of great linebackers following in the footsteps of Mike Singletary, Otis Wilson, Wilber Marshall, Doug Buffone, Dick Butkus and Bill George and played alongside another Pro Bowl regular, Lance Briggs.  Butkus was the best of that bunch and Urlacher likely ranks second, even ahead of Singletary.  But Singletary does have one thing Urlacher never will: a Super Bowl ring that says “Chicago” on it.  Urlacher did come close, leading the Bears to the big game in 2006 but fell short against Peyton Manning and the Colts.

Urlacher’s legacy, if not his current employment status, would be a little different if the Bears had won that game.  Or maybe Brian would still have a home at Halas Hall if he had just been a little more fan friendly.  Just last season Urlacher criticized Bears fans for booing the team and despite his dominance on the field, Urlacher never really seemed beloved off of it.  Perhaps if Urlacher were more of a fan favorite the Bears would have been more inclined to keep him.  Or maybe if Urlacher related more to fans he would have been more willing to accept $2 million to play football for one more season.

Whatever.  Cuddly guys don’t make good linebackers.  Bears fans want their guys to be truculent and true.  Everything else is just icing.  Brian Urlacher ran fast, hit hard and played to the whistle.  He was an extraordinary athlete, an unquestioned team leader and one of the best Bears of them all.

But at some point even the best have to say goodbye.

 

Packer-Jacked!

The Chicago Bears don’t play the Green Bay Packers again until Christmas Day which gives the Mopers of the Midway 90 shopping days to get a reliable running game, a receiver who can get separation, a return game that can get advantageous field position and, while we’re at it, cheerleaders who only shave below the neck.

The Bears lost 27-17 to their ageless antagonists, the Packers, at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Sunday because their receivers couldn’t get open (when the receivers were open they often handled the pigskin like a pair of Jonah Hill’s undies), Jay Cutler made several bad throws, their starting running back ran – seriously – nine times for two yards, and – let’s not forget – the Packers had much greater success at all those endeavors.

The Bears defense was, once again, not blameless as Rod Marinelli’s rascals couldn’t figure out how to cover Jermichael Finley – a man so large, fast and weatherproofed he should be featured on “Ice Road Truckers” – who caught three touchdown passes from Aaron Rodgers – a quarterback who laughs when children fail.

The Bears defense kept Chicago in this game sort of like the way the Republican Guard gave Iraq a fighting chance.  But it’s pretty difficult for a defense to be effective when it’s always on the field as Green Bay held the ball for 37:21 while the Bears ate up a mere 22:31.  Practice makes perfect but the Bears “D” must have felt like it was two-a-days.

Chicago’s defense usually gives up generous chunks of yards and did so again Sunday as the Pack racked up 392 but that’s really not the worry because Brian Urlacher and company earn their claws with turnovers.  Chicago produced two but, like last week’s loss to the Saints, not until the fourth quarter.  Still, when Lance Briggs jarred the ball loose from James Starks and Julius Peppers recovered, it led directly to Cutler hitting Kellen Davis for a 32-yard score on the very next play – that’s how you do it kiddo!

Turnover #2 was produced the very next time the Pack got the ball with Brian Urlacher making a leaping interception of a Rodgers pass on a play that proved once again that #54 is still an athlete at 33.  But instead of driving for another quick score to narrow the 27-17 deficit, the Bears offense went backwards – literally and painfully – and punted away all hope.  It wasn’t pretty.

Down by 10 with the clock ticking, the only people in the world still believing in the Bears were Jim Belushi and Herman Cain’s campaign manager.  But then the weirdest – and perhaps most unfair – play of the game unfolded.  But let’s take a quick break.  Remember that movie “Oh, God!” ?  It’s a wonderful flick from 1977 which tells the story of a grocery store manager played by John Denver who is suddenly visited by God who, in 1977, should have been played by Henry Winkler or Walter Payton but Hollywood instead settled on George Burns.  Near the end of the film (sort of a spoiler alert on the way but really not too bad) everyone ends up in court because in America lawyers get a piece of everything – especially determining one’s divinity.  Denver’s character announces to the court that he is calling “the Lord God” as a witness.  And then he tells the judge and everyone else that they must have “felt something” that, for just a moment, everyone believed God was going to walk into the room and thus, because they had that belief, they must believe that Denver’s story is true and that he really has enjoyed several recent and private visits from God.  The judge tells Denver’s character that he tried a “very clever stunt” but no, such shenanigans just don’t fly.  Which, of course, brings us to Johnny Knox.

With 2:15 to play and most Bears fans wondering what was available on Red Box, the Packers punted and Devin Hester positioned himself for the catch and then caught Tim Masthay’s offering and…wait a minute….No.  He.  Didn’t.  The Bears pulled a fast one that was so cute, clever and effective that the football Gods – and FOX’s cameras and announcers – couldn’t even fathom it.  You see the ball had gone the other way and no one, except for Masthay, Knox, Hester and (amazingly presciently) Bears special teams coach Dave Toub seemed to know it.  Mr. Knox caught the ball and sprinted 89 yards up the sideline with ease and scored. It was 27-24 and the Bears maybe had a chance in hell.  But no.  The officials called Corey Graham for a hold, though none was visible on replay. In fairness to the Zebras, since even the cameras were fooled by Mr. Toub’s subterfuge, maybe the officiating crew members were the only ones on Earth who saw it…but I really don’t think so.

