Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Catching Up With Chicago Sports in a Post Bar Exam World

There's the bar exam, and then there's the post bar exam celebration. Both are epic in their respective ways, and both have prevented me from writing on this blog until now. So, in that spirit, why don't we catch up on what we, or maybe just I, have been missing since the last post on this blog? We'll start with the Bears, who are currently in the midst of training camp with football on the horizon. Keeping with football, we can quickly examine the past month or so of both Notre Dame and Illinois football, who have both recently started camp as well, not to mention the near constant unhealthy addiction that is college football recruiting. Of course, there's the Cubs as well. You know it's one of those seasons on the Northside when the players leaving and those coming from the minors draw more interest than what's actually happening on the field. Let's not forget our favorite off season teams either, where the Hawks and Bulls have taken somewhat different paths as both prepare for the upcoming seasons. In a way, it was nice to have sports taking a back seat during the bar exam (if you can call it that), because it allows me to take a look back at the past month or so with each team. Let's get to it.


I'm thinking that I'll do a more detailed position preview for the Bears in the coming weeks, but since the Bears are in camp right now and have their first preseason game this week, a quick look at each group, with any new additions, will be a great way to kick this off. For starters, I can't remember being this excited for a Bears season since the year after the Super Bowl season. Glancing at the team, and remembering how this team played before the injuries to Jay Cutler and Matt Forte, it's easy to get carried away by how well we feel the Bears can compete this year. Bottom line: with all the additions, veteran leadership, and supposed balance and strength on both sides of the ball, are the Bears for real?

The offense could breakout this year
In a word, yes. It's important not to forget just how vital the offseason front office shakeup was, and will be, to the success of this team. Gone is persona non grata Jerry Angelo and the draconian Mike "10 year olds playing Madden can audible more than quarterbacks in my offense" Martz, replaced with Phil Emery and Mike Tice. Emery has been a revelation thus far, executing trades and signings that show just how terrible a GM Jerry Angelo is. Think of this for a second. Michael Bush, Jason Campbell, Brandon Marshall - none of these players would be on the Bears if Angelo had not been fired and replaced by Emery. Not to mention the fact that the Matt Forte contract extension probably wouldn't have been completed either. So, instead of limping into this year with similar weaknesses that undid the team last year, we now have superb depth at QB, a great 1-2 combo at RB (including a happy, signed-long-term franchise RB), and FINALLY a legit Pro Bowl receiver for Cutler to throw to. 

When you recognize that the Bears figure to now utilize a more flexible, balanced, and adaptable offensive scheme under Tice, that's when you start to get really excited. Gone are the ridiculously long timing routes ordered by Martz that we not only didn't have the wide receivers for, but got Cutler pummeled every game. Instead, Tice will allow his offensive line to gel without worrying about providing 7 step protection on every play. Shorter, quicker route selection will not only protect Cutler, but it will give the ball to our playmakers and allow them to make plays in space much, much faster. That is the goal, after all. You don't have one of the premiere athletes in the NFL in Devin Hester to have him run nonsensical patterns every game. Martz was an idiot; we'll be glad to be rid of him. 

The progression of the Bears, at least on paper, on offense has to bring a smile to the faces of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Charles Tillman, who have labored their entire careers with inept offenses. This should help ease the burden off the same players, who although still turned in immensely productive years, are beginning to try and outrun father time. If Urlacher's knee can stay healthy, and as far as I'm concerned, that's a BIG if, I look for him to anchor the defense as he does every year. Because of the age of the defense, and the apparent lack of depth in some key areas (like defensive line, linebackers, corners - well I guess just everywhere) health will possibly be the biggest key to the success of a defense that seems to be consistently excellent every year. 

Above all, this is a veteran team with outstanding leadership everywhere. These types of teams are always competitive, but when you add talent to position groups that needed it, the recipe for a special season is there for the taking. I don't think we'll see too much in the preseason to give us a clear idea if that's the direction we're headed, but I fully expect the Bears to be ready to welcome Andrew Luck to the NFL in Week 1. Can't wait. 


It's that time of year, where both NFL and college training camps get under way and we begin to sacrifice most of our free time on weekends to paying attention and obsessing over it. The problem for me, and many others I know, is that we really don't stop doing this all year. In the college football context, it's easy to feed this beast with the addictive nature of recruiting. That gives us the perfect jumping point before getting down to discussing some football. 

