Chicago Bulls Season Preview

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As if we planned it this way, the Bulls kick off their season just as the Bears enter their bye week amidst their most disappointing season in recent memory.

I’m as excited as I’ve been for a Bulls season. I think this is the best, deepest roster they’ve had in the Tom Thibodeau era. But I’ve also lived through the last few years, and know that all of our high hopes and expectations could come to a screeching halt with one fatal injury. Every expert has said it, and I echo those thoughts – the Bulls are built to win it all this year.

Best case scenario – Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah stay healthy all year. Pau Gasol provides that secondary scorer the Bulls have coveted the last five off-seasons and haven’t found. Thibs uses the depth he’s been provided with, tempering his stars’ minutes and keeping them fresh for a post-season push – something we’ve yet to see him do. Doug McDermott comes in as the NBA-ready scorer everyone thinks he’ll be. Jimmy Butler doesn’t have to play 47 minutes a game and improves his offensive game.

Worst case scenario – Rose and Noah battle injuries all year. Rose never returns to form and Noah gets overplayed to the point where he can no longer contribute significantly. Gasol’s age starts to show us that his best days are in fact behind him. Jimmy Butler never develops an offensive game, and Thibs doesn’t trust his young players off the bench enough and runs his starters into the ground. The Bulls still find a way into a top seed in a weak Eastern Conference, and are tossed from the playoffs by Charlotte with Nazr Mohammed and Kirk Hinrich scotch taped together and starting games.

I’ve been let down too many times in the recent past – this year I needed to balance my excitement with sobering reality.

Let’s take quick look at some keys to the Bulls season:

HEALTH

This starts and ends with Derrick Rose. Whatever we think the Bulls are capable of right now, does not happen unless Rose is healthy and back in the ballpark of the player he used to be. But he’s not the only one to worry about. Joakim Noah is coming off of off-season knee surgery that is taking longer than expected to rehab so he is playing through his recovery some – definitely something to watch. Pau Gasol is 34 years old and hasn’t played a full 82 game season since ’10-’11, and Kirk Hinrich is 33 and has never played a full 82 game season. Minutes need to be monitored much more closely this year, which leads me to my next key.

DEPTH

Like I said before, this is the deepest, most talented team the Bulls have had since ’98. At bare minimum, they should go 10 deep. They can avoid so many of the issues with injury and fatigue they’ve faced in the past if they just take advantage of their depth, which means trusting meaningful minutes to youngsters McDermott and Mirotic. The one player I’m watching in this category is Aaron Brooks. Made in the mold of DJ Augustin and Nate Robinson, Brooks can flat out score and spark the Bulls off the bench in stretches when Rose is resting or they want to move Hinrich to the 2. McDermott and Mirotic stretch the floor and Taj Gibson could be a starter on most teams. Gibson is basically a 6th starter and will be used in a 3 player big-man rotation with Noah and Gasol, which should help both get needed rest. This Bulls’ second unit is the best they’ve had since the “Bench Mob”, and can beat any second unit in the league. But none of this matters without the last key.

COACHING

All of this falls on Tom Thibodeau. In his Bulls tenure, he has had a bad habit of overworking his players and not trusting his bench. He coaches every game like its Game 7 of the NBA Finals, which does make them competitive every night and helps win them games they otherwise might not, but it also leaves them either hurt or exhausted once the games actually matter in May and June. This is the year for Thibodeau to take a step forward himself and show he has learned from his first few years of coaching.

I think there is a very realistic shot the Bulls represent the East in the Finals this year. They have all of the pieces – all-stars, veteran leaders, depth, top-tier coach – and if they don’t at least make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, I would bet we could come back to this post and find the reasons why.

But for now, I’m going to allow myself to enjoy this unadulterated excitement I’ve felt all my life. Bulls season is here, Chicago.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Chicago Bulls

Bears at the Bye: What Now?

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Thank goodness its the bye week because right now I need a break from the Bears. We all do.

This is not how this year was supposed to go. We entered the season, on paper, with what was supposed to be the highest scoring offense in the NFL, with an improved defense, and the highest paid player in the NFL ready to take the reins at quarterback in year two of the first system that finally seemed to work. Every week when I look at the match up, I look at this Bears team, and on paper, can think of every reason why they should win each week. If you look at the first half of this season on paper, the Bears should be – AT WORST – 6-2. This should be the “on paper” leaders of the NFC North. The “on paper” favorites to come out of a conference with no true front runner. But nobody told the Bears and Marc Trestman that this game is not played on paper. Its played on the football field.

The Bears have the best quarterback and wide receivers they’ve ever had – And I mean EVER – on the stat sheet. They have one of the best running backs in the league. They have a tight end having the best season of his career. So where is this going wrong?

