In Which We Take a Break

The hype machine for the impending Bears / Packers game is so breathless at the moment that it sounds more like a bad porno than sports reporting. The game, which I remind you has not yet been played, is already being hailed, by some, as the greatest game in the history of the NFL while others point to the Bears / Rams ice bowl game and others point to ..... I did mention that this sucker hasn’t been played yet, didn’t I?

Unless the final score is 3-0 after double overtime I’m not sure that anyone’s going to be happy.

Richard Roeper, yesterday, was astute enough to note that, even if Green Bay wins, its fans still live in Green Bay, which makes them losers.

I’m sure no one took umbrage with his stating the obvious.

So, I hope you’ll forgive me for taking a step back, breathing deeply and ignoring, the poorly christened, A-Packer-lypse Now.

The Cubs and Sox are both announcing that they’s signed all their arbitration eligible players. Well, almost all. The Cubs are still missing Carlos Marmol. ADAM McCALVY from MLB.com takes a look at the Cubs recent moves.

The Cubs struck a two-year deal with reliever Sean Marshall on Tuesday and formally avoided arbitration with three others via one-year contracts, including newcomer Matt Garza.

Besides Garza, the team announced a one-year, $3 million contract for catcher Geovany Soto that came to light late last week, and also said it had reached a one-year pact with pitcher Tom Gorzelanny, interesting considering that Gorzelanny was on the cusp of being traded to the Washington Nationals. Only a physical exam was said to stand in the way of the trade.

Marshall will earn $4.7 million over the next two years, according to the Chicago Tribune—$1.6 million in 2011 and $3.1 million in 2012. The newspaper reported that Garza will make $5.95 million.

With those contracts in the books, the Cubs’ only remaining arbitration-eligible player was closer Carlos Marmol. On Tuesday, clubs and their unsigned eligible players exchanged proposals for one-year contracts, the final step before hearings scheduled for next month.

Marshall, 28, earned his contract by setting career highs in games (80) and strikeouts (90) and matching his personal high with seven wins. The lefty compiled a 2.65 ERA and held the opposition scoreless in 66 of his 80 outings.

He earned $950,000 for that effort, and the new, two-year deal buys out both of Marshall’s remaining arbitration years.

Garza, 27, acquired from the Rays in a blockbuster trade on Jan. 8, was arbitration-eligible for the second time and due a raise from his $3.35 million pay in 2010.

Now, only Marmol remains unsettled for 2011, and he is also likely to get a significant raise. In his first season as closer in 2010, the right-hander saved 38 of 43 opportunities and struck out 138 batters over 77 2/3 innings. His 15.99 strikeouts per nine innings was the highest single-season mark for a reliever in Major League history. Eric Gagne had the previous high of 14.98 K’s per nine.

After exchanging figures on Tuesday—Marmol asked for $5.65 million, while the Cubs offered $4.1 million—the two sides can continue to negotiate until their hearing date at some point in February. If it goes that far, each side would then argue the merits of its figure in front of a three-person panel, which would choose one or the other.

My guess is that they will settle for around $5 MIL and avoid the emotional trauma of arbitration. I mean, that’s gotta suck, sitting in a room listening to your boss explain why you’re a worthless piece of junk just to get the price down. Can you imagine going through that at your job?

“Sure, Mr. Prousser brought us the Whiffenpoof account, but we feel that was more luck than skill. Furthermore, while that was a major coup that saved the company, the rest of his year has been, to be polite, mediocre. Plus, his taste in ties is atrocious”

Oh yeah, no hard feelings there.

Anyway, on the South Side, the Sox have gotten all their players under contract. In fact they even added one. As SCOTT MERKIN, also of MLB.com and a long time Facebook friend of mine, reports, they seem to have accomplished what they set out to do.

John Danks wants to remain with the White Sox as long as humanly possible, and then probably a few years after that.

It’s the White Sox who have allowed the southpaw to develop into one of the elite starters in the American League, and it’s the city of Chicago that has become a second home for the Texas native. But on a day when Danks and the White Sox agreed to a one-year, $6 million deal, avoiding arbitration, the 25-year-old rotation staple didn’t seem worried about the lack of a multiyear deal.