Prior to the last time I posted about 5 weeks ago, Notre Dame had a top 10 class, something which any college program can be happy with even at the end of the year. But in this case, it was the end of June. I can't remember another time in recent Irish football history where recruiting has been as consistent and solid before the season even started. Now, some 5 weeks later, the Irish have added Danny Mattingly, an athletic, "big skill" type who had some pretty amazing offers, Michael Deeb, a solid ILB prospect, Alex Anzalone, an elite ILB prospect, Jamel James, a talented downhill running back prospect, and Will Fuller, a versatile athlete who decommitted from the sinking Titanic that is the Penn State football program and was recruited to Notre Dame as either a DB or WR. 

This now brings the Irish recruiting class to 19 before the season has even started. A near Top 5 class any way you cut it, the recent athletes that committed, along with those already in the class, represent a special bunch that call themselves the #IrishMob13. It's a group that is close and cohesive already, and is committed to Notre Dame to provide a complement to the current players on the roster to try and bring a national championship back to Notre Dame. Out of these most recent commits, three of them comprise the Fab 4 group of linebackers headed to Notre Dame in 2013, along with all-world prospect Jaylon Smith. Brian Kelly has spent the last two years shoring up the defensive line, and now looks to big, athletic, and smart linebackers to capitalize off the talented players brought in up front. The next step is getting some depth in the secondary. Regardless, though, there are exciting times ahead for Notre Dame from a purely recruiting standpoint.

As for football, Kelly assured the ND faithful that a new QB will start for the Irish in the opener in Dublin when he suspended Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese. All signs point to this being Everett Golson, who apparently has spent the summer in the weight room, film room, and deep in his playbook in his efforts to take the starting spot. I have always felt that the job should be his. Just look at his skill set:

He clearly has the talent to make it happen, but it's not going to be given to him. Competing against him for the starter's spot are of course Rees, Andrew Hendrix, and 5 Star freshman Gunner Kiel. Rees seems to have lost his spot merely because of the suspension, but as last season's abrupt halftime change in the opener from Dayne Crist to Rees shows, Kelly has no qualms falling back to Rees if he is uncomfortable with other options. I like what Hendrix brings to the table and it seems like it would fit in great with this offense, so I wonder if Kelly would still give him playing time even if Golson came out and won the job. And with Kiel, look for him to redshirt this season but be pushing for a starter's job the rest of his tenure at Notre Dame.

I'm pumped, though, for what should be an explosive offense otherwise. Check out some early clips of the offense here:

Highlight for me, of course, is number 19 Davonte Neal, the electric freshman from Arizona. He's a blur, and provides a component for Kelly's offense that he's been desperate for since he arrived in South Bend. More to the point, though, is the cross training that the depth at RB and Z WR has allowed for. What Kelly has done is train his RB's and slot WR's to operate from both positions. Thus, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick, Amir Carlisle, George Atkinson III, Davonte Neal, Robbie Toma, Will Mahone, etc; all of these players are going to add another dimension to the offense through their ability to flex out from the backfield. It puts that much more pressure on the defense to account for a variety of formations. In a word, it's what has made Kelly's offenses in the past lethal.

The outside receivers have some big shoes to fill with the graduation of Michael Floyd, but I'm again confident in this group. There's talented incoming freshmen Chris Brown (the sleeper of the class) and Justin Ferguson, plus returnees like TJ Jones, Davaris Daniels, and Daniel Smith. These guys will have to step up, but the talent of a player like Daniels is readily apparent. When you factor in the ridiculous talent at TE with Mackey Award favorite Tyler Eifert, Troy "Hercules" Niklas, Ben Koyack, and Alex Welch, plus the deep, talented depth of an offensive line that was very productive last year, you see why the focus of the media and coaching staff is on the quarterback. Simply put, if ND has an effective QB last year who doesn't turn the ball over, the team is looking at 9-3, 10-2, or maybe even 11-1. The team is that loaded. I'll go more in depth with individual position groups, but it's clear that after only a few days of camp the team is already showing it's talent. Can't wait for the season to start.


The Tim Beckman era began in earnest today with the first practice of fall camp in Rantoul. It begins what will certainly be an interesting season for the Illini as the transition from the Zook era, where you could almost certainly expect something to go bad during the season. Where to start? 