Well, a team is defined by their head coach and this head coach needs to be held accountable for his failings. When you have this much talent not producing, its pretty clear where the blame falls. Look at the Patriots, who just had their way with the Bears. They have a beat up defense and offensive line, are without their number one running back, and are playing with no true #1 receiver. What do they have (other than a quarterback that is a true leader, elite player, and makes everyone around him better)? They have a head coach who knows how to get the best out of the team that is given to him. He found every weakness and hole in the Bears in every phase of the game, and he exposed it. We’re starting to see why for years Marc Trestman couldn’t keep a job in the NFL for more than a year or two and we’re certainly seeing why a guy who has been around football for 20 years was never given a professional head coaching job. Because this guy plays the game on paper. He can study tape and analytics and odds. He can game plan with the best of them…on paper – but he cannot get a football team to win. And thats clearly why nobody has ever called on him to coach in the NFL until now. Bruce Arians is coaching the Arizona Cardinals, led by Carson Palmer, to the best record in the NFL. Phil Emery hired the wrong guy.

We’re used to the Bears being the overachieving, hard working, try-hard team that is fun to root for because even when they are over matched, they fight their asses off. Now we have a team with a ton of talent, but also a ton of ego who underachieves and then whines at each other instead of going out there and just playing better. They have the highest paid player in the NFL at quarterback, and he cannot win with arguably the best weapons in the NFL around him. We all have to come to terms with the fact that this is as good as he’s gonna be. His potential will never be reached on a consistent basis.

I spent the first half of the season asking who this team is. And for a while I just thought this was an inconsistent team. But the truth is, this team is just bad. To me, this season is as good as over. Even if they can put together a couple good games in the second half of the season, no way they can catch Green Bay or Detroit in the division. I’m ready to close up shop on the Bears and dive head first into Bulls and Blackhawks season. And do you know why? Because those two teams, for better or for worse, represent everything I love about Chicago sports. Hard-working teams, players with heart and coaches who hold their players accountable and aren’t afraid to hold them to a high standard and make adjustments on the fly as needed. They aren’t concerned with being liked, they are concerned with winning. Those are the teams I want to watch.

Lamarr Houston tearing his ACL celebrating a sack of the backup quarterback at the end of a 30 point route, and Marc Trestman’s reaction to it (feeling sorry for him),  sums up this team and this season perfectly. Its a joke.

Week 7 Recap: Home Sick

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Well, one thing has stayed consistent at Soldier Field – the Chicago Blackhawks have still won more games on the lakefront in 2014 than the Bears.

The Bears’ inconsistent season continued as expected (or not) on Sunday with a pitiful 27-14 loss at home to the Dolphins. The Bears are 0-3 and minus 7 in the turnover battle at home this season, and 3-4 overall.

It was an overall lackluster effort on offense. For a group full of offensive weapons and firepower, it’s amazing to watch them consistently play with no urgency. They look relaxed out there, like they can just depend on their talent and assume everything else will just work out. Hell, we knew the defense wouldn’t be great this year, but at least they play with passion out there! I’d much rather watch a less talented group play with fire under their asses than a talented group play like they don’t need it – and that is exactly what the Bears have looked like on offense on multiple occasions this season.

Maybe we are starting to see that there is a reason Marc Trestman never got a head coaching job till now – like Thibs for the Bulls, sure he’s talented, but he’s close-minded. Yeah, Trestman is smart – the “Quarterback Whisperer,” maybe, but it seems he just can’t get it done, not as a head coach anyway. His game plans seem unprepared, he fails to make in-game adjustments, and he plays it safe, often to the Bears’ detriment.

I’ve asked all year for this team to define themselves, to create and harness an identity. But the truth is, this is who this team is – a middle-of-the-road, underachieving, .500 team. They’ll continue to give us false hope in certain games they aren’t supposed to win, (I’m predicting a win next week at New England) and let us down in easy ones like they have against Buffalo, Carolina and Miami.

They aren’t who we thought they were.

Week 6 Recap: Back on Track

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Week 6 is in the books and the Bears have returned to the win column, at least for one week. In a game we expected to be a shootout, the Bears defense – led by 3 mostly unknown linebackers – held the high powered Falcons offense, who had been averaging 46 points per game at home, to 13 points.

I’m happy to say that a win is a win, but, we wouldn’t be giving this game a fair look if we didn’t look at one important factor – the Atlanta Falcons defense stinks. Worse than the Bears. They really should have scored more, but, that said, the offense looked the best it has looked this year. Cutler didn’t make mistakes, Jeffrey and Marshall looked at full strength, and Matt Forte finally found the endzone – twice. This is as close as we’ve seen to the offense we’ve been expecting all year.

The defense should get a lot of credit here though. The young linebacker group was fast and all over the field – something we’re not used to seeing. Kyle Fuller was all over Julius Jones, holding him to only 4 catches. The defensive line was solid all game, and Jared Allen finally found an opposing quarterback. As I’ve said all year, this is what we need from the defense – to get the ball back to the offense and to keep them in the game.

