Archive for August, 2010

Another View: Can The Bears Compete In 2010?
August 27, 2010

Most people are aware that Chicago is the birthplace of The Second City, the improvisational theatre troupe that spawned the careers of Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Chris Farley, and (for us old-schoolers) John Belushi, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and countless others.

(After writing that, I realized that four of the seven people I mentioned are dead. Creepy.)

Anyway, fewer people realize that the name “The Second City” grew out of an article written in The New Yorker in 1952, in which journalist A.J. Liebling commented that, try as it might, Chicago would always be second-best in everything to New York City.

These days the Chicago Bears would probably be flattered to be considered second-best in anything, including the NFC North, where they are widely seen as the third-best team behind the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers.

In fact, given the Bears’ supposedly clear inferiority to those two division rivals, most people would say the Bears should be flattered to be considered as anything other than irrelevant.

But hold on a minute.

The Vikings are battling upheaval at one of their most important positions as well as their usual internal soap operas (apparently Brett Favre and Brad Childress get along about as well as Bob Barker and Drew Carey). The Packers are battling injury concerns and doubts about their defense. The Lions are battling being the Lions.

But things seem relatively calm around the Chicago Bears.

Could the Bears jump over either the Packers or Vikings (or both?) and return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2006-2007 season?

Here’s five reasons why they could:

New offensive coordinator Mike Martz. To borrow a phrase from the great Ron Popeil, I hear the skeptics out there. “Mike Martz? He hasn’t been relevant since Britney Spears wrapped a snake around her neck at the VMAs.” But a closer look reveals that Martz has nearly always been effective with offenses, especially considering the lousy teams he’s worked for most recently: In 2006, his first year with the Lions, the NFC North doormats ended up ranking seventh in passing offense. (And that was with bonehead Jon Kitna.) When Martz went west to San Francisco in 2008, he took what had been the league’s overall worst passing attack and made it the league’s 13th best passing attack.

In his first year as the Bears’ OC, Martz is taking over a team that has great potential in the passing game, which leads us to:

Jay Cutler. Look, in many ways Jay Cutler’s debut season with the Bears was as big a disaster as the new Jennifer Aniston movie. (Hey, perk up, Ms. Aniston. You’re still a bigger movie star than Matt LaBlanc.) Cutler had his worst career season in pass completion percentage, his body language and attitude were atrocious, and – worst of all – he led the league in interceptions with 27. But if you’re a Bears fan, there is reason for hope. One, Cutler had only nine interceptions over the last seven games – yeah, not great, but an improvement. Second, Cutler is saying all the right things about Mike Martz’s system, which suggests that he’s buying into it and he’s buying into it because he feels it gives him a better chance for success. A big part of that success will come from being more familiar and trusting of the guys he’s throwing the ball to, which leads us to:

The Bears’ receivers. 2010 is finally the year when people will stop saying, “Well, if Devin Hester can develop . . .” Not that Hester hasn’t made the transition from return man to solid (if unspectacular) receiver (he did lead the team last year with 757 receiving yards), but Chicago’s passing game no longer completely relies on him. In fact, the Bears suddenly seem to have an embarrassment of riches here. Both Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu emerged later in the season as trusted targets for Cutler, and tight end Greg Olsen led the team for the year with 60 receptions. Not only have all four receivers developed a rapport with Cutler, but they’ve all earned the respect of Martz. “I love our receivers,” the OC said this off-season. “I think that our receiver corps will be the strength of this team. You can put that in granite. There’s not very many things I would say are unretractable, but that one is pretty strong.” While the Bears’ receivers aren’t likely to make anyone forget about the Packers’ superior wideouts, thanks to Sidney Rice being out for at least half the season and the lingering doubts about Percy Harvin’s health, the Bears suddenly have the second-best receivers corps in the division.