So, if it had been 27-24 Packers with two minutes to play, would the Bears have onside kicked, gotten the ball back and found the endzone again and miraculously won 31-27?  Yes!  Yes!  That’s exactly what would have happened and sales of Johnny Knox lunch boxes would have skyrocketed throughout Cook County.

Probably not.  It was a bad call but the Bears lost because they committed 10 penalties for 70 yards, ran their offense like they were playing in bacon grease and didn’t put Charles Tillman on Finley.  But honestly, it’s not that bad.  A week ago at this time the worry among Bears backers was that the offensive line had been hired to help Cutler sleep with the fishes, but Cutler actually enjoyed capable protection most of the day against the Packers.  And while it’s certainly troublesome that Knox, Hester and company (hello, Roy Williams, are you there?) still can’t run effective routes and it’s frustrating that Matt Forte simply cannot pound the ball into the line and only runs effectively when he gets a five-yard head start, there’s still hope.  Marion Barber will get in the lineup one of these weeks and will give Chicago’s “O” an effective 1-2 running back punch and when safety Chris Harris returns the defense will get better.

Yes, it’s terribly painful to fall to the Packers once again as that’s now three straight defeats, including last season’s NFC title game, but there’s reason for optimism.  The Bears have a good defense, a living quarterback and play two of their next three at home against the Carolina Panthers and Minnesota Vikings.  By the time we reach Christmas Day in Green Bay a lot can happen.  Cutler and his catchers could be on the same page, Forte might put his best foot (how about two feet?) forward along with his shoulder into an opposing defender and the Packers, who have won nine straight games dating back to last year including the playoffs, might finally fall back to Earth.

The Bears wore orange on Sunday and could turn into pumpkins by Halloween but let us not be ghoulish or dour.  Let us remember Johnny Knox running unencumbered and fancily in the fourth quarter.  Let us know that as long as the defense stays chippy, Cutler stays healthy and Lovie Smith looks inward there’s hope for the Bears and maybe, someday, there will be a little bit of fear in Green Bay.

Enter Dent

Richard Dent was the Pontiac of football players: a little flashy, very reliable and capable of coolness along with handfuls of greatness.

Dent was not a Cadillac like Dan Hampton or a Hummer like Reggie White or a likely-stolen Porsche like Lawrence Taylor. Pontiacs normally don’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  However, when Oldsmobiles like Andre Tippett, Fred Dean and Rickey Jackson start getting in, then you hop in the Sunfire, Trans-Am, or GTO and drive to Canton, Ohio wearing your #95 jersey and welcome in “The Colonel.”

Dent became the fourth player from those great Chicago Bears teams of the 1980s to be enshrined at Canton; joining Hampton, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.  The coach of that Bears team, Mike Ditka, is also in the Hall, but as a player.

Payton was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He was likely the best all-around running back, and perhaps the most gracious gentleman, in NFL history.  It’s still wounding that he’s gone.

Like Dent, Hampton didn’t get in until several years after first eligible; as he seemed to be overshadowed by other players and personalities from those Bears teams.  But Hampton was the best player on those Bears defenses and probably the NFL’s best overall defensive lineman of the 1980s.  It’s not all about sacks.  It’s also about knocking down passes, chasing guys downfield and treating every play like it’s your last with love, death, wealth and happiness riding on the outcome.  How often do you see defensive linemen make tackles in the secondary?  Dan Hampton did that.

Hampton got in the Hall four years after Singletary, who was the most overrated player on those Bears teams and possibly Chicago’s third best linebacker in 1985.  Singletary was great and the Bears wouldn’t have been as good without him.  But at their peak, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson were better.  Also, Dent, Hampton, Steve McMichael and Gary Fencik were always better than Singletary, who was fortunate enough to be the platoon leader of a gang of balls-out, blood-seeking maniacs.  Singletary was good, but not as good as everyone, especially in Chicago, likes to think.

Dent admirably said one of the many people who deserve credit for his great career is Jimbo Covert, the Bears’ left tackle from 1983 to 1990 who sparred with Dent at practice.  I agree with Dent when he says Covert also belongs in Canton as he surely was one of the best tackles to ever play as evidenced by his seven Pro Bowl appearances…but wait.  My Bear-loving memory is fading.  A reference check rudely informed me that Jimbo actually only made the Pro Bowl twice and and was All-Pro twice, as well.  I could have sworn Covert was a Honolulu regular for nearly all the Reagan years.  I was wrong.