I guess the first thing is competition. Beckman is huge on it and incorporates it into everything the Illini do. Getting to class first. Winning the spring game. Working out harder than everyone. Hell, this guy even tries to blare music louder than anyone at practice. He's a firm believer in getting the most out of every athlete on the team between themselves first before they ever even set foot on the field. I love it. Discipline, effort, and consistency were the biggest failures of the Ron Zook era. Look no further than the brilliant 6-0 start last season, where Illinois looked like a lock for 9 games and had the chance to push it to at least 10. And yet each Illinois fan who has endured the Zook era sat back, wondering just how hard and fast the truth would come. And come it did, with 6 straight losses to end the season. 

Beckman brings a new attitude
With Beckman though, his ability to push his players to compete in everything they do will not just make them better teammates, nor will it just improve the cohesiveness of the coaching staff and roster. No, it will matter the most in the fourth quarter of a game in November, when the effort is still there because the guys you trained with are right there next to you and you don't want to let them down. Remember Band of Brothers? That's a great modern pop culture example. Those guys put themselves through hell because they knew at the end of the day they would rather be next to a guy they trusted to give the same effort. Now, I'm not saying that football is war and the players are soldiers, but you understand what I mean. The same type of camaraderie, brotherhood, and effort will be there because of the implied accountability from everyone on the roster. With that, and how Beckman is doing in recruiting, it looks like Mike Thomas has made the correct decision thus far. 

And how about that roster? The strength on offense is the veteran leadership at QB and the depth at RB. Nate Scheelhaase returns for his third year as the starter and gives the team a great leader to bridge the transition to Beckman's style of play. Scheelhaase doesn't get enough credit for what he does for this team because he was construed to have played poorly in his sophomore year last year. In fact, he spent most of the season dealing with injuries and played through it anyways. Plus, it's not his fault that the only offense Paul Petrino had was "throw it deep to AJ," "crossing route to AJ," "throw it deep to AJ on the other side," and "read option." This isn't Denzel in Remember the Titans. Running what seemed like 5 plays doesn't work like "novocaine" if you keep trying it over and over again. Modern defenses tend to catch on to things like that. 

Scheelhaase figures to split some reps with Reilly O'Toole, the frosh last year who Zook threw in at random times as if he was a 12 year old playing a game of MASH at recess. Needless to say, it didn't work out so I can only imagine Beckman has a better plan for getting his two talented QBs reps. Sharing the backfield with either of them is a very talented stable of RBs, led by Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Young, from a Texas high school powerhouse, fit in nicely last year as a freshman and should contribute mightily as the starter this year. But I also think he'll share many of his reps with electric sophormore Josh Ferguson from Joliet Catholic, who didn't play much last year because of injury but has shown this past offseason that he is a threat to take it the distance each time out. Buttressing those two is freshman Devin Church, another electric athlete who should fit in nicely in the Eric Page role that Beckman had in his offense at Toledo. Church is the type to be able to flex nicely into the backfield or out in the slot, which will bring some versatility to an offense that is lacking depth at WR. Joining Church are two more talented freshmen, Dami Ayoola and LaKeith Walls. The position group may be young, but the talent is there.

The defense will again be the strength of the team. Sure, they will miss the departed NFL players in Tavon Wilson and Whitney Mercilus, but there is talent abound at every position. Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, and Jonathan Brown, plus others, makes it much easier for Beckman to sleep at night while he gets acclimated to his team before the season. Each of those players has NFL talent and will look to continue the trend of Illinois players hopping to the NFL.


Obviously the big storyline was Anthony Rizzo's debut, and what a debut it has been. The rookie has not disappointed with a .301/9/23 stat line about 5 weeks into his season. But we're kidding ourselves if  we don't believe the biggest storyline this summer and season is the onset of Theo Epstein's "Cubs Way." What that has meant this year, at least, is the exodus of several familiar faces, and the elevation of prospects Cubs fans have been clamoring for.

Gone is Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson, Jeff Baker, Geovany Soto, all in return for prospects that will supposedly help turn around the franchise. Surprisingly, Matt Garza wasn't traded, although that becomes crystal clear now that his season is in jeopardy due to injury. That could potentially hurt the Cubs in their efforts to trade him this offseason, so he could be around until the next trade deadline. But as for those other guys, it's good to see them head off to teams that are contenders, but there is a part of you that is sad to see Dempster, Johnson, and Soto, three key contenders on the 2008 team that won 97 games, go. Especially with Dempster, a player who has endeared himself to the Cubs fans with a great personality and some outstanding pitching in his career here.