Matt Forte and Chester Taylor. Few players disappointed fantasy owners in 2009 more than Bears running back Matt Forte. Instead of improving on his 2008 rookie season in which he rushed for 1,238 yards and eight touchdowns, last season he rushed for just 929 yards and only four touchdowns. But, sorry Matthew Berry, we’re talking “real” football, not fantasy football, and there is no doubt that despite the signing of Cutler and the emergence of the Bears’ passing attack, Forte remains an impressive runner and an important part of the Bears offense – witness the 89-yard touchdown run he tore off in the Bears’ second preseason game. And this season the Bears have added former Vikings back Chester Taylor to give them what should be – unless Lions rookie Jahvid Best surpasses expectations – the best running back tandem in the division.

Defense. Despite popular perception that the Bears defense has sunk farther than ticket sales for Lilith Fair, than, the team’s unit has actually improved. OK, being ranked 17th in total defense isn’t going to wow anyone, but at least their 2009 showing was better than their 2008 season (ranked 21st) and 2007 (ranked 28th). Much of the Bears’ success on defense this coming season will rely on health: Linebacker Brian Urlacher missed nearly the entire 2009 season after dislocating his wrist week one against the Packers, but has gotten off to a rough start this preseason with a strained calf muscle that has kept him out of practice. His status going into the regular season will be crucial. But elsewhere, defensive tackle Tommie Harris seems ready to regain his 2007 Pro Bowl form, and the acquisition of free agent DE Julius Peppers should help the Bears’ pass rush immensely. With both the Packers and Vikings heading into the season with defensive issues, especially in the secondary with injury concerns (Packers) and ineffectiveness (Vikings), the Bears’ defensive unit should at least hold its ground in comparison to their NFC North counterparts.

Now, like all teams, the Bears have issues. (Not as many as Fantasia Barrino, but still.) The biggest for Chicago seems to be the offensive line (which seems to be a problem for all NFC North teams). Jay Cutler has been running for his life this preseason and was sacked a whopping five times in just one half of work in the Bears’ second game against Oakland. Cutler’s sometimes-suspicious decision-making won’t improve in the face of consistent pressure and could be a huge problem going into the regular season.

The Bears are also woefully thin behind Cutler, something they acknowledged this past week with the signing of journeyman quarterback Todd Collins. Unfortunately, even a young Todd Collins didn’t scare opposing defenses, and at 38, Todd Collins is about as intimidating a pocket presence as Phil Collins. But in a league that lacks superstars at quarterback (Trent Edwards, anyone?), it’s not unusual to lack QB depth. Certainly all of the NFC North teams would be in boatloads of trouble if their starter went down, either due to injury or due to death by natural causes (talking to you, Brett Favre).

Having said all of that, my prediction of the NFC North division winner doesn’t change. Barring an injury to Aaron Rodgers, I think the Packers’ offense will be even more unstoppable than last year and I think their depth on defense is good enough to overcome some of their injury concerns. But given the wide receiver injuries, Brett Favre’s slim-to-none chances to repeat his “magical” 2009 season, Adrian Peterson’s fumbling issues and the loss of Chester Taylor, I do like the Bears to compete, if not for the NFC North division title, then for the NFC Wild Card.

It’s been a tough year for Chicago. The Cubs have been the biggest disappointment in baseball. Lou Piniella retired suddenly. The White Sox, though still very much in the AL Central chase, have fallen back of the Minnesota Twins. LeBron James’s “decision” was not to go to the Bulls. Oprah Winfrey announced she’s folding her talk show, a Windy City institution for 25 years. (Oh sure, there was that Stanley Cup, but I’ll bet most of you already forgot about that. I know I almost did.)

But the Bears could very well put the “second” back in “Second City” this year. Although that’s no Super Bowl endorsement, for Bears fans it has to be better than the more prevalent endorsement of their crushing irrelevancy.

Sorry, Brewers, You Had Your Chance. Again.
August 14, 2010

This team stinks worse than my diaper. Well, almost. Shouldn't have had that third brat.

Considering I’m not even sure if I’m playing in a league this year, I’ve spent way too much time lately preparing for a fantasy football draft.

