In Which It Can Be Done

At this time of year people tend to reflect on what has come before and contemplate what might come in the future. For those college football teams that come from academic based universities, this is the time of year when everyone preps for tests or maybe plans their hotels for spring break. What they do not do is get ready to play a bowl game on New Year’s Day. That is the trade they are supposed to make. We constantly hear about how Notre Dame’s stringent requirements make it impossible to attract star athletes.

Neither Northwestern nor Stanford got that memo. Or, if they did, one of their student-athletes invented a multi-dimensional paper shredder and dispersed it to the cosmos. Because today, at 1:00 local time, Stanford will face Oklahoma in the Sun Bowl and tomorrow at 1:00 PM Northwestern will face the Auburn Tigers in the Outback Bowl.

Both schools have terrifying standards of academic excellence and yet both schools are becoming gridiron powers. Over the last few years they have put together one good team after another and soon should be perennial bowl contenders. Does that mean they will compete for national championships? Probably not. But, does that mean that they will be doormats for the NCAA? Most assuredly not. They come to play and they come to win.

HERB GOULD (Sun Times) takes a look at the Northwestern campaign.

You don’t need a GPS to locate the turning point in Northwestern’s season.

It came in the second quarter at Iowa on Nov. 7, in the north end zone at Kinnick Stadium. When Hawkeyes quarterback Ricky Stanzi took a snap at his 6-yard line and rolled right, Wildcats defensive end Corey Wootton pounced.

‘’It was a formation I knew they were going to run a bootleg out of,’’ Wootton said. ‘’I saw him coming around, and I was able to get the ball out.’’

Drilled by Wootton, Stanzi fumbled, and NU defensive tackle Marshall Thomas recovered the ball in the end zone for a touchdown. Suddenly the Cats, who’d been down 10-0, had closed to 10-7. With Stanzi sidelined by a high ankle sprain, NU went on to win 17-10. Against Illinois and Wisconsin, NU never looked back, winning three straight to finish 8-4 and earn its first New Year’s Day bowl trip since the 1997 Citrus Bowl.

‘’It’s all about determination and where we wanted to go,’’ defensive tackle Corbin Bryant said. ‘’Nobody wants to go to the [Little Caesars] Pizza Bowl, where everybody was projecting us to go. So we all put in extra work and said, ‘We’re going to a New Year’s Day bowl.’’

Yes they are. And, more importantly, they are going there without sacrificing any of the things that make their school special. Yes, it is more widely known for the bastion of liberals who populate Hollywood than it is for football or athletics in general. But, that is changing. And for the better. They are not dragging down the school to enhance their athletic department. Instead each is complimenting the other in fine fashion. That is the way it was supposed to be lo those many years ago and it is nice to see that it can be that way again.

It is New Year’s Eve. While a lot of us up here joke about a lot of things, I would like to take this moment to ask you to drink responsibly and, if you can’t, please make sure you have a designated driver. We’d miss you if you were gone.

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In Which the Bears are Ineffable

Douglas Adams once described the god of an alien planet as “The Ineffable Bob.” The Bob who can not be known, as it were. I got to thinking about Bob today as I wandered through the various sports sections. While most do not see Virginia McCaskey pulling the plug on Lovie, it is not as though there are any articles full of ringing endorsements for the man either. Most just seem to think that Lovie’s return is inevitable and they are trying to make peace with that fact. And yet, Lovie’s record, sans Ron Rivera, has been pathetic. With this season he is guaranteed to be under .500 as a head coach when everything has been exactly as he wanted. He has the defensive coaches he wants, the offensive coaches he wants and the quarterback he wants.

If the Bears again give Lovie what he wants, they may as well cancel the 2010 season. It’s over before it starts.

Unlike some, I have a hard time blaming the players for this mess. At least not completely.

What is ineffable to me is the fact that players come out of nowhere, seem to be pro ready and don’t get to play. MIKE MULLIGAN (Sun Times) suffers from similar thoughts.

‘’I had to be consistent to make this team, so I think I can do that,’’ Aromashodu said.

Fun as it has been to see him emerge, you have to wonder why so many players on the team seem to be worthy of playing time all of a sudden. Safety Craig Steltz had a good game after rotting on the bench all year. Gaines Adams made some plays. Kahlil Bell has been pretty good when given a chance.

General manager Jerry Angelo has said he likes the team’s roster. Now that some of the backups have done a decent job filling in for injured starters, you have to wonder if he’s right, if the problem all along has been with player development, not talent.

All men are not created equal when it comes to the football field. There’s usually a distinct talent gap between starters and reserves. When the gap isn’t so big, is that an indictment of the ability of coaches to understand what they have on the roster? How many Bears players have been used the wrong way or lined up in the wrong position this season?

