Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Old Bulls Still the Best

I happened to be flipping through the channels recently when I stumbled upon an old Bulls game from the Michael Jordan era. These Bulls embodied everything there was to love about professional sports, especially basketball, and reminded me of a childhood where the NBA was king of the sports universe. It didn't hurt that the Bulls had the greatest athlete in history on the team.

Watching MJ made me realize that simply looking at his statistics doesn't encompass how ridiculous of a player he really was. To truly understand his level on the court, you had to watch him. Just watch him dominate, especially in the playoffs, in an era of uber-competitive basketball where hand-checking wasn't called, and you see how amazing he really was. I could go on for days on just how ridiculous he was, and certainly what it meant to the entire city of Chicago (and my childhood), but the fact remains: Michael Jordan was, and will always be, the greatest basketball player in history. No one will come close to what he did for the game, how he played the game, and the ultimate drive and motivation behind his success. Even his official NBA profile calls him the greatest of all time. Sure, there are players who are similarly athletically gifted, or win a bunch of championships. But none of them match up head to head. And really, none of those players who came after MJ, like Kobe Bryant and (not really) LeBron James, could have ever had the same impact or have developed the same style without MJ. He simply revolutionized the way basketball was played. And with the help of teammate Scottie Pippen, the Bulls owned the NBA for a solid decade. Some of MJ's accolades, which only begin to scratch the surface of what he truly accomplished:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Bulls Begin Season with Trademark Win

Derrick Rose has done it again. D Rose delivered in the clutch with a little help from Luol Deng, delivering the Bulls a thrilling last second victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. The win illustrated the Chicago Bulls in a nutshell - clutch play by Rose, stellar defense down the stretch, and a cohesiveness that underlies how incredible the Bulls have a chance to be.

Bears Show Signs of Life, But Too Little Too Late

We all knew it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that the Bears would show up in Green Bay, promptly get whupped, and head back to Chicago finally being eliminated from playoff contention. And really, that is exactly what happened. Aaron Rodgers was his usual self, effortlessly tossing 5 touchdowns and making Zack Bowman his personal whipping boy. But at the same time, you saw signs of life from the Bears that haven't been there since Jay Cutler and Matt Forte went down with injury. And while encouraging signs are pretty much moot at this point, it does allow us to play the armchair quarterback game and look back at what could have been.

Direction of Illini Up in Air on Eve of Conference Play

I made a mental note to myself while watching the first 25-30 minutes or so of Illinois' loss to Missouri in the annual Braggin Rights game on December 22nd to avoid writing a "sky is falling" post after the game. As luck would have it, Illinois rebounded from its horrid start to begin an epic comeback and eventually take the lead, only to collapse again in miserable, typical Illinois fashion. As I watched this happen, I realized that this game, and the onset of conference play tomorrow against Minnesota, is the perfect opportunity to assess the stance of both the program and this young team.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sky is the Limit for Bulls

We all know how special last season was. The Bulls won 62 games and Derrick Rose became a full-fledged superstar, winning the MVP. But more importantly, the Bulls were relevant again. The play of the Bulls all year had a similar uniting effect across the Chicago sports landscape that the Hawks season had a year before that. Just like the Hawks, everywhere you went were Bulls fans that had been dormant since the MJ glory years only to be reawakened by last year's Bulls team. And we'll even include the Bulls bandwagon jumpers, those fans that self-profess themselves to be the biggest Bulls fans even though they didn't live through the early post-Jordan era of Ron Mercer, Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler (before he was good), and finally the beginning stages of Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, and Ben Gordon before the basketball gods were kind enough to land Rose on our doorstep in the second-luckiest draft in Bulls history. There, the Bulls landed the 1st pick in the 2008 NBA Draft after only a .17% chance of doing so going into the lottery.

Last year was close, but not enough
But even after all of that, the Bulls still flamed out last year, losing to the hated Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat exposed the Bulls deepest flaws, forcing an early exit to a otherwise-special Bulls season. Yet, regrouping for the shortened season ahead, the Bulls have a chance to eclipse even last year and come out on top. Even the Bulls we know and love from the first three-peat in the early 90s had major obstacles to overcome before they won their first title. With the elite defense the Bulls play under coach Tom Thibodeau, the addition of a scoring guard (Rip Hamilton) to shore up the scoring problems encountered last year, and a shortened season that can only benefit a deep team like the Bulls, now is as good a time as ever to challenge the Heat and make it to the NBA Finals. Doing so is going to require more of the special team effort the Bulls seemed to have last year, when there was no team in the NBA that had quite the chemistry of the Bulls. If they can match that chemistry, keep up the same intensity (which shouldn't be a problem under Thibodeau), and above all else STAY HEALTHY, I don't see a reason why the Bulls shouldn't be right up there again. Let's take a look at the 11-deep rotation the Bulls figure to run as a way of introducing the season.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Blackhawks on the Verge of Special Season

Thank God for the Hawks. With them and the Bulls, they allow us to forget about the dog and pony show going on at Halas Hall and Soldier Field every week. And although the Bulls haven't started their abbreviated season just yet, we're almost halfway through a Hawks season that has the potential to end with another parade through Chicago. Yet, that potential won't be realized unless the Hawks shore up some key problems on defense and between the pipes.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

From Hurd to Hanie, Bears Deserve an F

Well, this wasn't a good week for the bosses at Halas Hall. First came news of Sam Hurd's inner-channeling of his best Johnny Depp in Blow impression. And then came the game today - an utterly embarrassing, disgusting, and at the same time, hilariously awful performance that officially marks the end of the Bears 2011 season. It wasn't enough to lose to a Seattle Seahawks team that has been playing so well as of late. No - today was an evisceration of the Bears in every way, an indicator of the threadbare talent at every position on the roster, and proof positive that Jerry Angelo and the rest of the front office class clowns know less about developing a football team than Rick Perry seems to know about running a political campaign.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

RIP Bears.

I'm in the middle of exams so I have to keep this short. Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune nails exactly what I want to say about the Bears, but then I'll add some thoughts at the end:

The Trib's Rosenbloom on the Embarrassing Bears Flameout in Denver

We all saw or heard about what happened Sunday. Marion Barber is the latest Bear to give the Denver Tebowners fuel for the media frenzy fire when he couldn't stay in bounds to burn out the clock at the end of the fourth quarter and then fumbled in overtime to give the Broncos their latest trademark Tim Tebow win. It's just awesome turning on ESPN this week to see their latest episode of getting off to Tebow feature the Bears. Caleb Hanie was absolutely horrific and clearly doesn't belong in the NFL. And the defense? The defensive line was outstanding, including Julius Peppers, especially on the one play where Tebow tried to juke him and outrace him to the sidelines, with Pepper chasing him down the entire way. The secondary, including Craig Steltz and Chris Conte, were great in run and option coverage, which is easier for both of them because they aren't as athletic as other defensive backs and thus are more valuable in run coverage. Yet again, the pass coverage of the Bears was the biggest weakness, letting Tebow, who was terrible in three quarters, march down the field and move the ball at will in the 4th quarter. Embarrassing.