One of the people I can blame for this is an ESPN fantasy sports analyst named Matthew Berry, who writes a ton of entertaining columns for ESPN.com and records daily podcasts to which I am mildly addicted.

(The simple reason that I never bother to update the songs on my iPod? ESPN podcasts. Why bother with four hours of Mike & Mike in the Morning when you can hear all of its relevant segments in thirty minutes later that same day?)

Anyway, I mention Mr. Berry not because I’m hoping to get into his fantasy football podcast’s self-proclaimed “Man’s League,” which sounds suspiciously like the title of a movie found on George Takei’s DVR — not that there’s anything wrong with that — but because I happened to note that a column that Berry wrote on August 12 was, for him, “the final baseball column of 2010.”

Now, I’m not in a fantasy baseball league, and I haven’t been for some time, but isn’t it a little early to shut it down on the 2010 baseball season?

Surely there are people out there playing fantasy baseball who still want advice on favorable pitching matchups, information on whose injuries are severe and whose are merely annoying, and insider knowledge on which pitchers’ arms are starting to fall off as we head into the final fifty games of the season.

Yes, that’s right. There are close to fifty games left in each team’s 2010 season.

Just like I don’t believe that the 50-year-old Jane Lynch should be called “that old lady on Glee,” as one of my co-workers recently referred to her, I also don’t think that a season with nearly fifty games remaining is really winding down.

But I see where Berry is coming from. Weeks before a meaningful game will be played in either the pro or college ranks, it seems all people want is football.

Talk about pent-up demand: The Hall of Fame game between the Bengals and the Cowboys last Sunday night tagged 9.1 million viewers and scored the highest ratings for a preseason game since 2004.

And the game was on NBC, a network that regularly gets beaten in the nightly ratings race by the likes of Univision and Telemundo. 

No question about it, like Comic-Con attendees insane for the new Harry Potter  films, sports fans are insane for the return of football.

Perhaps this annual change of season is felt no more strongly than in Wisconsin, where folks are largely accepting of their flawed but lovable Brewers (Bernie Brewer and Bob Uecker? So cute!) but damned near obsessed with their beefy Packers and Badgers.

The Badgers? Even their mascot isn’t cute. And the Packers? They only tread in lovable waters when Aaron Rodgers does his “title-belt” touchdown celebration. So adorable, Aaron.

But while most of us giggle and wriggle with anticipation over football’s return, this is a hard time of year for diehard Milwaukee Brewers fans. They feel like Molly Ringwald’s character in Sixteen Candles — depressed, forgotten, and disregarded.

And while I empathize to a certain extent, I must in the end say this to the object of their affection:

Tough dookie, Brewers. You had your chance.

Every year the Brewers enjoy a long stranglehold on the Wisconsin sports landscape, are rewarded by their fans with above-average attendance, and nearly every year (or every year a Cy Young-worthy pitcher doesn’t fall into their lap)  ownership repays that love and loyalty by delivering a product that disappoints.

Once again, the 2010 Brewers have a losing record in August, the time of year when fans stop dreaming about Ryan Braun going long and start dreaming about Aaron Rodgers going long.

I’m not going to go into the problems the Brewers have (pitching) because you’ve heard it all before (pitching). Flogging the team yet again for their weaknesses (pitching) would be as dull as one of Ken Macha’s post-game press conferences.

(Sorry, I nodded off there for a few minutes just thinking of Ken Macha. Where was I? Oh, right.)

I’m not personally thrilled about the annual winds of change. Frankly, I would rather watch a Brewers game in late August then a Packers game in late August.

And I sincerely doubt, unlike Matthew Berry, that this will be the final time I mention baseball in my column in 2010.

But the suddenness with which the Brewers achieve obsolescence this time every year?

I get it.

For A Minute At Least, Brett Had The Right Idea
August 4, 2010

You know, a guy goes on vacation for a couple of weeks with his family and he tries to ease back into his normal life and suddenly all hell breaks loose.

I’m talking, of course, about the chaos surrounding the fate of the American Idol judges. I haven’t seen upheaval like this since the second season of The Facts of Life.