“I know our camp is extremely happy with the deal signed today, for sure,” Danks told MLB.com of his salary increase from last year’s number of $3.45 million. “It’s not at the point where it’s do-or-die for a [multiyear] deal. Neither side is panicking.”

Along with Danks’ deal, the White Sox announced a new one-year, $1.6 million contract for reliever Tony Pena and a one-year, $5.05 million deal for outfielder Carlos Quentin. The White Sox have no arbitration-eligible players remaining, which is nothing unusual, considering the White Sox last went to arbitration in 2001 with Keith Foulke.

Pena, 29, received a raise from $1.2 million earned in 2010. Although he finished with a 5.10 ERA over 52 games, Pena proved extremely valuable to the White Sox through his versatility—including three spot-starts—and topped American League relievers with 81 2/3 innings pitched. Pena could step into the April rotation if Jake Peavy needs more time to rehab his 2010 season-ending detached latissimus dorsi muscle in his posterior right shoulder.

Quentin’s salary jumped from $3.2 million after the right fielder launched 26 home runs, drove in 87 and finished with an on-base percentage of .342 in 2010. It was during Spring Training ‘09 when Quentin, Danks and Gavin Floyd were offered basically the same four-year, $15.5-million extension with a 2013 club option.

Only Floyd accepted the offer, with the new father earning $5 million in 2011 and $7 million in 2012. Danks said on Tuesday that the offer he turned down two springs ago was the last serious multiyear extension discussed by both sides.

With another year of arbitration eligibility, Danks understands an extension not happening today doesn’t mean one couldn’t get done in the near future.

“We are all happy,” Danks said. “I’m here, and there isn’t really a need for them to do that. I’m really not sweating it. They have to do what they have to do, but everyone knows I’m extremely happy with where I’m at and I’m extremely happy here in Chicago.”

Danks continued his yearly ascent into the upper echelon of AL starters with his 15-11 record and 3.72 ERA over 32 starts in 2010. Of greater importance to Danks were his 213 innings pitched, marking his second straight year surpassing that total, along with his 21 starts during which he surrendered two earned runs or less. That showing left him behind AL Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez (25) and C.J. Wilson (22) in this particular category of stingy excellence.

Yet, Danks certainly wasn’t completely satisfied. He is in Week 3 of an offseason throwing program and is trying to figure out a way to shorten or flat-out avoid hitting that proverbial wall in late July or early August.

“My goal is to be thought of as one of the elite starters in the American League, but [White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper] and I talk about being thought of as one of the best in the game,” Danks said. “Every pitcher wants that.

“I’ll get the ball 33 times this season, and my goal is to go out and try to win 33 games. I can’t control what people think of me and say of me. I just want to go out and give the White Sox a chance to win, and the more times I do that, the more credibility you get. I’m really not worried about any of that. If I’m doing my job, I’m extremely happy.”

Tuesday’s trio of contract announcements brings the 2011 White Sox payroll to just short of $123 million. It’s an all-in approach causing Danks to express excitement for the championship position the team has put its players in for 2011 and to not worry about a personal multiyear deal down the line.

“Just talking to [Mark] Buehrle and Coop and [Gordon] Beckham, we are super excited to get the season started, to go to Spring Training,” Danks said. “I think right now, we are one of the teams to beat.

“The same thing was said by our team before last year and we came up short, which was disappointing from all angles. But we’ve added some huge pieces.”

The added player? Pitcher Phillip Humber from the A’s. While not a lights out type of guy, he’s a solid enough arm to keep around in case someone goes down.

I should note that last year the Sox only had their projected starting lineup in place for 30 games. That was when the team was constituted the way Ozzie wanted. They went 25-5 over that span. Then Kenny went and got Manny Ramirez, which was a huge mistake and finally ended up with Adam Dunn. Which may not be a mistake. Dunn is a younger, stronger, healthier and (slightly) faster version of Jim Thome. He can also play the field some. Not well, I’ll grant, but he does give Ozzie some wiggle room with the lineups.

With Spring Training on the way to flesh out any missing pieces it looks like both teams are pretty much set for the season. Whether the North Side ends up being Quade’s Quagmire (thanks to Big Star for that gem) or Mike’s Miracle - Miguel’s Milagros en español - remains to be seen. The same holds true for the South Siders. Will this be the year that Reinsdorf finally tires of the face of the franchise also being its mouth or will Ozzie live up to his Wizard of Oz reputation?