Yeah, Hanie was atrocious. Yes, he shouldn't be a starting QB, regardless of injury. But, it's really not all his fault. The Bears' receivers blow - not one of them is better than a 3 or 4, including Earl Bennett, who's only real success seems to come with Jay Cutler playing (well I guess the same could be said for all of the Bears receivers). The offensive line was putrid, but I couldn't tell if all the sacks were Hanie's fault from standing in the pocket for an eternity with the deer in headlights look, or just the bad quality of the offensive line. So, on offense, if you're keeping track, that's one terrible backup QB, multiple mediocre/average receivers, an old, stupid, and fumble-prone backup running back, and an awful offensive line. Good preparation for the season Jerry Angelo! Look at how backup Houston Texans QB TJ Yates played and tell me you couldn't have gotten someone better than Hanie. Don't go out and tell the world that our receivers are fine when they can't run correct routes (still), can't catch the ball consistently (still), and simply do not get open (still). And the offensive line? We've been over that. Thank god for the rumors of your retirement, that's the only good news Bears fans have had in weeks.

There's no point in Cutler or Matt Forte rushing back, the Bears made sure in dropping three straight games to an Oakland Raiders team that got trounced by the Packers, a HORRIBLE Kansas City Chiefs team, and a Broncos team QUARTERBACKED BY TIM TEBOW, that the playoffs are clearly out of sight now. I can't wait to watch the Bears stumble through the rest of the season and get a mediocre draft pick so they can draft another safety instead of addressing the other issues on the team. What a sad, sad end to the season. Thank god the Bulls are back.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tim Beckman: Backup Choice or Best Fit?

By now it's been well-talked about that Illinois named former Toledo Head Coach Tim Beckman as its new football coach. I would have gotten to this sooner were it not for the hell that law school finals are, but I'll give my thoughts on an interesting, and somewhat unexpected, hire. And if I accidentally use any secured transactions lingo like perfection, priority, or future advances, just know that I'm attempting to talk about Illinois football and not the subject that's been dominating my brain the last 3 days. My apologies in advance.

So what do we make of this hire? It seems like Illinois fans have taken two paths on this one - either they are excited about the new direction for the program, or feel like Beckman is an awful hire and wanted someone else. I'll try to address the latter's points before illustrating why I think that they're wrong.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Hanie and the Bears? They Are Who We Thought They Are!

Good news or bad news first? Bad news? Caleb Hanie was 11/24 for 133 yards, zero touchdowns, three interceptions, and a sterling passer rating of 23.8. The Bears surrendered the only touchdown of the game on a hail mary at the end of the first half that of course ended up in the hands of Kansas City Chiefs RB/WR Dexter McCluster. Matt Forte is potentially lost for 2-4 weeks with a sprained knee. The Bears were 0-11 on third downs. More bad news? All of this resulted in a loss against a Chiefs team that had lost four games in a row, hadn't scored a touchdown in its last 45 possessions, and had a quarterback who had thrown three interceptions in each of the past two games (with the hail mary against the Bears being his first career TD pass). Oh, the good news? There was none, as the Bears (lack of) team effort essentially just cost them a playoff spot. Sure, they're still in the race, but a team that can't beat the lowly Chiefs, let alone must ONE SINGLE TOUCHDOWN, surely doesn't belong in the playoffs nor is capable of making them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

All Aboard the Blackhawks Roller Coaster

I made it a point to look back and figure out why I hadn't been talking about the Hawks in this blog much recently. I looked back to great start to the season, the horrible loss to Vancouver and subsequent huge win against Vancouver, and a bad stretch to end the annual November circus road trip and realized that the problem is that the Hawks are maddeningly inconsistent. They are just impossible to get a read on, making it difficult to assess such an up and down season thus far.

The Hawks certainly have put out some offense.The Hawks are third in the NHL in goals per game, eleventh in power play percentage, fourth in shots per game, consistently win when leading after the first period, and are eighth in total plus/minus. And with 35 points, the Hawks do sit near the top of the standings, as they have for nearly the entire season. So, while the sky is not falling, there are certainly some issues with the Hawks that need to be addressed, for they have the ability to be a dominant team night in and night out and they simply aren't doing it.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Young Illini Talent Proving Themselves

More than any season in recent memory, the 2011-2012 season for Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini began with serious questions about who would step up to fill the void left by the outgoing senior class. Then, as the season started and Illinois picked up some very convincing early wins against the likes of Richmond and Maryland, there were still those who likened Illinois' strong start to a weak schedule. Well, with an outstanding team win over Gonzaga today, it's time to stop asking questioning the abilities of this young team and start wondering just how far they can go this season.

I sat down trying to figure out which angle to take this post, whether it be the great play of Sam Maniscalco, the emerging leadership and consistency of D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, the explosion of Meyers Leonard onto the Big Ten (and national) stage, or the great coaching we've seen from Bruce thus far this season. I couldn't figure out which way to take this article, because each one of those angles, among others, has been just as crucial as the other to explaining the hot start to the Illini season. That's when I realized that it was a good thing; we've become so used to the horrible roller coaster ride of Demetri McCamey & Co. that we can't step back to realize the amazing team effort that we're seeing from the Illini here on a game-by-game basis. We haven't seen consistent play like this from the Illini in years.

Bruce is doing an outstanding job this season
So I figure I'll start at the top and work down. I haven't been this impressed with Bruce Weber since he found a way to get Deron Williams and Dee Brown to forget about Bill Self and buy into his system. When he did, the result was a dominating season ending with a close loss to North Carolina in the 2005 National Championship game, one that Illinois should have won if not for some obviously bad officiating (I really don't care if I sound biased. If you watched the game, you know what I'm talking about). Now, I don't presume that this Illinois team is going to have that kind of success, because it almost certainly will not, but that isn't my point. The point here is that the coaching job he is doing this season is on par with the coaching job he had to flip Deron Williams and Dee Brown into his system. Bruce recognized that he wasn't going to succeed with the players he had for the past four years. McCamey had the talent but didn't have the discipline or heart, Mike Davis had some skill but was easily overmatched physically, Bill Cole had to overachieve merely to be a decent Big Ten player, and Mike Tisdale was, well, Mike Tisdale.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Hanie's First Start Struggles Cost Bears

Well, here we go. The mini Caleb Hanie era began in earnest yesterday in Oakland, where the Bears dropped a tough one to the Raiders to fall to 7-4. I could go off on Hanie like the Chicago Tribune did, but I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that this was his first game in a tough place to play and wait and see what he does this upcoming Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs at home. One thing's for damn sure - he's going to have to improve, regardless if it's only his second start, if the Bears have hopes of maintaining a Wild Card spot long until Jay Cutler gets back.