Epstein and Hoyer
But this is a business. And for once, we seem to have a management team in place that knows how to operate within this business. Epstein and Jed Hoyer have not hesitated to get things done this season looking to the future, signing Jorge Soler, drafting Albert Almora, trading for Anthony Rizzo, and then unleashing at the deadline in an attempt to bolster the farm system even more. Hell, this group was even close to unloading Alfonso Soriano. They haven't hesitated with the youth movement either. Rizzo was brought up after what seemed like ages, with the duo using the whole "we want to see him get a season of at bats at AAA" line, when really, it's all about arbitration control. But I was surprised that they made the move to clear space to bring up Brett Jackson and Josh Vitters within the past couple of days. I like the moves - why not see what the kids can do? Especially for Vitters, who is still young but has been in the organization forever. The season is lost, why not try to get something out of it?

I think the main thing to remember is that they recognize the Cubs will not be competitive for a few years. Jim Hendry fell into the quick fix routine every year, and the result was always huge contracts for less production. Placing a premium on development and cost effective production, bolstered when it's ready by key big free agents, is how you win. Not dropping tens of millions on veterans because you're trying to win now. It would seem that they're on the right path, but it's going to be dark at Wrigley in October for the foreseeable future until everything sorts itself out.


That sound of silence is your 2012 Blackhawks offseason. In an offseason where the Hawks were seemingly ready to make some moves, they made one, the signing of veteran defenseman Sheldon Brookbank. At times, it seemed like the Hawks were in on free agents Martin Brodeur, Ryan Suter, and Zach Parise, but Brodeur returned to his New Jersey Devils and the Wild swept in with Godfather offers for both Suter and Parise. I'm mixed as to whether this was a good offseason.

For one, keep in mind that the Hawks had over 100 points last year. This is clearly a talented team that knows how to win with the players they have. The problem is the playoffs. They lost in the playoffs because we've discussed, over and over again, how they get soft in their own zone, can't clear the puck, and are unable to take control and possession of the puck in order to effectively run their offense. In this way, they've missed the Andrew Ladd type second line center that can really provide that playmaking ability and spark for a second unit that has playmakers elsewhere on the wings. So, going into this offseason, I felt that was key for the team. They must secure a second line center.

Kane & Kruger - 2nd Line Centers?
Yet, here we are, a month or so out from training camp, and the Hawks are stuck with the same roster they had last year. They must feel they can supplant that hole at center with either Patrick Kane or Marcus Kruger, but that remains to be seen. I felt that Kane was highly effective at center during the regular season, but that he just isn't suited for it come playoff time. And if there's anything the past two seasons have shown, it's that the Hawks can make the playoffs, but advancing in them can be troublesome to say the least.

Now, the Hawks do have some young talent waiting in the wings. But the only prospect who you can probably bank on seeing make the roster right away is Brandon Saad, and he's a winger. So again, we're left with the problem at second line center. I guess time will tell on that one.

On defense, I feel like an offseason of rejuvenation will do wonders for Duncan Keith and the rest of the crew, as it seemed like Keith and Brent Seabrook failed to click at the same times last year. Keith had, by his standards, a down year, while Seabrook enjoyed one of the best years of his career. As for the rest of the defense, Johnny Oduya, a no show in the playoffs, has been brought back on a relatively rich three year deal to sit back there with Niklas Hjarmalsson, Nick Leddy, Steve Montador, and Brookbank. We can only hope that this group gets back to the Hawks' roots of puck possession and puck clearing that made the Cup team so dangerous.

And then there's Corey Crawford. I think he'll have a bounce back year, as so many third year goaltenders seem to have, but you have to wonder where his psyche is. Does all the talk about going hard after Brodeur mess with him? Does the fact that he's the scapegoat for the average fan get to him? I hope not, because there is nothing else for the Hawks to do but hope he returns to form. We'll find out soon enough. Well, assuming there is no lockout of course.