The only way to find out is to watch the games.

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GO BEARS!

In Which Bigger is Better

At school my boobs were bigger than all my friends’ and I was afraid to show them. Now, I feel they make my outfits look better. They’re like an accessory. - Jessica Simpson

Bigger is always better.  - Adam Savage

We are in Day 2 of Hype-Mania and already the Bears / Packers impending tilt is being hailed by fans as the biggest game in the history of the NFL. As I watched tickets soar past $500 apiece for the cheap seats, it didn’t take me long to figure out that there seems to be some interest in the match up.

If things keep up like this the cure for cancer would be a mere footnote on the local news. The second coming of the Christ might rate a mention, if it’s a slow news day. Jay Cutler, who won his first playoff game since high school, has been moved ahead of Pope John Paul II in the beatification process. Lovie Smith, the first Bears coach to lose a Super Bowl, has been slated in the College of Cardinals to oversee the process.

That fact that he’s not Catholic is seen as a “minor quibble.”

Virginia McCaskey was seen doing the Lindy Hop in the nude on Michigan Avenue.

Yes, that image will haunt you forever.

North of the cheddar curtain, Aaron Rodgers was feted with deep fried falcon marinated in cheese sauce. He proclaimed it tasted “just like chicken.” Several of Wisconsin’s higher class restaurants, the ones with indoor plumbing, are planning on offering a version of the dish featuring bear meat.

And so it goes.

Let’s face it, it’s been 70 years since these two teams met in the playoffs. Fans are a little jacked up.

I get that.

But, it appears that sports writers aren’t immune either. MARK POTASH seems to believe that this game trumps all others.

Ever.

This is almost too much.

Packers-Bears would be a big game if both teams were winless and playing in a snowstorm in Lincoln Park. In 1945, the Bears were 0-5 and going nowhere, the great Sid Luckman was benched and a sellout crowd of 45,527 packed Wrigley Field when the Packers came to town.

So when both teams are good, it gets bigger. And when it’s late in the season, it gets even bigger than that. And when the Super Bowl is on the line? It literally can’t get any bigger than that.

The only way the Bears (12-5) against the Packers (12-6) for the NFC championship and a berth in the Super Bowl could be any bigger would be if George Halas and Vince Lombardi were on the sidelines, Red Grange was in the backfield and the halftime entertainment was Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney.

It’s that big. Bigger than the 2006, 1988 and 1985 NFC Championship Games. Bigger than the 1963 showdown with the Packers at Wrigley Field. Maybe even bigger, some would argue, than the 1963 championship game against the New York Giants.

It might be the biggest football game ever in Chicago.

‘‘I think it’s possible this is one of the biggest games in the history of the National Football League,’’ said Hub Arkush, the longtime publisher of Pro Football Weekly and a former analyst on Bears radio broadcasts. ‘‘And I think it’s possible that it’s the biggest sporting event in the history of Chicago. It’s Bears-Packers. The Bears have the most Hall of Famers. The Packers are second. It’s Lombardi and Halas. It’s 31/2 hours [between Green Bay and Chicago]. It’s huge. I’m not sure we can overstate it.’’

The perfect storm of the Bears-Packers rivalry, the winner-goes-home aspect of the game, the Super Bowl being on the line and the magnifying effect of 21st century media have created unprecedented interest in the 181st Packers-Bears game Sunday at Soldier Field.

It’s an unstoppable force. After the Bears beat the Seattle Seahawks 35-24 in the NFC divisional playoff game at Soldier Field on Sunday, the Packers dominated most of the postgame conversation. There was a betting line on the Packers-Bears game before the Seahawks-Bears game was even over. And, of course, the Soldier Field crowd was chanting ‘‘Green Bay sucks’’ in the fourth quarter. What took them so long?

Arkush, who watched the 1963 NFL championship game and has been attending Bears games since 1957, is a sideline reporter for Westwood One who worked the Seahawks-Bears game and is also an NFL analyst for WSCR-AM. ‘‘At this time of the season, my phone starts ringing off the hook for various interviews,’’ he said Monday afternoon. ‘‘In the last 24 hours, I’ve already had three times the requests I normally get this week.’’