In the world of sports, its easy to jump to extremes. Cutler plays well and he’s the pro-bowl quarterback we have been waiting for. He plays poorly, we lust for the “manage-the-game-and-don’t-lose” Kyle Orton era. And this was definitely one of Cutler’s best games as a Bear. He went 26-38 for 381 years, one touchdown and no interceptions. He doesn’t have to put up those kinds of numbers every single game, but we’ve seen a pretty obvious pattern so far – Cutler takes care of the ball, the Bears win. He turns it over, they lose. Take a look at Cutler’s stats in wins versus losses.

In the Bears’ 3 wins: 7 touchdowns, 0 interceptions

In the Bears’ 3 losses: 6 touchdowns, 6 interceptions

He needs to find a way to continue to be as effective as he’s been, without making those game-changing mistakes that take them out of games.

One other stat I think is worth noting: When the Bears score 27 points or more, they are 3-0. When they score less than 27, they are 0-3.

The defense will not always look this good – although I hope it is a sign that they can be better than we expected at time. But this offense needs to score and not turn the ball over if they want to find their way back into the playoff picture in the NFC.

Next week could/should be a win, and if they can follow those two positive trends, they can get themselves back over .500 and get their first win at home.

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Week 5 Recap: Are you there, Bears? It’s me, Eric

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Dear Chicago Bears,

Five weeks into the NFL season, you’ve delighted, confused, frustrated, disappointed, excited and teased us. We’re in a long-term relationship, this is bound to happen. But with a lot of football still left to play I’m concerned that my attraction to you, strong as it may be at times, may start to waver unless some unhealthy habits are corrected. We need to get back to the simple things that attracted to each other from birth. So here is some advice that may help us keep the flame lit and burning deep into the cold, cold winter ahead.

-That quarterback of yours can be good. He can be very, very good. But he has this silly habit of throwing the ball to players on the other team in meaningful moments. When three defenders are surrounding one receiver, maybe don’t throw the ball there. The odds may NOT be ever in your favor.

- The endzone does not close at halftime. Your team IS allowed to score points in the final 30 minutes of the game.  It would help. Give it a go.

-While the other team is on offense, opposing receivers are allowed to catch passes in the middle of the field. Yes, they are allowed to catch them anywhere, but your defense seems scared of covering that massive area.

-“Special Teams” is not a term given because they get to be in the special classroom with the colorful blocks. Still, this group sure has been special. Running kick returns out from 7 yards into the endzone to about the 12 yard line, hitting return men before the ball gets to them, leaving live balls just laying on the field, missing 35 yard field goals. You know, special. Can we get back to the “special” we used to be? Or just competent?

-All the money we spent on offensive weapons, a star quarterback and an offensive guru coach? Can we start to see some payoff from that? Like, more than 24 points in a game?

I want you to know, I’ll always love you no matter what. But you’re starting to get on my nerves. I’m very close to taking my football pillow and sleeping on the couch for a few nights. I’m not asking a lot. I know we can get the magic back. Let’s take the week to reflect, do a little “me” work, then we’ll get together next Sunday and see if we can’t find some of that ol’ spark.

Week 4 Recap: Packed Away

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If each game was decided by the offense’s opening drive, the Bears would be the best team in football. They  come out with a great gameplan for their opening drive, they execute, they get on the board, and they give us all a false sense of hope that we should know better than to fall for by now as Chicago fans. The big difference after their first drive Sunday against Green Bay was that the guy coming back to answer was Aaron Rogers. And Rogers made the Bears pay. In truth, the Bears had no answer for Aaron Rogers from the first snap. The defense put no pressure on him, and apparently didn’t assign ANYONE to cover the middle of the field. Rogers showed us what an elite quarterback really looks like, and ate them alive.

For one half, the Bears kept up. It looked to be a shootout, waiting to see which defense would step up first and make that big stop. And in the final drive of the first half with 9 seconds left, the Packers stopped the Bears at the goal line as time expired. This wound up being the turning point of the game. The Packers came out in the second half and outscored the Bears 17-0. There are a lot of places to put blame – Trestman, Cutler, the defense – none of them deserve all of it. It was a team loss. To put it bluntly, they got their asses kicked in the second half. Yes, the defense got picked apart, but we never expected this defense to be great. At best, we hoped for them to be mediocre. And you know what? They have been! And that was okay because last fortseason we put together an explosive offense ready to take the next step. This, to me, is the big issue. This has not happened. Where is this explosive offense we’ve all been expecting? The one that was supposed to allow the defense to just be serviceable to win games? This offense was supposed to be high powered and high scoring and so far the Bears have failed to score more than 28 points. That cannot happen if they want to have any chance of winning in today’s NFL. The defense is not as bad as last year, but lets not fool ourselves here, they’re still not good. But they are good enough to win games as long as the offense carries the load, which it has yet to do. Did they take their offensive dominance for granted? Are teams just figuring out Trestman’s schemes? Hard to say at this point, but so far they have not been able to get the job done consistently.