The Bulls enjoyed perhaps one of the more contentious offseasons for any fanbase. I'm sure that Gar Forman, John Paxson, and Tom Thibodeau weren't counting on signing NBA castoffs to fill out a roster rendered useless by Derrick Rose's injury, but their hands were forced.

The talk of how terrible a job they're doing, and how the Bulls have gone off the deep end is a bit much. A lot of it stems from Forman's assertion that the Bulls would be making "basketball decisions" this summer, not "financial decisions." But the fact is, the Bulls were going to do everything they could to avoid the luxury tax for a season in which they've essentially recognized they will not win. Thus, they traded Kyle Korver and let CJ Watson and Ronnie Brewer go as well. They thankfully did not sign the horrendous offer sheet given by Houston to Omer Asik. Think about it this way. Bulls fans are furious at paying Carlos Boozer upwards of $15 million a year. Yet he averaged 15 and 8.5 last year. Could you imagine giving Asik $14 million in the third year of his deal? For what!? That's insane for a player who gets butterfingers in the paint and is highly limited offensively to begin with. Have fun with that Houston.

The Bench Mob is gone, but it was the right thing to do
No, the Bulls were smart this offseason. They know Miami is poised to make a run in the next couple years. Why go into a luxury tax that is increasingly more punitive under the new CBA to hold on to Korver, Watson, and Brewer? Does that win you a championship? Elevating a seed or two in the playoffs is not worth that money. The bottom line is that Derrick Rose will be out for most of the season, and that renders this season worthless. Combine that with the fact that no one really knows if Luol Deng will need wrist surgery when the Olympics are over and you have a lost season.

Instead, the Bulls go out and sign Marco Belinelli, Nazr Mohammed, Nate Robinson, Vladimir Radmanovic, obtain Kirk Hinrich, and draft Marcus Teague. Think about this in the abstract - those are decent substitutions for guys who weren't world beaters, even if we did love them as the Bench Mob. And the hidden aspect here is Thibodeau. Who thought when we signed the aforementioned Korver et al. that the Bulls would end up with back to back best records in the NBA? We knew Derrick Rose was the real deal, but the effectiveness of Thibs has been understated, if you can believe that. He'll get those guys ready to play, and the Bulls will make the playoffs with this team. That's for sure. And if Rose gets back in March, that gives him some time to get his legs under him for the 2013-2014 season. This is reason 456,384 why the Bulls need to get Thibs' contract extension done NOW.

Even more importantly, though, the Bulls were trying to maintain some financial flexibility for the coming free agent years. The Bulls need to resign Taj Gibson after this year, and they're going to pay him what it takes. This means that either this upcoming offseason or the 2014 offseason, the Bulls will amnesty Carlos Boozer. With that extra cap room, and various expiring contracts from the players signed this offseason, the Bulls are going to make a big run at a playmaker to be alongside Rose. This might mean that the Bulls let Luol Deng walk, and sit with a starting five then of Rose, free agent SG, free agent SF (or Jimmy Butler), Taj Gibson, and Joakim Noah. Depending on who you plug into those holes, or if you find the cash to keep Deng (which I would hope they could do), that's a championship contending team. In 2013, some free agents that will be on the market: Monta Ellis, Andre Iguodala, Tyreke Evans, James Harden, Josh Smith, Paul George, and others. But in 2014, the year I believe the Bulls are priming themselves for, if the Bulls are trying to fill two starting slots then they'll have major cash to spend on the likes of: Dwyane Wade (I know, I know), Kobe Bryant, LeBron James (I'm just listing his name here, not assuming him or Wade move at all), Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger, Luol Deng (Bulls could just bring him back), Dirk Nowitzki, and others.

Remember, these aren't guarantees. But for once, the Bulls will hit those free agency periods with a mega bargaining chip: the chance to play next to ultra-teammate Derrick Rose. This all presupposes that Rose returns, whether this year or next, to his healthy form. But there is no mistaking that the goal of the Bulls should be, no matter what decision they're making, to make the most of the wonderful gift from the basketball gods that fell to them with the first pick in the 2008 draft. Make moves now, while you have the luxury of doing so, to clear space later in the chances of luring another elite player to Chicago to provide the final missing link to, presumably, take down Miami. I think if that's the plan Bulls management has, and you have to hope it is, then all the whining from Bulls fans who can't see long term will have dissipated if all the pieces finally come together. Let's hope it happens.