The volume of the interest and hype for Sunday’s game is unparalleled in Bears history. But the intensity of interest arguably has been as great or greater in the past. In 1963, the regular-season game between the defending champion Packers and first-place Bears drew national-television attention, a sellout crowd and record prices for scalpers.

And when the Bears reached the championship game against the Giants that season, even the NFL championship game was blacked out on local television, whether or not it was a sellout. The interest in the Giants-Bears game was so great that NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle allowed the game to be shown on closed-circuit television at McCormick Place, the Amphitheatre and the Coliseum.

And the demand was even greater for the debut of Red Grange on Thanksgiving Day in 1925. Mounted police had to be called out on several occasions at the downtown location and Wrigley Field to control the chaotic crowds trying to get tickets to see the former Illinois star, who filled Cubs Park to its 36,000-seat capacity and could have done it three times over, according to Halas.

And despite the hype, this year’s Packers-Bears game is not the Super Bowl. The 1963 game against the Giants was for the NFL championship.

‘‘This game is obviously going to be bigger because of the hype, but it’s certainly not more important [than the 1963 title game]. It’s not for a world championship,’’ said Don Pierson, who covered the Bears and the NFL for the Tribune for 40 years. ‘‘Don’t discount those early championships. Those were just as important to those players and fans as the Super Bowl is now. So there’s no way you can say it’s a bigger game than the 1963 championship.’’

Players, on both sides of the field, know what’s at stake and really don’t need any additional motivation.

They’re getting it anyway, but they don’t need it.

I can sum up the Bears / Packers rivalry thusly; I was in Madison in 1991. I wanted a beer. I walked into a bar as the second half of a Bears / Packers game was in progress. For “my safety” I was refused service. That was a year neither team even sniffed the playoffs.

As I said, I get it. This is the perfect game for fans. And given how long fans of both teams have suffered through silliness, ineptness and embarrassing retirements, they deserve to have some fun.

So, save your $500, grab a seat at your local watering hole and prepare to scream like the wheels came off your roller coaster.

Oh, and take the Bears, give the points and enjoy the ride.

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In Which It Was the Death of the Titans

Yesterday, the Jets became the first team to beat the Colts and the Patriots back to back in the playoffs. When it was pointed out that they were the first team to ever face that combo in the playoffs, that quibble got set aside. Before that the Green Bay Packers went down to Georgia, ala a famous violin playing Devil, and beat the living crap out of the #1 seed in the NFC. The Steelers faced the hated Ravens on Saturday and, in a game it looked like they were giving away, turned things around and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

Which, many in Chicago have forgotten, is the way that particular phrase is supposed to read.

But the stunning turn of events were not limited to other cities. On the Bears first possession yesterday they ran the ball twice, and ran it well. Fans were settling in for a good old fashioned snot knocker. A style of play they can easily understand. Then on the third play Cutler reared back and launched a 58 yard strike to Greg Olsen. In Chicago there are only 3 possible outcomes for a pass like that.

1. Incomplete
2. Batted away
3. Intercepted

But Cutler and Olsen decided to buck tradition. Olsen caught the ball, evaded the defender and sauntered in for a touchdown. Fans were so stunned that emotions ran from “HELL YEAH!” to “Who are these guys?”

Often jumbled together into a “HELL ... WHO?”

The occasional “WHAT THE ...” was heard as well.

By the time the defense took a nap in the fourth quarter, the game was over. So now, for the first time in 70 years, NFL fans are about to be treated to a Bears-Packers playoff game. This is the kind of game that Chicago’s sports media has been begging for. My guess is that not one ounce of ink will be wasted on Kristin Cavallari.

Or her shoes.

RICK MORRISSEY at the Sun Times has a pretty good idea what fans are in for this week.

Here are your two options:

A) The Bears are really good, and the Seahawks are truly mediocre.

B) The Bears are pretty good, and the Seahawks are truly mediocre.

Oh, wait. There’s a third option, advanced by the chanting crowd at Soldier Field toward the end of Sunday’s playoff game:

C) Green Bay sucks.

Can I see a show of hands? That’s what I thought.

In Packer-hating Chicago, critical mass is about to be reached. There’s not going to be enough newspaper ink for the buildup to the NFC Championship Game between these two rivals. There might not be enough cyberspace for the buildup to this game.

Bears-Packers, with everything that goes with it. They came out of the primordial ooze together, and they haven’t liked each other since.

The winner goes to the Super Bowl. The loser will seriously consider moving to Iowa.

The Bears didn’t play their best game Sunday, not even close. And they still won 35-24 against Seattle, which until the fourth quarter didn’t look as if it belonged anywhere near the playoffs.

The Bears obviously played a role in making the Seahawks look so ordinary. They jumped to a 28-0 lead without the benefit of a Seattle interception or fumble. They piled up 437 yards of total offense. Jay Cutler passed for two touchdowns and ran for two more. The offensive line played well.

What does it mean? It means that the Bears were dominant, or at least dominant when it mattered. And it means that when the Bears play in the NFC title game, it will have been three weeks since their last live action.

I don’t know what the Seahawks are, but the word “live’’ doesn’t come to mind.

So consider the Bears very, very rested for Green Bay.

Give them credit for not taking Seattle lightly, which in hindsight, they easily could have done. But they knew that if they jumped to a fast lead, there was a decent chance the Seahawks would go away.

On fourth-and-one from the Seattle 3-yard line and a 7-0 first-quarter lead, Bears coach Lovie Smith decided to go for it rather than settle for the field goal. Cutler ran for the first down, and two plays later, the Bears had a 14-0 lead. Seattle’s neck was feeling the full weight of Chicago’s foot.

“We knew it was going to be a challenge,’’ Cutler said. “We came out of the gates quick.’’

Were there problems? Yes. The defense seemed more than a little uninterested in the fourth quarter, leading to three Seattle touchdowns. It didn’t help that one of those scores came about because the Bears’ Matt Forte threw an interception out of the wildcat formation. What was dumber — the call or the throw?

“I don’t know what that was,’’ a stunned Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said afterward.

It looked like a Bear playing with its food, Matt. It looked like sheer boredom. That won’t be a problem in the next game.

Smith’s decision to play his starters against the Packers in the final game of the regular season looks even better now. The Packers know what they’re up against, thanks to a hard-fought 10-3 victory in Green Bay, and the Bears know they belong on the field with them. It feels like a lifetime ago that the Bears were truly challenged.

So bring on the hated Packers, who enter the NFC Championship Game on a huge roll. If their blowout victory in Atlanta on Saturday means anything, it’s that they’re not the Seahawks.

“They’ve been in playoff mode for the last four weeks now,’’ Bears safety Chris Harris said. “They’ll definitely be ready, but we’ll definitely be ready, too.’’

The Bears spent the last three seasons out of the playoffs. They seemed to come perilously close to getting their head coach fired after last season. But now here they are, one game away from the Super Bowl, against the franchise that’s connected to them by a state line and a long, long history.

“Hopefully, we’re peaking at the right time,’’ linebacker Brian Urlacher said.

Bears-Packers, Packers-Bears: However you want to look at it. The two teams have met in the playoffs just once before in their 90-year rivalry. The Bears won 33-14 in 1941.

So bring on those Packers. It’s about time for a rematch, wouldn’t you say?

The Bears have led a charmed life this season, and the fact they’ll have home-field advantage in the NFC title game fits that theme. But there will be nothing lucky about a victory over a team as good as Green Bay.

To get to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to beat a team that already has won playoff road games against Philadelphia and Atlanta.

Bring on those Packers.

“They can’t get here fast enough,’’ Harris said.

Fortunately for the Bears, the karma gods decided not to push their luck and have anointed them as 3 point dogs against the Pack. That insult, along with many others, will be added to the bulletin board this week and used as fuel for whatever it is they’re burning over there.

I admit to not being thrilled with the defensive play in the fourth quarter. I hate the prevent defense and cringe when it’s used. My only thought in the fourth quarter was that Urlacher should have been screaming GOOSE EGG and not sitting 5 yards off the line of scrimmage with the safeties another ten behind him.

But, that’s me and nobody cares what I think.

So, improbable as it may have seemed once, the Bears are in the NFC Championship game and are facing the perfect rival. I don’t know who scripted this season, but he’ll never get a job in Hollywood.

No one would believe him.

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In Which We Go Through Dan’s Mailbag Again

I’m a pretty easy going guy. I like giving people what they want. For the most part, anyway. But, to the nice gentleman who emailed me the request involving Velcro and a banana; I’m sorry, I have to draw the line somewhere. And I can assure you that my line was drawn miles away from you.

Considering some of the regulars we have up here, it takes a lot to creep me out. If that was his goal, he was wildly successful. I mean, seriously, it wasn’t even 6:00 AM and our blogger Nick was sending me a music video about women who like pubic hair. It’s a very good music video, but at 6 AM?

Welcome to my world.

Nevertheless, it’s the Saturday before a Bears game and all our rational readers seem to like it when we post sections of DAN POMPEI’S mailbag. So, as per usual, click on his link to read the entire selection of questions and answers, but stay here for the abridged version.

Do you think this season is a flash-in-the-pan or can we be true contenders for the next few years? I think the best argument for the latter would be Isaac Bruce’s comment before the season began—it takes players about a year and a half to truly grasp Martz’s offense. That would seem to indicate that our offense could explode next year with everybody having more experience. The only thing that worries me, though, is that all of our best players on defense are in their 30s. So while one side of the ball could be ascending, the other side could be declining.—John Anderson, St. Paul, Minn.

No team can count on staying competitive year to year. I think the Bears learned that lesson in 2007. The only perennial contenders are the ones with difference-making quarterbacks. The Bears don’t have one of those yet. The offense should continue to get better as Jay Cutler and company master it. The Bears do need to reload on defense though. They need an influx of good young players on that side of the ball. But for the short-term future, they should be able to continue to play effective defense, barring injuries.

I could not be happier about the Bears performance on defense this year, especially after suffering through several horrible performances last season. I realize that Julius Peppers was a huge contributor to the turnaround but think that Brian Urlacher was the real MVP. My question is how much longer do you think we will be able to enjoy watching him play and how can we ever replace a guy like him? As we saw last year, there is a big drop off in performance when he’s not in there.—Brian D., Alexandria, Va.

Urlacher isn’t going to last forever, as much as the Bears wish he would. He’ll be 33 before next season begins, and a lot of linebackers are done by that age. The 2010 season may have been Urlacher’s last great one. Appreciate what he has done. Then again, look at Ray Lewis. He is three years older than Urlacher and still playing at a very high level. The great ones often have a way of screwing with Father Time. The way you have to look at players as they age is you have to take it year to year. Sometimes, they can keep going and going and surprise everyone. Sometimes, they fall off very quickly and surprisingly.

I am tired of the carping over the offensive and defensive lines. Both are set and have a good mix of veterans and younger players. The draft need will be greatest at linebacker to begin grooming successors for Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Do you agree or see a greater need?—Stuart Cutler, Winnetka

I share your concern about the linebacker position, but I think the offensive and defensive lines are bigger concerns. I know you can play winning football with average, maybe even below average linebacker play. You’ve got no chance to be really good without above average lines. The Bears also need to start thinking about a successor to Olin Kreutz, and a successor to Tommie Harris. Plus they could use another guard, another offensive tackle and another defensive end. I think they need to see what the draft offers them and be prepared to take a lineman.

Coming out of the draft all the talk was about how athletic Chris Williams was as a pass blocker, but how he lacked in finishing blocks particularly with the run. He was always projected as a future left tackle. Do you think that is still how scouts see Chris? Will the Bears leave Chris Williams at guard now, how has he progressed at that position? Do you believe the Bears will focus on acquiring interior linemen or tackles base on their greatest need?-- Jesse Donini, Venice, CA

Very interesting question. I don’t think the Bears have determined where Williams’ future lies. This will be an organizational decision made after much discussion during the offseason. He’s been OK at guard. Nothing special. Personally, I think he probably has more potential at tackle. What I would probably do is move Williams back to tackle in the offseason and have him compete with J’Marcus Webb on the right side. Then I’d bring in a guard who I’d be comfortable with as a starter. If need be, Williams could always be moved back to guard.

Now that Nnamdi Asomugha is a free agent do you think there is any chance the Bears go for him? He could really bolster the secondary by acquiring him?—Matt, New York

The Bears don’t build their defense around great cover cornerbacks. They build their defense around great pass rushers. I don’t think Asomugha, who will become one of the highest paid defensive players in football, would be a wise investment for the Bears and I don’t think they will pursue him.

Have you ever asked Jay Cutler if he understands the concept of “throwing the ball away?”—Greg, Chicago

No, I’ve never asked him, Greg. From watching him play, I think I already know the answer.

This being the first year of a new offense, should we should expect a major improvement next season. I’m extremely pleased with winning the division already and didn’t expect it. How long does it usually take for an offense to fully understand a system as complicated as Mike Martz’s?—Mike, Hillsboro, Ore.

I think for the most part, Bears players already “fully understand” it. But the longer they play in it, the better they will get at it. For a player, especially a quarterback, to truly master a system, he needs to be in it for two to three years. And that’s assuming he’s working hard at it and there is consistency in how the system is coached.

What was your view of Johnny Knox’s season? I thought it was OK but one thing really stood out to me when looking at his final stats. Knox was targeted 100 times this season but caught only 51 of those passes. No other Bears receiver had nearly as bad a ratio. Also, his yards after the catch weren’t that impressive either. I think we should use Johnny as bait to trade up in the draft and get the best available offensive lineman and then insert Devin Aromashodu in the starting lineup with Bennett and use Hester as our No. 3 next year. Whenever I see Aromashodu languishing on the sideline game after game, I keep thinking about Brandon Lloyd and how our coaching staff never gave him another opportunity after he was injured during his lone season in Chicago. The “other Devin” is our only big target and Jay clearly has a connection with him. This would give us a perfect top 3 in my opinion—a tall receiver with great potential as our No.1, a tough, dependable No. 2 who catches everything thrown to him, and an uber-quick slot receiver that will have linebackers and safeties grasping at air in the middle of the field.—Jim Gordon, Memphis, Tenn.

Interesting thoughts Jim. I’m not as down on Knox as you are though. I thought he had a very good season and showed considerable growth from his rookie year. Let’s remember this is a second-year player, this a fifth-round pick, this is a kid who played Division II football, and this is a receiver playing in his second new offense in as many years. He had a couple of rough games late in the season, but that’s part of the growth process. He’s just a puppy, and he’s got a lot more growing to do still. As far as comparing his catches to targets with the ratios of other Bears players, you also have to factor in the types of routes Knox was running. He often was given the most difficult assignment, with lower chances of success understood. I’d like to see more of Aromashodu as well. But I’m not giving up on 13.

And there you have it, a rational look at some - occasionally - irrational questions.

Let’s face it, the Bears are 11-5 and nobody sane thought they would be. They earned a first round bye in the playoffs after many fans had written them off. The team has had so many coaching changes over the last few years that I think they should wear name tags during the game. If said tags could also mention what job they hold, so much the better.

And yet ... and yet, here they are. 2 games away from competing in the Super Bowl. 2 games away from cementing their coaching staff with jobs for life. 2 games away from proving all of us naysayers, including me, wrong.

Just two games.

I’ll mail Devin Hester the gas money, GO BEARS!

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In Which They Run Hot and Cold

This is not a very good day for sports news. Not that there’s a lot of bad news, just not a lot of good news. Or any real news at all for that matter. The Cubs announced they really don’t need a lead off hitter. And, given the nature of baseball today, they’re probably right. They can mix and match the players they have based on the situations and do just fine. That’s what Quade did during his 37 game audition and it worked out okay.

The Sox? They’re suffering through Oney-Gate IX and the season hasn’t even started yet. The funny thing is that Oney’s not even a member of the organization any more. While he certainly has a First Amendment Right to say what he pleases I hope the team learns that it has the self-same right to ignore him.

Trent Dilfer is, once again, ripping on Jay Cutler. I don’t remember anyone asking him, but that doesn’t seem to matter. He joins the growing pantheon who seem to have no job other than to point out Cutler’s flaws. Given that he’s been through more offensive systems in the last 5 years than most players will deal with in a career, I’m surprised that he does as well as he does. But that requires a look at the reality of the situation and that would screw up the various rants. Add in the fact that Cutler treats the media in a manner akin to the way most of us treat the Black Plague and it’s no shock that he’s granted the same leeway as Ted Bundy in a sorority house.