The Bears knew what they needed to accomplish heading into the game in order to pull out a win in Hanie's debut. The defense needed to perform admirably and the special teams had to put together their standard exceptional play. For the most part, these two things happened. Besides a few big plays given up to Oakland's fullback Marcel Reece, and the big catch near the end of the game by Louis Murphy, the Bears defense withstood Oakland's attempts to move the ball. Sure, they yielded 6 field goals to Sebastian Janikowski, but with a lesser defense, many of those drives would have been touchdowns that would have resulted in a blowout. Even so, the Bears, as acknowledged by Brian Urlacher, need to continue to step it up the rest of the way. Face it, this isn't the Bears elite Super Bowl defense of 2006, but it should be more than capable of performing at the required high level to reach the playoffs.

Peppers bearing down on Palmer
The key contributor to the defense was Julius Peppers. For what seemed like the entire game, Peppers kept pressure on Palmer, resulting on two sacks that ended up on the score sheet but countless other pressures that resulted in hurried throws, hits, thrown-away balls, etc. What's crazy to think is that this was a typical game for Peppers. He doesn't always record the sacks, but on a game-by-game basis is one of the most dominant defense ends in the NFL, right next to DeMarcus Ware on the Dallas Cowboys. He single-handedly provides open pass rushing lanes for the rest of the defense line, which trickles down through the rest of the defense. Because a successful pass rush is so key to the success of the overall defense the Bears run, Peppers is arguably the most important player on the entire defense. He helps force incompletions that otherwise could end up as easy plays against the suspect Bears safeties.

Embarrassing Loss to Minnesota Does in Zook

After an utterly embarrassing loss to a decrepit Minnesota football team Saturday, the writing was on the wall for the end of the Ron Zook era. It didn't take long for that to come to fruition, with new Athletic Director Mike Thomas firing Zook earlier this afternoon. After a rollercoaster season that saw the Illini start 6-0, only to lose their final 6 games, it was a move that was hardly unexpected. Now the onus is on Thomas to make an impact hire at Illinois that puts the program on the map on a consistent basis.

Zook is a true class act
I've made a point of calling for Zook's job in this blog over and over again. Because of that, I won't repeat those same complaints in this post other than to say that I don't feel he is the right coach to head an entire program. I wanted to take this opportunity to actually talk about the man himself, for as his outgoing press conference illustrates, the Zooker is all class. He didn't have to hold this press conference, but he did so out of respect for the people who worked with him for so long, his family, the Illinois fans, and his players. Notice him choke up when he talks about his players. That's what makes him such an elite recruiter - he truly becomes a second father to these players and they love him for it. It's really something to admire about the guy, and even starts to make you feel bad for him about losing his job. Those players would do anything for the guy, but coincidentally, the one thing they couldn't do was win for him. And at the end of the day, no matter how much you like the guy, how many positive things he brings to the table, and how well he reflects the values and goals of your university, the head coach of your football team needs to produce wins. Regardless, Zook will catch on somewhere in a BCS conference and become their recruiting coordinator, all with the cushion of a $2.6 million buyout from Illinois and 7 years of million dollar plus salaries. I wish him the best on behalf of all Illinois fans.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The NBA is Back!

Who would have thought, randomly flipping through the channels at 3 am early this past saturday morning, that ESPN would all of a sudden announce the end of the much-maligned NBA lockout? Yet, that is exactly what happened. Details of the agreement are still trickling out, but at this point, who cares? All that matters is that both sides were able to come to an agreement. Funny how it took kicking the sniveling Jeffrey Kessler (much like the NFL Lockout) out of the room for Billy Hunter and David Stern to hammer out a deal. With the announcement that there will be a 66 game schedule starting on Christmas, it looks like all of us NBA fans just got an early Christmas present.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Missing the NBA

In desperate need of some Derrick Rose
Bill Simmons, our resident NBA expert, has written his latest on the NBA Lockout, which is now destined to force the cancellation of the entire season after the players rejected the latest owner offer and moved to decertify the player's union as the precursor to an antitrust lawsuit:

Bill Simmons Perfectly Sums up NBA Lockout

I think that Simmons nails everything on point and does a great job of pointing out that both sides are the idiots at play here. I don't want to fringe on his territory too much here, but I do want to make some of my own thoughts.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bears' Special Season in Jeopardy

Of course, I wanted to take the time for this entire post to focus on the great win the Bears just earned today over the San Diego Chargers. I was going to take time to talk how this was yet another defining game for the Bears, as they showed on both sides of the ball that they are/were a true, complete contender. The offense was rolling all day, whether it was Jay Cutler doing work in the first three quarters, including some seriously amazing completions to Johnny Knox, or Matt Forte chewing up both yards and the clock in the 4th quarter. I wanted to talk about the defense, and how the unit as a whole was able to overcome the glaring weaknesses in the over the top secondary (see the stat line for Vincent Jackson and an uncharacteristically bad game from Charles Tillman) by creating turnovers and pressuring Philip Rivers to make mistakes more commonly seen in a rookie quarterback, let alone an 8th year pro coming off a 4,700 yard season. I watched this game and was so excited, so unbelievably amped for the rest of the season. This was a complete Bears team unlike we've seen in awhile, and they were firing on all cylinders. Then, in typical Chicago sports fashion, the bottom dropped out with the news that Jay Cutler broke his thumb in the game and will miss 6-8 weeks with surgery. Fitting that he broke it hustling to defend an interception that would never have happened had Knox not lost his footing, and not as a result of a sack or other defensive pressure. In other words, the next time we'd see Cutler is in the playoffs, which now appear to be in jeopardy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Cubs Find their Man

In a Friday press conference, the Chicago Cubs introduced their 52nd manager in the team's history. Think about that for a second - 52nd!! In the 141 year history of the Cubs, that's an astounding number and really represents not only the ineptitude of the Cubs in their history, but the monumental challenge that awaits the new gang at Clark and Addison. So that begs the question - is Dale Sveum, as the 52nd manager, finally the one to lead the Cubs to the promised land? Will he be able to instill Theo Epstein's "Cubs Way" in the clubhouse? In a word, yes, and that's all that matters.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

End in Sight for the Zooker

After another embarrassing loss this past Saturday, which I refused to write about out of pure spite, and two more off-field incidents involving players and police, the heat is on Ron Zook. I suspect that Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas has made his decision already, even though he says he hasn't, and has either informed Zook and started looking for replacements, or has not informed Zook but has given the impression that Zook will be gone at the end of the season. Either way, with the way the Zooker stormed out of his weekly press conference after being asked about his future yesterday, even he must know the writing is on the wall. And if you look at all things considered, there is absolutely no question that Zook should go. If I'm Mike Thomas, I make the call right now.

Even Zook must know he's gone
We've all been told the advantages of keeping Ron Zook around - he can recruit, he's a good face of the program, blah, blah, blah - but none of the reasons to keep him around actually exist right now. First, any way you cut it, his recruiting has been terrible this season. There could be multiple reasons for this. Other coaches are probably negatively recruiting Ron Zook to the extreme, telling every prospective recruit that Zook will be gone at the end of the season, that he can't develop players, etc. That's just how the business works. Moreover, players can see the lack of development that current players receive in the program. Think of all the elite talent that Zook recruited throughout his years here. Where are most of those players? Sure, some made it to the NFL, but he recruited seriously good talent. He could just never develop it the way it should have been (see, Juice Williams). And more to the point - have you seen Illinois play under Ron Zook? They're never prepared, they back down from pressure, his teams lack discipline - the list could go on and on. And look at his head coaching record!!! It's an embarrassment to Illinois as an institution that he has been here this long with those results.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bears Continue to Roll

With an intensity and physicality reminiscent of past years, the Bears trampled the Detroit Lions yesterday at Soldier Field. While the past few weeks have given us an indicator of the potential of this Bears team, nothing could have prepared us for the performance yesterday. In a word, the Bears defense, special teams, and to a certain extent, the offense, have a swagger back that they haven't had since the Super Bowl season of 2006-07.

This game epitomized everything about the Chicago Bears that makes them such a fun team to be a fan of. From the start of the game, the defense went off, utilizing a fierce pass rush to tee off on Matthew Stafford. Combine that with the Bears' seemingly unreal ability to force turnovers, and you have a championship-caliber defense. The Bears defense is all about swagger and hunger - I think of them like sharks smelling blood in the water. Once it's out, it's already too late for the offense.

Peppers is a freak of nature
It all starts up front with Julius Peppers and the rest of the ferocious Bears pass rush. To see Peppers' statistics (only six sacks) and to watch him play are two entirely different things. I cannot imagine a more dominant defensive lineman in football. His forced fumble of Calvin Johnson in the first half was only one of the key turnovers that the Bears defense forced the entire game. There are just not enough superlatives to describe his impact on the entire game. The Bears moved him around the entire game as well, forcing the Lions to constantly adjust and try to protect against him. All that did was open up opportunities for other players to get to Stafford, or just fail to begin with as Peppers got to Stafford for a sack of his own later in the game. Peppers is especially important in the Bears style of defense, which prefaces all of its defensive coverage on the quality of the pass rush. When the Bears are getting to the quarterback, it allows the zone defense that the Bears play to exploit rushed throws by even the best of quarterbacks and force turnovers. In this way, because the Bears are so effective at scoring with the defense as a result of these turnovers, it's almost like they have a second offense on the field. As we saw with the Bears Super Bowl defense a few years ago, when its on, its scary good.

Urlacher is the heart and soul of a dangerous defense
The linebackers, led by Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, were outstanding as usual. Both of these guys, seasoned vets and team leaders, set the tempo for the rest of the defense. Urlacher and Briggs fly around the field to the football on every play, proving to be an inspiration to the rest of the defense. Moreover, as evidenced by Urlacher's recovery of the fumble that Peppers forced, Urlacher and Briggs are always well positioned to turn an opportune moment into a turnover. To put it a different way, on many team defenses, once the play is made other players watch it happen and already start preparing for the next play - especially those players on the other side of the field. But with the Bears, the philosophy, starting with Lovie Smith, who coaches it in practice every week, and continuing with the outstanding play and leadership of Urlacher and Briggs, every player flocks to the ball on every play. It's not just a figment of your imagination that the Bears seem to recover more of the fumbles they force than many other teams. You saw it yesterday with the Urlacher recovery and the Jennings/Conte recovery on a later strip. In much the same way, the coaching staff also constantly preaches to the defense to be attempting to strip the football on every play. The Bears are coached to not let the opposing offense turn the ball over, but rather force the turnover and create takeaways. It's that philosophy that permeates through the team that makes the Bears such a difficult defense to play. They play physical, tough, and look to take the football from you on every play. It wears down offenses and gives the Bears a mental edge as well. All of that goes to create the swagger you see the Bears defense have every week.

Speaking of turnovers, I would be remiss if I did not mention how well the secondary played yesterday. Representing the ball hawking philosophy mentioned above, the Bears took advantage of the pressure on Stafford and intercepted him four times, two of them being run back for touchdowns by Major Wright and Charles Tillman:

Major Wright Int Return for TD

Charles Tillman Int Return for TD

Tillman is the most underrated CB in the NFL
First, it was great to see Major Wright make a huge play for this defense, after playing what I thought was some terrible football this year. Not only was this a big play for him and his confidence, but it was a huge play for the game in general. It was early in the third quarter, after another putrid Bears drive, and the Bears were only up 20-6 at this point. You had to figure that the Lions would get their outstanding offense together at some point, but thanks to the pressure up front and the confusing coverages the Bears ran the entire game, Wright was able to take advantage of a huge moment to essentially hand complete control over the game to the Bears. Not to be outdone, Charles Tillman returned a pick back only minutes later, and the game was all but out of reach at that moment. I wanted to specifically mention Tillman here. In my opinion, he is the most underrated defensive back in the NFL. The Bears secondary gets a bad reputation, which, at least for the cornerbacks (the safeties, until yesterday, had been terrible) was undeserved. With the type of defense that the Bears run, it's easy to forget about how valuable a physical and intelligent corner like Tillman is to the team. Yet, he's one of my favorite players on the defense because of his ability to force turnovers and limit the effectiveness of the opposing team's best receiver. Coming into the game, Calvin Johnson had been absolutely dominating opposing defenses. To hold him to only 81 yards and zero touchdowns is a testament to the physical and mental skill that Tillman brings to each game. If you think about the reputation the Bears have on defense, it's that they run a consistent Cover 2 defense. If that were the case, that would mean that the Lions could move Johnson around and exploit mismatches against Tim Jennings or D.J. Moore in other areas of the zone. However, the Bears use that misconception of their defense to their advantage and disguise coverages frequently. As a testament to the abilities of Tillman, he covered Johnson for nearly the entire game. And the result was one of the only corners in the NFL to limit  Johnson this entire season. Tillman is not just one of the best cornerbacks on the Bears (obviously), he's one of the best in football. The fact that he hasn't been to a Pro Bowl is ridiculous. 

Bears Defense: Swag.
Another underrated aspect of this Bears defense is the leadership and experience they have at each position group. Lovie knows that he can rely on his philosophy never being lost on the field because he has Peppers and Israel Idonije to lead on the defensive line, Urlacher and Briggs at linebacker, and Tillman in the defensive backfield. With those kind of elite veterans on the field, the rest of the defense almost picks up their game to their level by pure osmosis. That's another reason why you see the Bears flocking to every football. And for me, it's another reason why I love having Lovie Smith as our head coach. Without the belief that his defense has in his schemes, and  his ability to let his best defensive players lead by example, you don't have the kind of swagger that the Bears exhibited yesterday. Can't say enough about it.

And then there was Da Hess. Devin Hester again showed why he should be a Hall of Famer with his ridiculous tip-toeing-down-the-sideline punt return for a touchdown:

Hester is ridiculous
Keeping with the swagger theme, Hester is the epitome of such. Has there ever been a more dangerous special teams weapon in NFL History? The legend that is Devin Hester only seems to grow with each return. His ability to escape seemingly tight coverage, even in this case on the outside, is unparalleled in the entire NFL. To be sure, the Bears place an emphasis on special teams more than any other team in the NFL. They even have many of their starters playing on it. So when you combine that with the otherworldly talent of Devin Hester, you have a threat to score on each return. Can any other team in the NFL say the same thing? It's time that the national media woke up and realized that the Bears don't just get lucky with turnovers and huge special team plays. This is what identifies them as a team. They practice it, they preach it, and they work hard at it every single day. And when you have the most ridiculous gamebreaking player in the NFL as the primary focus of that weapon, it turns it into a legitimate force. I've simply never seen anything like it. Opposing teams know what he can do, punt it to him, and it happens time and time again. Even yesterday, on a Lions punt that Hester bobbled near the Bears own 20 yard line, Hester was pinned to the sideline and yet somehow didn't step out of bounds on his way to blowing past what seemed like the entire Lions coverage team for the touchdown. What a stud. It just adds another swagger to the Bears that can dishearten other teams - if they do everything they can to prevent him from scoring (besides not kicking it to him altogether and then still giving the Bears excellent field position) and he still scores, how scary is that? He even does it on the biggest stage!

And when you see how that pumps up the rest of the team and creates momentum in and of itself, it's hard not to view Hester and one of the MVP's of the Bears. Hester doesn't just create opportunities for the offense, like every team hopes for. He creates moments that every Bears fan will never forget. The lasting impact he makes with each return is an achievement that is rarely found in sports. The fact that he does it with such flair and swagger makes it, at least for me, that much better. Watch that clip and you can't find someone out there who would disagree.

The Bears offense just wasn't needed
The Bears defense and special teams was so good yesterday that we don't even need to spend much time with the offense. Much will be made about how the defense outgained an offense that could barely put a drive together, but in this instance, I'm going to actually side with Mike Martz (for now). When your defense and special teams are spotting you that many points and opportunities, why open up the playbook to any other teams scouting the Bears? It wasn't necessary. The Bears offense just wasn't needed yesterday. I did see some things though, that are encouraging for the times when the offense will be needed. First, the offensive line continues to play well. It will be interesting to see how they continue that play, however, with their continuity and chemistry being disrupted by the season ending injury to left guard Chris Williams. My guess is that Lance Louis will slide over to left guard, which means that until Gabe Carimi comes back, Frank "Oh My God I Crapped My Pants" Omiyale will have to fill in at right tackle. That could be scary. Second, the Jay Cutler to Earl Bennett combo is proving to be highly successful. Let's just hope that other receivers step up and give Cutler more targets. This one's for you, Johnny Knox - we for damn sure know that it won't be Roy "Cupcake" Williams. And finally, Matt Forte looked good again even in a much lighter workload than usual. As I always say, Pay the Man Angelo. It's important to remember that there will be moments where the defense cannot hold off an offense, and the Bears offense will be needed to win a game. We can only hope that when it does happen, it responds like it did last week against the Eagles.

On a final note, I couldn't let this post finish without mentioning the fighting that was going on nearly all game between the two teams. Allow me to take this opportunity to call the Lions one of the cheapest, dirty teams in all of the NFL - something that has already been done plenty of times before me. Sure, the Bears have their fair share of dirty plays like every team in the NFL, even though that penalty called on Lance Briggs was utterly ridiculous. But the Lions seem to thrive off of it. While I've made quite clear the philosophy that Lovie Smith imposes on his team above, it seems that Lions Coach Jim Schwartz imposes a dirty philosophy with his team. You saw it the whole game - intentional roughing penalties, chop blocks, headhunting etc. And all you see after the game is Jim Schwartz make excuses. Nowhere was this situation more evident than the Tim Jennings interception that subsequently resulted in a brawl on the field:

During the return, Stafford responded to a D.J. Moore block down field by grabbing the back of Moore's helmet and carrying him that way to the ground. Moore, obviously upset about the potentially dangerous way in which he was brought down, responds by going after Stafford. To prove my point that the Lions are dirty even further, the end of the play was a personal foul penalty for a late hit out of bounds on Detroit. Now, I'm not trying to say what Moore did was right - but he was the only one ejected!! And to make it even worse, how does Schwartz respond when asked whether Stafford should face discipline?
“Discipline for what? For their guy getting kicked out of the game? For their guy getting kicked out of the game? Did Matt get penalized? No, Matt did not get penalized.”
The Bears don't back down from anyone
From the fiasco with Jim Harbaugh to now, Schwartz is proving that his dirty team feeds off his dirty philosophy. All the guy does the entire game is whine and complain to the officials. Hey coach - maybe you should start figuring out why the Lions are falling apart, as usual, instead of complaining about every call. Maybe work on that in practice instead of practicing late hits and chop blocks. Give Lovie credit in this regard too - his even-keeled manner never gets the best of him, and that calmness trickles down to every player on the team. What I loved, though, was the Bears response. In keeping with their team philosophy and swagger, the Lions dirty play only riled up the Bears even more, culminating in a huge hit by Lance Briggs that should not have been called a penalty, and the immediate support D.J. Moore received from his teammates when going after Stafford. Watch the replay - Stafford curls up like a baby while players from both teams surround him. Which team has the tougher mentality? Give me the Bears mentality over the Lions dirty play every day of the week.

All told, this appeared to be a defining game of the season, much like the previous week was against the Eagles. And really, that might be what it is like the rest of the season, with matchups against the Chargers, Raiders, and Packers remaining on the schedule. But with a swagger and mentality like the Bears have right now, I'm confident they're going to go out and make Bears fans proud this season. In any event, we know for damn sure that it's going to be fun to watch.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Fresh Season with Fresh Faces for Illini

Weber & the seniors in a nutshell
With the loss to Kansas in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament this year, Illinois basketball marked the end of an era. Gone was the inconsistent tenures of seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, and Bill Cole. The Illini rose and fell with these four, and each night you never knew which one of them would turn up. Many would feel that they underachieved in their tenure, but one thing is for sure - it was always interesting, regardless of the amount of times they gave Coach Bruce Weber headaches. Then later came the news that star freshman Jereme Richmond was leaving for the NBA, which later turned into him not getting drafted and subsequently getting arrested. So to say that this season would bring a new look to the Illini basketball team is an understatement. This season presents the biggest challenge that Weber & Co. have faced in their time at Illinois, and with such a different look to the team, what better way to preview this season than to go through the order of the team? I'll start with the 5 players I project to start, followed by the bench players is a somewhat random order.


Sam Maniscalco, PG, Senior

Maniscalco could be the missing ingredient that Weber has been waiting for since Dee Brown left. A senior transfer from Bradley, Maniscalco will likely start from day one at point guard for Weber as a replacement for McCamey. While he certainly does not bring the same amount of athleticism and natural ability that McCamey did, Maniscalco brings the one main thing that Demetri struggled with at times - leadership. It would have been nice to have it last year, when the rollercoaster season beckoned for on-court leadership but did not have it. But it will be even more important this year, as the rest of the Illini are one of the youngest bunches to take the court in Assembly Hall in years. He does bring some skill as well, but his selfless play will be huge for the other players on the court. If he stays healthy, he could be the key to the team this year.

D.J. Richardson, G, Junior

Look for D.J. to rebound this year
Many feel that D.J. regressed last year after being named Big Ten Freshman of the year in 2008-09. Throughout most of the season he suffered through a vicious shooting slump that affected nearly every other area of his play, including the defense that he had made a name for himself with. At times, he was benched by Weber, which seemed to only further diminish his confidence. Yet, as the sole remaining starter from most of last season, look for D.J. to assume more of a confident leadership role this season. After experiencing both the highs and lows of Big Ten play, D.J. is experienced enough to help out the younger players on the team. At the same time, I hope he uses that same experience to help expand his game. He needs to learn to utilize his attacking and slashing ability more often, if only to get to the basket and create open looks for others. His potential in Weber's motion offense reminds me of Dee Brown, who drove to the basket constantly only to dish it out to Deron Williams or Luther Head for an open look. D.J. is a decent shooter himself, so adding penetration to his game will only give him more looks from longer range. From all accounts, D.J. is ready and knows this, so I anticipate a strong season from him as a rebound from last year.

Brandon Paul, G, Junior

Paul is the key to the season
Although Sam Maniscalco literally assumes the point guard duties left by Demetri McCamey, Brandon Paul takes over nearly every other role McCamey left. Paul will be the go to player for the Illini. Paul definitely fills the role of a lead by example type, and has the talent and potential to be a very good player this season. As a junior, Paul is able to bring experience to the table this year, but has the right personality to mesh with the younger guys on the team and get them to buy into Weber's system. Paul reminds me of a bigger and more athletic Luther Head, but the comparisons to that elite Weber team don't stop there. For me, the problem with the seniors last year was their inability to consistently buy into Weber's system, while at the same time creating a divide with the younger players on the team. Paul, as the leader of the younger crowd, should have an advantage in this situation that plays well with Weber by being able to consistently represent what Weber wants on the court at all times. Thus, although the talent level and experience that depart with the senior class is hard to replace, the talent, experience, and "coachability" that someone like Brandon Paul (and thus, by extension, the rest of the team) has could help make for a more consistent, teamlike effort night in and night out, something that has been sorely missing in Champaign. All of that notwithstanding, Paul is an good player with excellent talent. We just need to see him do it every night first. But make no mistake - the Illinois season rises and falls with Paul.

Tyler Griffey, F, Junior

Look for Griffey to maintain the power forward spot this season, if you want to call it that. I don't know what to make of Griffey, as he lost playing time last season and ended up spending much of the season on the bench. Griffey has plenty of talent, enough to make him a high-level recruit, but Griffey still seems to be figuring out what type of player he will/can be. Most of what we have seen from him is playing deeper off the block, settling for jump shots and even threes, something that you wouldn't expect out of a 6'8 forward with the look of a player who should develop some back to the basket moves. Only time will tell if he develops some sort of post game, but if he doesn't, that has to worry Weber. We saw what happens in Big Ten play with undersized big men. Although Griffey, if he sticks to an outside game, could present mismatch opportunities on offense, much like Mike Tisdale did, I can't imagine this leading to much success on defense (especially against the likes of Jared Sullinger) or in rebounding. For an Illinois team sorely lacking in defensive rebounding a year ago, Griffey might lose playing time as the year progresses if he fails to show he improved in that area. I, for one, like Griffey, and hope it puts it together.

Meyers Leonard, C, Sophomore

Can he put it together?
Yet another part of the Illini equation this year that is nearly impossible to detect how it will go. Leonard, an athletic freak for a guy his size, was a major level recruit for Weber, leading to high expectations. Leonard played relatively major minutes last year and at times showed what a dominating force he could potentially become on offensive. A load to handle at 7'1, 245 pounds, Leonard will only continue to grow into his body. The problems though, were evident. The game was fast to him, especially on defense. He seemed to consistently be in foul trouble or out of position on defense, leading to easy baskets for the opposing team. On offense, it seemed that everytime he snagged a key rebound or got a pass in the post, he would rush the ball, not trusting his size or ability, and brick it off the backboard or turn the ball over. Now, we could probably chalk those things up to inexperience and move on, but at the same time, look at Weber's track record. He has yet to successfully develop a big man at Illinois, maybe besides James Augustine. This season will be the true marker of whether Weber can take a young big man with all the talent in the world and turn him into a great Big Ten center. Leonard certainly has the skill set and mentality (desire, passion, motivation, and competitiveness are NOT weaknesses) to make it happen - let's just hope his hard work pays off. If it does, this Illini team could be special. I can't think of a single player in the Big Ten that would be able to defend a productive and disciplined Meyers Leonard.


Tracy Abrams, PG, Freshman

Abrams, one of the highly touted freshman arriving on campus, will be looked to have a big role in his freshman year. The lack of depth at the point guard position vacated by McCamey (with only Abrams coming in to replace him) was the primary reason Weber sought Maniscalco. But don't let Weber's desire for a leader at that position mislead you into thinking that Abrams doesn't have the talent:

Look for Abrams to get major playing time, especially early in the season as Maniscalco recovers from a foot injury. To be sure, Weber will have D.J. or Paul handle much of the point guard duties in the beginning to allow Abrams to get used to the flow of the motion offense in an actual game. But in time, Abrams has too much talent not to keep him involved in the flow of the offense. He also comes with a bulldog mentality, something that was missing from McCamey at point guard for his 4 years here. While Abrams might not have as much pure offensive talent as McCamey, I think at this point Illinois fans will trade some of that talent for a player who plays within the system and executes it well over someone who we have to rely on to do everything for us. Yet again, a new face to the team that will make it interesting to watch.

Joseph Bertrand, G, Redshirt Sophomore

Bertrand is yet another unknown. He came to Illinois as part of the heralded class that included Paul and Richardson, but had to sit out his first year due to injury. It seemed that he never quite cracked the pecking order to get into Weber's infamously short rotations. Yet, reports always came out that he was one of their best practice players, and those who follow the program closely knew that he had too much talent not to play. At 6'5, 195, he has good size and great athleticism, and will be given every opportunity this year to make headway into the lineup. If he does, I think he could be a darkhorse contributor and represent the seemingly endless line of talented guards that Weber can run out on the court on a nightly basis.

Myke Henry, G/F, Freshman

Henry's outside shooting could be key
Another highly touted freshman, Henry has arguably the most talent out of the entire freshman class. Henry has good size and good athleticism, but what sets him apart is his shooting ability. One of the main facets of the motion offense that Weber runs is open outside shooters, something that we saw done extraordinarily well by Deron Williams and Dee Brown. However, there was a serious lack of outside shooting last year, mostly because the best outside shooter on the team (McCamey) usually ended up having to penetrate most of the time to create offense, leaving the Illini without an outside shooter who could consistently hit shots (especially with Richardson struggling so badly). For this reason, I think Henry could be huge this year. If he can show Weber that he can frequently hit outside shots, he will become a permanent mainstay in the rotation and become a big contributor in his freshman year. Moreover, should defenses begin to catch on to his shooting, Henry has the athleticism to keep defenses honest. His development should be one of the more exciting developments of the season.

Crandall Head, G/F, Sophomore

The younger brother of former Illini Luther Head, Crandall was the third member of the recruiting class that came in last year, along with Meyers Leonard and Jereme Richmond. Although highly ranked as a recruit, Head came into the season recovering from knee surgery that he underwent during his final season in high school. As a result, he wasn't able to get on the court much at all until a surprise start against Ohio State to replace a benched McCamey. Head, known for being uber-athletic, showed a far-from-polished offensive game, to be expected. But he was able to use that athleticism to turn into a very good defensive player for the Illini down the home stretch of last season. He can be a key contributor this year, as Weber will surely be looking for good defensive players as he always does. What Head does need to do, however, is keep developing the vast potential of his offensive game, stay healthy, and most importantly, stay out of trouble. This team faced enough drama with the entire Jereme Richmond saga, so I have a feeling that Weber will be far less tolerant of it this season. If Head can keep it together, and work on his game, he will be an enormous asset to the team.

Nnanna Egwu, C, Freshman

Yet another talented big man
Yet another member of the great incoming class, Egwu will most likely start as Leonard's backup this season. At 6'11, 250 pounds, Egwu already looks like he will be able to add bulk to his frame. Combine that with his natural talent and good footwork, and Egwu has all the makings of a very productive Big Ten center in the future. With his size, he should be able to make it on the court as a productive rebounder from the start, giving him valuable experience that will only help in the future. If Weber can develop two big men at the same time, Leonard and Egwu, they could prove to be an elite centerpiece to the very talented wing players around them. As this has been a glaring weakness with Illinois for years, one can only imagine the success that Weber's offense would have if defenses have to focus on a productive player in the paint in addition to worrying about the players on the wings. I can only think that this is what Weber envisioned with Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale in the middle working with McCamey, which failed miserably. Yet this time, Weber has two talented bigs in the middle who are only going to get better, and the talent on the wings around them could make them even better.

Mike Shaw, PF, Freshman

Shaw will look to be a contributor in what figures to be an expanded rotation this year for Weber. Another highly touted freshman, Shaw has a very good all around game. He can box out and grab rebounds, using his size to his advantage. On offense he can face the basket and make plays that give a mismatch to power forwards trying to defend him. Although his post-game is a work in progress, he has the necessary skill set to make it work. Because of the uncertainty facing Tyler Griffey and how he will rebound and defend, if Shaw does both of those things well when he gets into games this season, he could look to see serious playing time on a team that should improve on their terrible rebounding from a year ago. Illinois has not had a player like Shaw in as long as I can remember - a true power forward. Mike Davis was a small forward with the height of a power forward. Shaw has both small forward and power forward skills in a true power forward body. The sky is the limit with him, especially considering the fact that he has bought into Weber's system (as seen by him leading the hustle charts in the two exhibition games). Shaw represents yet another story line to follow with this new-look Illini team.

Devin Langford, F, Freshman

The oddest member of the incoming recruiting class, Langford comes to Champaign all the way from Huntsville, Alabama. It's hard to get a read on Langford because he's been hurt and sidelined for nearly the entire time he has been at Illinois thus far. When you combine his injuries and already-difficult freshman transition from the south to Illinois, there of course will be questions about a redshirt. Of course, you want to get the kid out there, if only to help ease his transition by distracting him with basketball. Or to utilize his crazy 6'7, 200 pound skillset (just imagine him in passing lanes). I would guess that Weber won't redshirt him just to keep the kid busy, but if he does end up playing, we could get a real read on what he can bring to the table. I'm excited to see what kind of player we have on our hands.

Ibby Djimde, F, Freshman

Djimde, an African native who is still learning the language, fills an immediate need for Illinois. Ibby is a prototypical banger, a player who uses his size deep in the post to make the lives of opposing big men miserable and grab rebounds in bunches - something that was sorely lacking last year. His knowledge and understanding of the game is still very raw, but it's hard to imagine he won't see some time on the court this season when rebounding and interior defense is so clearly a need for Illinois. Like many of the other players on Illinois' roster, the sky is the limit with him. Don't count on anything on offense right now, but in time, I feel he could become a productive player on that end. For now, though, think of him more as the Illini's version of Joakim Noah - a player that can get in deep and come out with the basketball. We'll see just how much time he gets on the court, but I think he can be very productive this year.

Final Thoughts

With my thoughts on these players considered, I think that Illinois can turn out to be a very good this year. If you think back to last year's team, we made the NCAA Tournament and won a game despite what most fans who follow the team closely will tell you was a maddening season to follow. All too often, the game turned into a "watch Demetri penetrate for a layup and not get back on defense" show, proven by Kansas giving us a beat down in the tournament. So, with McCamey and other key contributors out of the equation, the onus is on players like Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, and Meyers Leonard to step up and live up to their recruiting status. This year, every player has bought into Weber, and with Weber not having to force his players to listen this year, he will have more time to do what he is underrated at - instruction. I think that besides the bumps in the road that come from inexperience, we will see a smooth and athletic Illinois team do quite well this year in a weakened Big Ten. Besides Ohio State, no dominant team stands out, leaving an open opportunity for a good Illinois team to rack up quality conference wins. I still have questions, namely, what happens when a team comes and (figuratively) punches the Illini in the mouth, or who takes the last shot in a game, or what the final rotation will bet, etc. But, with a united team and renewed leadership, the Illini are already off to a good start. With the first regular season game tonight against Loyola, the true tests start now. Let's hope they have what it takes.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Is There a More Hated Man in America?

At this point I don't need to link any of the various reports about Joe Paterno retiring or Penn State President Graham Spanier being forced out - the American news media has got that covered and then some. The fallout of the Penn State Scandal has now permeated our culture to a level usually reserved for the likes of the Major League Baseball steriods scandal and the O.J. Simpson trial (and unbelievable car chase).

There are definitely others at fault here besides Jerry Sandusky, namely AD Tim Curley and VP Gary Schultz, for allowing the horrible and inhumane conduct of Sandusky to continue on after they were alerted to the atrocities. Sandusky has now even tarnished the legacy of the most legendary coach in college football history. Paterno should have alerted authorities when Curley and Schultz took a giant dump all over their responsibilities, and I feel that he should rightly step down (as should the rest of the Penn State football program). It's crazy that if you rewind time to just a week ago, Paterno was hands down the most respected coach in college history.

Sandusky is the real monster
Sandusky is essentially unravelling one of the more prestigious college football programs in history. Without condoning the actions of Paterno and his superiors (which, I cannot say more clearly, I am not), nothing would have occurred without the monstrous actions of one man. When Paterno and Curley and the rest of them found about it, they shouldn't have even held internal meetings, or discussed it with President Spanier (who is a grade A douche, for what it matters). They should have immediately involved the police. But in our constant, 24 hour sports news cycle, the focus has been too much on the Paternos and Spaniers and less on Sandusky. Can we focus for a second on what Sandusky did? This entire morning, ESPN refused to deviate from any conversation about Paterno. What about Sandusky too? He is the real monster here, and it's terrible that he is ruining the reputations of Joe Paterno and Penn State football, not to mention the lives and livelihoods of so many boys and their families.