We also need to find out what happens to Jay Cutler when he goes from a cool, collected quarterback to one who gets behind and starts pressing. He becomes a different player. That more than anything needs to be corrected, and Marc Trestman needs to figure out how to correct it mid-game to avoid things getting out of hand fast the way they did on Sunday. The offense needs to control games in order for them to win, and they did not control this game, Aaron Rogers did. There was nothing they could do to stop him. Rogers did whatever he wanted the entire game. A lot of attention has been focused on mistakes the Bears made, but I think they did a lot well too. Forte was great. Bennett was great. And in the first half, Cutler was great. The issue was they played a team where the margin for error is non-existent and there was way too much error in too many areas.

All of that said, I actually think the Bears can win at least three of the next four against struggling teams. I really do. They are capable of playing the way they did on that opening drive, but they are also capable of playing the way they did in the second half of this game. That is the issue. We still don’t know which team to expect from week to week, or even from drive to drive. The pieces are there, the talent is there and the potential is there. The frustrating thing so far is their inability to put it all together at the same time. Now is the time for Marc Trestman to prove he belongs as an NFL coach and not just a glorified coordinator the way Lovie Smith was for so many years on the other end.

 

Week 3 Recap: Good, or Good Luck?

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I finished last week’s piece by saying I still didn’t know who this Bears team was. And after Week 3, another nationally televised road victory, I still don’t know. And what I mean by that, is that I don’t know what I can count on seeing each week from the Bears. I have seen individual performances that have stuck out and specific concerns I see going forward, but as a unit I don’t know yet what type of team this is. And so early in the season that might not be a big deal as long as they are able to pull out wins the way they have been doing while they discover and establish their identity.

Jay Cutler has done a nice job bouncing back from a Week 1 that saw him making all of the Cutler-esque mistakes we’ve grown weary of seeing from him, and have questioned if they would ever be fixaible. The last two weeks Cutler has been accurate, avoided turnovers and managed both games effectively. He has thrown 6 touchdowns and no interceptions. Now I am aware that there have been several “almosts” in terms of turnovers, and Cutler is and always will be a guy who makes impossible looking throws with very little margin for error, but he has been completing them – including an incredible throw to Martellus Bennett on the first touchdown of the game Monday night. But the big difference is now seeing him throw the ball away and take sacks in those situations where his tendency is to force the throw. But what he has not done is turn the ball over, which I believe has been a major factor in these wins. And he has done it with his two top receivers at less than 100% and an ineffective run game.

But the thing that has struck me in these first few weeks has been the improvement of the defense. Still nowhere near the dominating defenses of the Lovie Smith era, but forcing turnovers, making red zone stops and putting the offense in a position to win games. They are taking the ball away at such a higher rate than they did last year, and many of the new players they brought in have been making significant impacts. Most notably for me, Willie Young and Kyle Fuller. The former currently leads the league in sacks, the latter in interceptions. That I did not see coming. And while this defense still isn’t dominating, some of these individual performances are doing enough to win these games until they can come together as a unit.

The biggest issue has been and continues to be injuries. Like I said, Marshall and Jeffrey are still not playing at 100%, and probably won’t be all year. The offensive line is still missing significant pieces, as is the defensive line. And in this game, the secondary was depleted to the point where we almost didn’t have anyone to put out there in the fourth quarter. And while these aren’t exactly Pro-Bowlers getting injured, they are significant role players on a team where depth is not exactly a strength. Its hard to develop an identity when you have a revolving door at this many positions.

So after three games the Bears are 2-1, and things don’t get any easier anytime soon. The next three weeks the Bears have the Packers at home, and then go on the roiad to face Carolina and Atlanta, all teams with playoff potential and explosive offenses. These last two games may have been won with a lot of luck, and they may need more in the coming weeks to stay over .500 heading into the bye week. Nobody is running away with the division right now. As we have learned, early season success doesn’t always mean playoff appearances. I can see this team putting together an 11 win season, and I can also still see them finishing the year 8-8 or 9-7 and missing the playoffs. They need to continue to improve on offense (particularly in the run game), find consistency on defense, win the turnover battle and most importantly, they need to get and stay healthy.

This week I’d like to see a step forward from the defense. They need to put pressure on Aaron Rogers and continue to stop the run, which starts with the defensive line. I want to see the rookies continue to progress as they will need to be a big part of that success. Cutler needs to continue to play smart – but most importantly, flawed as they may be, they just need to keep finding ways to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty.