Week 12 Recap: Bears Out-Lovie the Bucs

The Bears’ win streak improved to a whopping two games Sunday, with a 21-13 win over former head coach Lovie Smith and the lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers. With the win, the Bears improved to 5-6 on the season heading into a big divisional showdown on Thanksgiving day against the Detroit Lions. smith-lovie-112014-getty-ftrjpg_1m78meeq7k3k312iws772akyvk-300x168

In Lovie Smith’s highly anticipated return to Soldier Field, the Bears summoned one of Smith’s old game plans in an ugly win headlined by take-aways, short fields and very little offense.

We did not wave goodbye to Lovie Smith after a 10-6 season only to bring in an offensive minded coach who can’t produce offense save his life. If the Bears wanted to win games in a manner  like they did on Sunday, they shouldn’t have brought in Trestman and signed Cutler to that massive deal. This was not how this was supposed to go.

A look at the numbers against a 2-9 team with one of the worse defenses in the NFL. The Bears again only managed 21 points as they continue to underachieve and fail to find their way to the endzone. The offense gained a measly 204 total yards as they failed once again to spread the field, make big plays, and put together long drives. They were 4-16 on third down, and extend their streak of first quarter goose eggs to six games. That’s right, the Bears have not scored in the first quarter since their week five loss to Carolina. Brandon Marshall had as many penalties as he did receptions (three) and Cutler only found the endzone once against the 23rd ranked pass defense in the NFL.

It was the defense that stepped up for the Bears this week, perhaps in a statement game for them against their former head coach. They forced turnovers like the old Lovie-led teams used to and allowed the offense to score on short fields, giving Jay Cutler and Matt Forte easy opportunities to get points for the Bears. Stephen Paea continues to play well, and Brandon Bass and Cornelius Washington also came up big for the Bears on Sunday. The defense still gave up a lot of yards, but took the ball away in big moments to help hold the Bucs to only one touchdown on the day.

Wins in these last two games against two last place teams are not enough to assuage us of our issues with the Bears. The fact that the Bears couldn’t muster any more points or yards against these two teams is an embarrassment, and they only got away with it because they were playing bad teams. This will not continue to hold up, and we’ll get a very painful fall back to reality on Thursday at Ford Field. The Lions are number one in the NFL in run defense and in points allowed. The Lions’ offense has struggled lately, but what better way to get back on track than facing an historically bad offense coming off a game that left them feeling unrealistically good about themselves.   If the offense could barely muster points against the Vikings and the Buccaneers, they are not going to have very much to be thankful for on Thursday other than a couple extra days off.

 

Bears fans – Root for the Bucs?

nfl_a_mccown-smith01jr_576x324

In the second year of the Marc Trestman/Jay Cutler experience one thing has been made clear to Bears fans. The pairing that many thought would finally match Cutler’s potential with his results is not working. The Bears’ offense, which was near the top of the league last year, has taken a huge step backward. The defense, which was upgraded in the off season through free agency and the draft, has given up 50+ points in losses twice already this season. The talent is there particularly on offense, and the fact that it has not come together this year falls on the coach, the quarterback and the people who put them there.

Marc Trestman was supposed to the “quarterback whisperer”. The longtime journeyman who never found a long-term coaching home in the league despite his offensive brilliance. He was given all of the weapons on offense and in his second season as Bears head coach he has failed to make it work. There is no excuse for having this amount of talent on that side of the ball and be scoring as measly 21 points a game in only four wins in ten games.

So why hasn’t a coaching change been made? For one, pride. The Bears passed up Bruce Arians in favor of Trestman and we all see how that worked out for Arians, coaching the Arizona Cardinals to the best record in the NFL. The Bears decided to make Jay Cutler the highest paid player in the NFL instead of giving him the franchise tag and making sure that he was the guy before committing so much money to him. To come out and say they were wrong would be crippling to the pride of upper management in a season that was filled with such high expectations. And after losing 51-23 to the Patriots and then 55-14 to the Packers, their pride has been tested but somehow not broken.

But how difficult will it be for them to stand behind their choices after losing Sunday on the lakefront to the 2-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, coached by the coach they fired and the quarterback they let go? Lovie Smith coming to town and beating the Bears on their home field with one of the worst teams in the NFL would be rock bottom. And as is the case with most difficult issues, it usually takes “rock bottom” to incite any kind of change.

The Bears have the worst defense in the NFL, giving up 29 points per game. Tampa Bay is only two spots below, at 27.9. And Tampa Bay’s offense is even worse, sitting at 28th in YPG and 25th in PPG. Losing to this team would be bad enough – but if they were to lose to Lovie Smith and Josh McCown, the coach and quarterback the Bears moved on from, that might just be enough to cause the Bears brass so much shame they are forced to make a change immediately. I’m so tired of seeing Cutler stare down his receivers and throw into triple coverage. I’m so tired of hearing Marc Trestman come to the microphone and tell us how great practice was, how they are working on all three phases and how they’re focusing on the next one. Accountability is more than the words you say, its in the actions you take to correct it. Trestman and Cutler have only gotten to one half of that equation this year.

The alternative is the Bears winning Sunday, pulling off a few more wins in the last half of this season and finishing middle of the road, 7-9 or 8-8. According to management, they would be a team “coming off a tough start but trending upward at the end of the season”. Or at least that is what we would be fed while little to no changes are made. We would be given the same false sense of hope we’ve been given for years and give them no reason to make significant changes. This would leave us in the worst possible place to be as a professional sports team: Mediocre. Middle of the road. And heading into the off season with another mid-to-late first round pick, not a lot of cap flexibility, and more or less the same coach and roster, we’d just be spinning out wheels.

Big changes need to happen, sooner rather than later. The only way I see that happening is a loss on Sunday to Lovie and the Bucs. If the Bears lose this game, the blowback against ownership will be deafening. A win just brings the Bears one step closer to mediocracy. A fate we’re all too familiar with.

Week 11 Recap: False Hope

10411179_10152870099439452_7846842447371716625_n

The Chicago Bears earned their home first win of 2014 on Sunday, with a 21-13 victory over the Minnesota Vikings. It was the Bears’ first win at Soldier Field since Dec. 9 of last year, as they improve to 4-6 on the season.

It was a much needed win for the underachieving Bears, who had previously dropped three in a row and five of their last six games. With the win the Bears keep their playoff hopes alive, slim as they may be.

But even with the win, the Bears still don’t look like the team we expected coming into the year, let alone a playoff team. The yards have been there, but the points have not. Despite 468 total yards, nearly double what the Vikings had – 243 – the Bears only managed to put up 21 points. Jay Cutler threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns, but also had two interceptions. In fact, the Bears barely managed to escape with a win thanks to a 4th quarter endzone interception by Ryan Mundy with just under two minutes left in the game. Things might have been worse had they not been facing a rookie quarterback and one of the worst offenses in the NFL – the Vikings are 30th in total yards per game 28th in points per game.

Despite the win, this Bears team is still far from the playoff contending team we expected coming into the season. Poor play calling (another failed drive at the end of the half and a failed fourth and one goal-line play), and an inability to convert yards into points continue to haunt the Bears. Its hard to believe that 135 yards from Alshon Jeffrey, 90 yards from Brandon Marshall and 175 total yards from Matt Forte didn’t result in more points on the board.

Do not be fooled, Bears fans. This is just one win, albeit barely, over a poor team. None of the issues that have plagued the Bears this season have been corrected. They still struggle to score points, Jay Cutler still throws brain-numbing interceptions (two in this game), and the defense has yet to prove they can stop a high end offense. The combined records of teams they’ve beaten is 16-24, not exactly the elite of the NFL. Those who had hoped a loss to Minnesota would be a conduit to change will just have to wait another week.

 

Is Derrick Rose the next Penny Hardaway?

pennyrose

This feels all too familiar. Coming off of his second major knee surgery in as many seasons, Derrick  Rose is having trouble staying on the court yet again. Two ankle sprains and now a hamstring have kept Rose out of half of the Bulls’ first 10 games this season. The build up of minor injuries such as these is exactly what led up to Rose eventually tearing his ACL during the 2012 playoffs.

When he has been on the court he has been good, showing flashes of his former MVP self. He’s put up averages of 18 points and five-and-a-half assists per game, and displayed the same speed we always remembered. While the Bulls are taking a much more conservative, cautionary approach to his injuries this year, I cannot help but wonder if we are watching the beginning of the end for what was once a very promising NBA career.

An all-star caliber player with a unique skill set, an NBA lottery pick out of Memphis with potential to be one of the greatest point guards ever. Sound familiar? That’s because we’ve seen this before in the career of Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Hardaway was selected third out of Memphis in 1993 by the Golden State Warriors and later traded to Orlando for the top pick, Chris Webber.

During the 1994–95 NBA season, the Magic won a franchise record 57 games while Hardaway averaged 20.9 points, 7.2 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.7 steals per game. He started in his first All-Star game and was named All-NBA First Team. The next season, Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal led the Magic to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose to Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. O’Neal left Orlando for the Lakers the next season, Hardaway was finally the lone star and leader of the team but failed to lead the Magic to another playoff win.