Paterno could have solved this problem himself, of course, so I understand why some find it hard to feel bad for him. But that's not what I'm trying to do. I'm trying to understand how a man who had helped thousands of kids become solid young men, teaching them the ways of football, academics, and life, could have failed so miserably in this one instance. Which also begs the question of how Paterno, a man of such integrity, allowed this to happen? I want to believe it was a moment of incredible naivety or ignorance, refusing to believe that the horrid allegations could possibly be true. That still doesn't absolve him of his obligation as a human being to those young boys that Sandusky molested after 2002.

At this moment, the public wants and deserves answers. The next step, after Paterno has rightly stepped down, is for him to hold a press conference and answer questions that we all want to hear. What was he exactly told? If he heard the horrifying story from graduate assistant Mike McQueary that has recently come to light, how could he stop at informing Tim Curley and Graham Spanier? Why weren't the police involved?

The people deserve these answers. The entire purpose of a criminal justice system is to punish people for act's committed against society. We have a right to thus demand the ouster of those public officials who failed to live up to that standard and the right to prosecute those individuals who reached a criminal level within that standard. But more than that, in today's instant gratification/social media/24 hour news world, we want answers. And Joe, for the sake of your nearly six decade long legacy, give us the answers before it's too late. Your entire reputation depends upon it.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bears Turn the Corner

Think back to last season. The Bears headed into their Week 8 bye having lost three out of four, including three awful losses to the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and Washington Redskins. The Bears still sat at 4-3 during their bye, but questions about the putrid play of the offensive line, the play calling disparity towards the pass, and the defense's inability to stop big plays dominated Bears talk throughout Chicago. Moreover, the Packers were starting to find themselves as a team that would eventually win the Super Bowl. Yet, after that bye, the Bears would finish the season with a 7-2 record down the stretch and eventually clinch the NFC North division title. The Bears did this with a resurgent offensive line, a balanced attack featuring Matt Forte, and disguised coverages on defense that masked the weaknesses in the deep secondary.

Now fast forward to this season. The Bears headed into their Week 8 bye sitting at 4-3 with the same questions as last year. Fans and commentators wondered about the quality of the offensive line, the terrible big plays that the defense would give up, the weaknesses of their receiving corps and secondary, and why Matt Forte didn't get the ball enough. Yet as their huge victory over the Eagles last night showed, the Bears could be well on their way to a repeat of the 2010 season.

Last night had all the shades of a trademark Bears 2010 victory. They ran the ball exceedingly well, even if Matt Forte uncharacteristically fumbled twice (in two horrible situations too). Pay the Man Angelo. Please. The defense contained the explosive Michael Vick perfectly, and tried to contain LeSean McCoy, if that's even possible. The offensive line played great, without surrendering a sack, allowing Cutler to pick apart the supposed "Dream Team." This was a huge win. Philadelphia may now be 3-5, but they have as much talent as anyone in the NFL. This was a team that was in the middle of its own resurgence, having ripped the Dallas Cowboys apart on national television last week. But more importantly, beating the Eagles proves to the Bears and their fans that they're the same team that won the division last year. They proved that they're here to compete.

Cutler, with time, is elite
It was hard not to notice last night how great of a quarterback Jay Cutler can be when he has time to throw. Games like last night are the reason the Bears mortgaged two first round picks to acquire him. He had time to throw and consistently tossed darts downfield to move the ball, preventing the defense from focusing in on Matt Forte. He made some ridiculous plays to advance the ball and save the game, including the play where he fell down, had the wherewithal to get up quickly and toss the ball off to Marion Barber to save a sack. But just as importantly, he showed that the Bears have a leader on offense, and that this team is two dimensional when the offensive line is performing well. Cutler hasn't had a game in awhile where he throws three or so of those awful interceptions, so when he has time, he looks like an elite quarterback. He was facing the Eagle's secondary filled with three pro bowlers, yet him and Earl Bennett connected consistently all night, leading me to my second point.

Bennett and Cutler are a lethal combination
With Bennett back, Cutler finally has a receiver he is comfortable with to make consistent (and successful) plays down the field. Bennett was seemingly everywhere last night, and when the Bears needed him most, catching balls on long third downs and for touchdowns. He's going to be huge for the rest of the season. Hopefully, with him back, it will spur the rest of the receiving corps to step it up. My disappointment with Roy "Cupcake" Williams continues as he crapped the bed again last night with a disgusting drop on a huge throw by Cutler. The rest of the receiving corps was seemingly nonexistent, but that was merely because Cutler spread the ball around so well. Look for another receiver, like a Johnny Knox, to step it up opposite Bennett.

The offensive line played great last night. The much-maligned unit has actually played well the past few weeks, and just like last year, has finally become a cohesive unit that can be productive going forward. The line of J'Marcus Webb, Chris Williams, Roberto Garza, Chris Spencer, and Lance Louis has performed well as a unit, and will only get better once Gabe Carimi gets back to right tackle and allows Lance Louis to slide back to right guard. For the first time all year, I have been surprised and pleased with how they have played as a unit, and that is a testament to the great coaching by line coach Mike Tice.

The Bears Defense is Back
Finally, I loved the defense and how they played for the most part. First - the safeties are a huge concern. I lost count how many times Chris Conte looked out of position or took terrible angles to try and tackle LeSean McCoy. The same goes for his counterpart Major Wright, who just looks lost. The Bears have drafted safeties consistently the past few years, and they haven't performed at a sufficient level. That needs to be addressed. But the rest of the defense looked fantastic. Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs were chasing after the ball the whole night and made life difficult for Michael Vick. Julius Peppers was his usual self. Charles Tillman continues to prove that he's the most underrated cornerback in the NFL. All in all, it is a defense that performed much the way it did last year, and can continue to play this well for the rest of the season.

So the big question is whether the Bears can continue this level of play for the rest of the season. While they certainly faced a difficult schedule last year down the stretch, the Bears were able to finish the season at 11-5. I honestly believe that the exact same record is possible for the Bears this season. It starts next week at home against the Detroit Lions in a HUGE game with playoff and divisional ramifications. I think the Bears can redeem themselves after their horrible performance against the Lions a couple of weeks ago on Monday Night Football. After that, the Bears have a difficult matchup against the San Diego Chargers at home, who just gave the Packers a run for their money. The Bears then finish up the season at Oakland, at home against Kansas City, at Denver, at home against Seattle, at Green Bay on Christmas night, and at Minnesota to end the season. I think the Bears can finish that entire schedule with only two losses. If they do that, they finish 11-5 and presumably have a playoff spot waiting for them. And after the way the Bears started the season, that's all us fans can ask for.