Everyone has talked about how well Chris Williams played against Jared Allen on Monday night. Williams had a fine game, although he got a ton of help with chip blocks from various teammates and game-play things like running at Allen and using a moving pocket to keep him from teeing off on Cutler. Not as much was said about Frank Omiyale’s performance, but the simple fact is that defensive tackle Kevin Williams wasn’t among 20 Vikings who made the official final defensive statistic sheet in the NFL game summary.

Allen was in on a couple of tackles. Williams was shut out.

Can the offensive line eventually emerge as a strength for the Bears? Remember, there are a couple of young offensive linemen on the roster who look the part but haven’t been given a chance yet. Lance Louis, a 6-3, 305-pound seventh-round pick from San Diego State, is such a good athlete the team contemplated making him a tight end. Third-year man James Marten is a 6-8, 310-pounder who was moved up from the practice squad Dec. 19. The team also has high hopes for rookies such as wide receiver Juaquin Iglesias and cornerback D.J. Moore.

Earl Bennett never got a chance as a rookie and wound up a starter. Not playing is usually an indicator guys can’t play, but it’s not that way with the Bears.

That last line sums it up nicely. It’s not that way with the Bears. And why not? Why have so many players been playing positions that are not natural for them? Why do players play one position in pre-season only to move when the games count? Why are safeties lining up 17 yards off the line of scrimmage? Why is the one player Cutler wanted to throw to just now being allowed off the bench? Why is the Devin Hester experiment allowed to continue? Why in God’s name has Orlando Pace even been issued a uniform?

Because Lovie wants it that way, that’s why.

The Bears have put themselves into this position and it is not one that can be gently cured. They need to burn down the house, clean the foundation and try again. This is the NFL. Thanks to salary caps and easier free agency you can rebuild on the fly. The Bears have room under their cap and can easily afford to eat some coaching contracts. It isn’t like no one goes to Bears games. Nor is there a shortage of fans who are willing to spend big money on jerseys, hats and what have you. Yes, I know that the NFL controls merchandise and television revenue, but the Bears slice of that pie is still bigger than the budgets of some smaller nations. They have room to move should they so choose.

Maybe the problem here is that the Bears have just become too ‘effable,’ as it were.

If everyone knows what you’re going to do there isn’t much chance of surprising anyone.

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In Which The Glass is Still 3/4 Empty

While I already know some people who are as thrilled as thrilled can be that the Bears beat the Vikings last night, I am afraid I can not join their ranks. There just isn’t enough Kool-Aid in the world to make me. Last night the defense played a very good half of football. Then, in the second half, they horked up the 17 point lead the offense (yes, the Bears offense) had given them like it was a snot infused hairball.

Then the offense went and got them the lead again and then the defense gave it back and then the offense gave them the lead again and then the defense gave it back and then , oh hell, you get the idea. The game was finally decided in Overtime. Had the game been allowed to continue I am of the belief that it would have ended in a tie. Or, somehow, the Bears would have found a way to give up a 9 point play or something like that.

As a side note, the play that won the game was an audible by Cutler. Ron Turner wanted a run. At this point I am not sure the Bears need an offensive coordinator. When Cutler audibles the team runs like a well oiled machine. Just give him the play book and say “Have fun, see you in the post season.” BRAD BIGGS (Tribune) manages to avoid the “what if” game and take a look at what happened on the field.

If this Bears team had shown up two months ago, there might not be jobs on the line at Halas Hall.

As it is, the firing squad still figures to assemble at this time next week when a season that has fallen well short of expectations comes to a merciful end. But Monday night at Soldier Field, general manager Jerry Angelo got validation on his youth movement or the Bears got a dose of false hope for what promises to be a busy offseason.

For the first time this season, the Bears had a balanced and potent offense with Jay Cutler leading the way in a 36-30 overtime upset of the Vikings that was capped by a 39-yard touchdown pass to Devin Aromashodu with 9 minutes, 15 seconds to play in overtime.

Yes, the NFC North champion Vikings (11-4) appear to be unraveling at the worst possible time having lost three of their last four games, but the Bears (6-9) took it to them when the only thing they had to play for was pride and the chance to leave a late impression on the decision-makers.

It was nearly another in a long line of crushing fourth-quarter meltdowns. The Bears led 23-6 with 21 minutes to play in the game after holding a 16-0 halftime lead, the biggest first-half deficit of the season for the Vikings, who throttled them 36-10 last month at the Metrodome.

The Bears squandered two games in the fourth quarter versus Green Bay, blew chances late at Atlanta and San Francisco and also squandered a fourth-quarter lead against Philadelphia.