The very next year, Hardaway suffered a devastating knee injury and was never the same. His unique size and ability helped him still achieve some success, but his numbers dropped drastically. Hardaway couldn’t stay healthy for a full year after that, battling foot and ankle injuries causing him to miss time until two micro fracture surgeries put him out for the season. He battled back and returned again, but he was a shell of the player he used to be in stints with the Suns, Knicks and Heat. Yeah, it’s starting to sound like the Derrick Rose story. But could Rose’s story have a different ending, perhaps a more positive one involving the NBA title Hardaway never received?

A year-by-year stat comparison of the two players in their first four years. The fourth year for both players were strike-shortened seasons and both players missed most of the following year with a career-changing knee injury. The similarities are mind-blowing.

Year 1 Games Played PPG AST Season Result
Rose 81 16.8 6.3 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 82 16.0 6.6 Round 1 Loss
Year 2
Rose 78 20.8 6.0 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 77 20.9 7.2 NBA Finals Loss
Year 3
Rose 81 25.8 7.7 East Finals Loss
Hardaway 82 21.7 7.1 East Finals Loss
Year 4
Rose 39 21.8 7.9 Round 1 Loss
Hardaway 59 20.5 5.6 Round 1 Loss

Are we seeing another story of a potential NBA star’s career cut short? The similarities are eery and hard to ignore. For Bulls fans, you just have to hope this is not the case. The Bulls this season could be special and make a real run at an NBA title – but I don’t believe that’ll happen unless Rose is on the court, something we’re starting to see as more of a challenge than I think he or anyone expected.

It’s hard to imagine Rose ever returning to MVP form, and while Hardaway did develop into a quality role player, his career arc was riddled with injury. Maybe these little early season nicks are nothing, dealing with the rust of sitting out two years in a row. But it’s hard to ignore that Rose’s style of play is not built for a career of longevity. Players who move like he does and hit the lane with that amount of power and quickness don’t play very long without making significant adjustments to their games.

Then there is the mental aspect, which is clearly starting to take a toll on Rose. A constant hot topic in the media, and understandably so, Rose is becoming more defensive all the time. On top of the fact that he has to continue playing knowing that any wrong turn on the court, any awkward landing, could spell the end for him.

 

i-2

Time to Cut-ler our Losses

Sunday night, families ate dinner together. Fathers helped their children with their homework. Husbands spent quality time with their wives. And all thanks to the Chicago Bears, the number one cause for Sunday family togetherness all around Chicago and across the country! Thanks Bears, for being too painful to watch and bringing men and women together with their loved ones each and every Sunday.

When I first started writing this post, I began by listing everything that went wrong on Sunday night from the opening kick return. But the truth is, the problems can not and will not be solved on the football field, not this year anyway. The problems are much, much bigger.

For all of the moves the Bears have made on and off the field in the last five years, they all have one thing in common. Each and every move was made to accommodate Jay Cutler, finally a franchise quarterback on a team that was unfamiliar with the concept. From the GM, to the head coach, to the offensive coordinator, to the receivers, to the offensive line. Every single one of those pieces were designed and built around Cutler, the highest payed player in the NFL this season, and we’re left to face the sobering reality that it has not worked. Jay Cutler is a 9-year pro still making all of the same mistakes he’s made his entire career. Paired with Brandon Marshall, who, for all of his amazing skill, has still never played in an NFL playoff game. Marc Trestman, the supposed “brilliant offensive mind”, is proving why he couldn’t keep an NFL job for more than a few years until he was eventually sent away to the CFL. From the day we traded for Jay Cutler, it appeared we were making all of the right moves. I was amongst the crowd who was, for years, saying, “when we just fix the offensive line”, “when we just get a number one receiver”, “when we just get the right offensive coordinator” and 9 weeks into this NFL season, I think its safe to say that we got it wrong. There is nothing left to wait for. We have all the pieces, and it just doesn’t work.

Chances are, Cutler and Trestman aren’t going anywhere. There is too much money and pride tied up in both. The Bears are built to win now, and in that way, they have failed. Sure they’ll win a few more games this season, maybe even a game or two over better teams. But for all intents and purposes any hope for this season and probably the next two, is lost.

I’m not angry anymore. Its worse. I’m apathetic – and so are the Bears. A team who, based on what I saw on Sunday, is just waiting for the season to be over. Well guess what…so am I.

Chicago Bulls Season Preview

derrick-rose-kyrie-irving-nba-preseason-chicago-bulls-cleveland-cavaliers4-590x900

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?

i

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.