(Unnecessary sidenote: If you want to have a quality vacation, go to Sesame Place in Langhorne, PA. There and only there can you see a bigger-than-life Bert — you know, of Bert and Ernie fame — singing and dancing to the Huey Lewis song “Hip To Be Square.” It’s an unforgettable visual.)

OK, fine. I’m really talking about this whole Brett Favre thing. But I think I’d rather be talking about American Idol.

Look, I’m sick of Brett Favre. You’re sick of Brett Favre. My dog is sick of Brett Favre. I consulted my Ouija board last night and the spirit of Bruno Kirby told me he was sick of Brett Favre. (He also told me that the “baby fish mouth” line from When Harry Met Sally . . . was totally improv.)

Yet trying to turn away from the continuing Brett Favre saga is a bit like trying to turn off a MTV marathon of Silent Library — impossible.

It’s nearly impossible to even write about it since by the time I finish this post, Adam Schefter or Chris Mortensen or even Howard 100 News will have the inside scoop on some new development.

But here’s what I know to be true right now: Favre is not retiring. If he feels he’s healthy. And if the track and field team from his second cousin’s high school makes it past sectionals. And if McDonald’s brings back the McRib. And if his audition tape gets rejected by the producers of Glee. And then only maybe.

Even though I, along with many other people much smarter than me, was completely surprised at the notion that Brett Favre would not come back to play this season, upon further reflection I decided that indeed retirement would be the smart move.

Granted, he didn’t lead the Vikings to their first-ever Super Bowl championship last season. And yes, an ill-advised interception in the NFC Championship Game loss to New Orleans would stand as his final NFL pass.

But even the most ardent Brett Favre hater — and I have to believe those numbers are growing every day — has to give the man major props for how he played last season. In many respects — take away much of that final game and a below-average stretch in mid-December — it was a magical season for the grandfather from Mississippi.

And Favre has to know that magic is running out.

The Vikings’ offensive line is grossly overrated, overpaid, and was much worse in the second half of the season than even the Packers’ much-maligned unit. Their incompetence led Favre to take many a beating last season, particularly in that NFC Championship Game. Its weakness has caused Adrian Peterson to have to fight for every inch of yardage, which has led to his severe case of fumblitis.

I don’t blame Favre for having second thoughts about playing behind that unit again.

Defensively, the Vikings are still solid, but heading south. Pat Williams will be 38 this year. Antoine Winfield and E.J. Henderson are coming back from injury. Their safeties are weak.

Favre knows that he’ll have to put up more points than he did last year, which could prove difficult given Sidney Rice’s hip injury, Percy Harvin’s migraines, and Chester Taylor’s new Chicago residence.

Speculation on Wednesday centered on Favre’s threats of retirement being about money, a theory that gained immediate ground with reports that the Vikings had offered him $3 million more in guaranteed money and $4 million more in incentives to return.

For the Vikings, Favre is obviously worth the extra coin, particularly in light of Sam Bradford’s six-year, $78 million deal he just signed with the St. Louis Rams, and particularly in light of the fact that behind Favre the Vikings have two quarterbacks that shouldn’t be trusted with managing Brad Childress’s DVR, much less his offense.

But why should Favre come back? He doesn’t need the money. He proved to the doubters that after a subpar season with the New York Jets that he can still play and play at the level of the greatest to ever play the quarterback position. He exacted as much revenge as he could have — well, barring a playoff meeting that obviously didn’t happen — against Ted Thompson and the rest of the Packers organization by beating them twice.

And did I mention dude’s a grandfather?

As I said, I didn’t have a doubt until Tuesday that Brett Favre would return for his 20th season. I admit my confidence wavered some yesterday, but the longer this plays out, the more assured I am that he will be back. And, as all sports fans should delight in the opportunity to watch the best play as long as they can, I’m happy that it looks like he will be back.

But Brett — and given your penchant for indecisiveness, I really hate to ask — are you sure? After all, I hear American Idol is looking for a few new judges . . .