The fact that this Sunday’s game isn’t sold out? Blame it on Cutler. The global economy? That’s Cutler too.

It gets draining.

Gary Bettman and Roger Goodell seem hell bent on destroying their respective sports, so there’s not much joy in their press releases.

The Hawks finally seem to be coming together and looking forward to getting a full team on the ice and gearing up for the playoffs. That’s kind of good news but there’s a lot of room for improvement there so I don’t want to get too excited just yet.

So, if you can’t find any good news, may as well go for the fun stuff. STEVE ROSENBLOOM from the Tribune takes a look at the maddening inconsistencies that make up our Chicago Bulls.

Or, to be uselessly allegoric, the running (hot and cold) of the Bulls.

Another road loss to a bad team, another sign the Bulls are a bad team. No, wait, not bad, just maddeningly immature. Inconsistent and painfully immature. The Bulls came out dead again Wednesday night and gave up 36 first-quarter points to the Charlotte Stinkin’ Bobcats. What’s with that? Don’t they know that playing basketball games is their job? What. A. Joke.

Maybe the Bulls looked at Charlotte’s record and figured they could beat a chump team. And they could. If they weren’t mental pinballs, that is.

Good teams—mature teams—come out and smother a team early. Doesn’t matter if it’s the first half or second half, good teams kill an opponent’s will early. Don’t give a bad team hope because those guys might believe they’re good. The Bobcats bought into it from the start Wednesday night, same as the Nets and Sixers bought into it at the start of the second halves last week. Three teams a combined 30-something games under .500, and the Bulls lost to all of them. Lost looking bad. Lost looking unprepared.

To clarify, the unprepared part isn’t the coaching. This is not a shot at Tom Thibodeau, who has been terrific at holding players accountable, from a big-money free-agent forward to entire units.

No, the unpreparedness I’m talking about is on the players. Day-of-game preparation and halftime readiness is the players’ responsibility. A coach makes sure his team has the right scouting report and adjustments. The players make sure they’re ready to execute it with energy and smarts. It doesn’t just happen on its own. You have to work at it the way you work in the weight room and on the court.

But the Bulls don’t. Well, no, that’s not fair. They come out strong a lot. They come out of halftime strong a lot, too. And that’s what’s maddening. They obviously can do it. They obviously don’t bother sometimes. Here’s the rule: Even bad teams deserve enough respect that you want to crush their very spirit early.

The Bulls’ flat-line starts have forced them to scramble the rest of the way, and they scramble as well as anybody. They would’ve scrambled to a win in Chartlotte if Derrick Rose hadn’t missed four of his five shots in the fourth quarter and 12 of 17 overall, and if former Bulls bonehead Tyrus Thomas hadn’t gotten lucky with 75 seconds remaining.

Thomas, who shot two airballs earlier, tried a baseline reverse that was dumb even for Thomas. I would’ve bet that Bobcats coach Paul Silas was going to yank him before the ball miraculously went in. The shot was all kinds of stupid, which is pretty much what we got used to seeing here. Thomas has length and raw talent, but no clue. Yeah, he had a game against the Bulls, but still, the lights are on but nobody’s home.

So, that guy beat the Bulls. But even if Thomas had gotten what that stupid shot attempt deserved, it wouldn’t have deodorized a major problem for a Bulls team that has big ideas. The Bulls have played some great basketball this season. They beat the Celtics last weekend with the kind of fourth quarter a good team plays at home. They have the Miami Hate coming to town Saturday. It’s easy to get ready for those games. But they play at Indiana first, then go to Memphis and come home against Charlotte after the Hate. The Miami game will show how good they are, the other games will show how smart they are.

I’m not sure what it is in the Chicago water that makes athletes turn schizophrenic. One day they’re great and the next day they make me look speedy.

And I’m missing a knee cap in one leg and cartilage in the other.

One thing is for certain in all sports; a balanced offense and a stingy defense will get you farther than anything else. If an old wobbler like me can figure it out, here’s hoping they can too.

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