Does anyone else from those 1985 Bears deserve to be in the Hall?  Seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg?  Maybe.  And if Fencik, Marshall, McMichael and Wilson were better than Singletary, then certainly they should all….nah.  It’s tough to put in a bunch of guys from a team that only won one Super Bowl.  Everyone on Earth knows those Bears teams of the 1980s should have won more.  They didn’t.  And Canton owes them nothing.

Who among the current crop of Bears might one day be bronzed?  Brian Urlacher is a shoo-in.  He has made the Pro Bowl seven times, first team All-Pro four times and — listen up kids! — he’s Brian Urlacher!  Urlacher is one of those guys who’s so overrated he actually has become underrated.  Playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears is like playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, centerfield for the New York Yankees or James Bond.  You get far more attention than you deserve and everyone expects to you to be damn good and really cool.  Among contemporaries, Urlacher is nothing close to Ray Lewis and probably wasn’t even as good as Zach Thomas.  But Urlacher is good. Very good.  He’s a better athlete than either of those other guys. If he had played with Dent and Hampton in front of him and Wilson and Marshall beside him, he’d be illegal.

What about Lance Briggs?  He’s in Urlacher territory with six Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro selection and he’s a very, very good football player.  But Hall of Fame?  Let’s watch him decapitate Aaron Rodgers in this season’s NFC title game and then intercept a pass and bring it into the end zone in a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.  Then, yes, Lance gets in.

Devin Hester is the most exciting NFL player since Deion Sanders, who was among those who went into the Hall along with Dent this past weekend.  Hester holds the NFL record for most career kick and punt returns for touchdowns with a total of 14 and is a serviceable receiver.  But has his career been one for the Bronze Age?  Hester has those 14 TDs (not including one from Super Bowl XLI and a returned missed field goal from the 2006 season) on 291 career returns.  The man whose return record he broke, Brian Mitchell, had 13 career scores on 1,070 returns.  So Hester takes about one of every 20 returns to the house whereas Mitchell took back only about one of every 80.  Mitchell also scored 12 TDs rushing and ran for 1,967 career yards with four TDs and 2,336 yard receiving.  But Hester already has more receiving TDs – 12 – and nearly as much receiving yardage – 2,196 –  and has only played five seasons.  Mitchell played 14.

Certainly Hester’s top return years are behind him, therefore his eye-popping TD-per-return ratio will likely diminish significantly.  But it’s not crazy to project he will retire with 15 career return scores, 25 TD receptions and maybe more exciting moments than any other player in NFL history.  He won’t be a first ballot guy because some will say special teamers should wait in line.  But sometime around 2022 or 2023 his phone will ring.  And the Bears will have another trophy.

The Bears lead the NFL with 27 Hall of Famers and, especially with Dent’s enshrinement this year, it’s only fitting that Chicago was to be playing in the Hall of Fame Game.   That game was cancelled a few weeks ago because the lockout wasn’t over.  Then on Friday, the Bears were to be holding their annual Family Night at Soldier Field, but it was cancelled because the grass was falling apart.  Then on Wednesday night, the lights went out on the Bears’ practice field in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  So the Bears have yet to be seen by the public at large and we hope that’s a bad thing.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment that the Bears play at Soldier Field, which is run by the Chicago Park District, and seems to be treated like any of the other random softball diamonds or tennis courts in the city.  Do things like this happen in other cities?  Bears players, including Urlacher, say Soldier Field should use FieldTurf which is not real grass but far closer to it than artificial turf’s green concrete ancestors.  The Bears would be better on a synthetic surface because they’re a team built on speed and far, far less maintenance would be needed on the fake stuff.

However, many want Soldier Field to remain au naturel.  Fine.  The greatest green grass guy in the world works just a few miles away for the Chicago White Sox.  His name is Roger Bossard, “The Sodfather” and his innovative drainage and irrigation system has been used by the  Sox since the 1960s.  He has also overseen the installation of fields at Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium and at several other major league ballparks.  The man knows his grass. He even has his own bobblehead.  The White Sox, likely, won’t be playing in October and the Bears will be away from Soldier Field for three weeks, so give the Sodfather the keys.  Give the NFL’s charter franchise a respectable field.  We won’t care what the field is made of in January when it’s covered in snow and the Bears are taking apart other members of the NFC on their way to the Super Bowl (Oh, yes..).  But for now, let’s make it pretty.  Let’s keep it safe.  All Bears deserve a pristine playground upon which to do their savagery.

Ed Sabol is now in the Hall of Fame and thank goodness football did the right thing by getting him there.  Sabol is 94, a World War II veteran and is the one who started NFL Films.  One of the many reasons the NFL is America’s favorite sport is that Sabol built such drama around it.  He and his son Steve have spent decades turning the league’s great games into timeless dramas.  NFL Films could make the assembly of a bologna sandwich feel like Superman conquering the dinosaurs.  It’s just a shame that the original voice of NFL Films, John Facenda, is no longer around.  He died in 1984 but his stentorian narrations live on and, thanks to Ed Sabol, every NFL game will always, at least in retrospect, have the look and feel of a timeless struggle between angry men embedded in mud and blood.