None of them would have measured up to this, not after the Vikings scored 30 points in the second half, including a 6-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre to Sidney Rice with six seconds remaining in regulation. The Vikings would have won the game on that play if Israel Idonije had not blocked a Ryan Longwell extra point in the third quarter.

But the Bears showed resilience in overtime they have yet to display this season. After Robbie Gould missed a 45-yard field goal wide right, Hunter Hillenmeyer punched the ball out of Adrian Peterson’s grasp as he went to the ground. Nick Roach recovered and Cutler audibled away from a run to a go route when he detected the Vikings were not in Cover-2. Aromashodu blew past Antoine Winfield for the easy score.

Sure it was a nice win. They beat the division champs and managed to avoid going 5-11 on the season. But, make no mistake about it, this is still a very bad team. They just got it together for one night.

Lovie Smith’s postgame comment of “I think the game tonight made a statement about our football team, where we are and what we can be in the future” is frightening in many aspects. Is he saying that the Bears are really a good team and that their record is some sort of aberration? Or is he saying that the future holds many more seasons with the potential to 5-11?

I’ll take door number 2, Drew.

Let’s face it, Virginia McCaskey is the only person in Halas Hall whose position is secure. At least she should be the only one guaranteed a place there. Everyone else, from Pep to Ted, should be shown the door and then she should make sure that the locks are changed. The defensive genius running the team has allowed five games to be lost in the fourth quarter and the offensive genius running the rest has been more predictable than Tiger Woods in a brothel.

Oh, let’s not forget the genius who gave away all those draft picks to get a QB with almost no team around him and no way to build one.

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In Which It’s That Time of the Decade

At the end of every year writers are forced to slog through their old articles and come up with a Top 10 list that relates to their specialty and the year that is winding down. The fact that each such list is usually meaningless never hampers the fun folks have reading them. But, every now and then one of them catches my attention and I actually pay something akin to attention to it. The Tribune recently ran a poll asking readers who was the coach of the decade in Chicago. My hero, Vinny Del Negro, appears to have not gotten a single vote. I know he didn’t get mine since I voted for Ozzie, who is kind of a deity in my home. That outranks hero.

I have altered the POLL’S RESULTS to reflect the order from most votes to least. But, if you want to see it in ballot order, click on the link.

Who was the coach of the decade?

Note: Ozzie Guillen was named coach of the decade by both Tribune readers and staff.

Ozzie Guillen: With Sox since 2004, two division titles, 2005 World Series winner, 512-461 with Sox (4276 responses)
75.6%

Bruce Weber: With Illinois since 2003, five NCAA tournament appearance in six seasons, took Illini to national title game, 152-57 with Illinois entering 2009-10 season (710 responses)
12.5%

Joel Quenneville: With Hawks since 2008, lost to Detroit in Western Conference finals, developing young Hawks into NHL’s elite (463 responses)
8.2%

Lou Piniella: With Cubs since 2007, two division titles, 265-219 with Cubs (137 responses)
2.4%

Lovie Smith: With Bears since 2005, two division titles, lost Super Bowl XLI, 50-43 with Bears (73 responses)
1.3%

This list is interesting for a couple of reasons. The obvious one being, who are all these people voting for Ozzie and why aren’t their butts in the seats at games?

The nice thing about this poll is that it focuses on positives. Far too many, such as the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED list of worst baseball contracts of the decade, focus on the negatives. It doesn’t help matters locally that the Cubs hold 3 slots on that bottom ten list.

Others, such as AKS MEN’S Top 10 Sports Moments in 2009 seem to have not been written by anyone who watches sports. It is just a collection of random crap. How else to explain that Johnny Damon’s run to third base overshadowing Mark Buehrle’s perfect game in the baseball category. In fact, Mark isn’t even mentioned.

Some lists, such as SPIKE’S list of the top 10 crazy people who changed the world, are so much fun that you will end up there for quite some time reading and re-reading it.

There are more lists that I care to list, but no matter what the year is coming to an end. What I do know is that there have been some wonderful moments up here.

The Bobby Scales for All Star campaign got us a lot of press in the papers, on the radio and even on ESPN. More importantly, many people understood our motives and did their best to support him. Sadly, he didn’t make the cut, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.

The Say No to 2016 campaign up here dovetailed nicely with the NO GAMES! campaign. We ended up with a lot of cross tie ins on various web sites and certainly got more people than we expected to pay attention here. As noted, that roar you heard was people cheering when Chicago was unceremoniously dumped in Copenhagen. They were gone faster than an ugly prom date and not one tear was shed up here.

And, lastly, our FREE COOKBOOK has gotten almost 20,000 downloads and appears to have won us some new fans. They are always welcome.

You, too, are welcome here and I hope you will take the time to put down the silly lists and join us in the forums.

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In Which We Wish You a Merry Christmas

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