Monday, October 30, 2006

Very Superstitious

The writing is on the wall. Or so we, as sports fans, believe. We've done something stupid -- changed seats, worn the wrong shirt on game day, whatever -- and it's bound to cost our favorite team a game it should win. Some sports fans claim to be above such obvious nonsense. Truth is one of two things: that person is not a real sports fan, or that person is lying.

You see, it's kind of silly to analyze a 41-10 victory. Things went very right for the Bears and very wrong for the 49ers. There, I've analyzed it. Look, I predicted a Bears' win. Who didn't? I thought the game would be a little closer than it was. Who expects 41-10? I thought the Bears' plan would involve a lot of ball control passing featuring Desmond Clark. I actually am a little pleased with that one.

But it's all secondary. The Bears won easily because I changed my computer password. I'll explain. I've generally believed that when I make an outward showing of support for my favorite teams, it dooms the team to failure. In 2001, after the Cleveland Indians reclaimed the AL Central from the White Sox, I decided to abandon Sox paraphernalia. The talk of baseball at the time was the possible contraction of the Minnesota Twins. In an effort to ensure that the improving Twins didn't replace the Indians as the main nemesis of the Sox, and to show support for a franchise that never should have been at the top of Major League Baseball's contraction list, I wore a Twins hat for the entire 2002 season. The result? The Twins won 94 games and the first of three straight AL Central crowns. The lesson for me? I can't escape my personal curse.

So, I stopped trying. But the curse stills rears its head occasionally. I started a new job near the end of the 2005 baseball season. My office's computer system requires me to come up with a new password every 8 seconds or so, each of which must have a capital letter, lower case letter, and number. Around November of last year I ran out of ideas. Fortunately, the Sox had already secured their World Series title because I struck upon the disastrous idea of using their roster for my passwords. So Beuhrle56, was followed by Jenks45, etc. Obviously this was directly responsible for the Sox choking away the AL wild card this season. But I didn't realize it until the baseball season ended.

Once the Sox' season concluded, I decided to switch my passwords to the Bears. It seemed like a good idea to stay current. My first Bears password was Grossman8. I switched to this password the Thursday before the Bears traveled to Phoenix for a Monday night game. Immediately it dawned on me what had happened. I switched again, this time to Arkhipov19. The Blackhawks it seemed were destined to have a pretty lousy year anyway.

What followed was astonishing, and confirmed my worst fears. The Hawks were 4-2 when I made the switch. Since then they've lost their first line center, starting goaltender, leading scorer and four straight games. This curse is powerful stuff not to be trifled with. In fact, I'm somewhat concerned that there will be major ramifications to writing this blog entry.

The question is what to do now. The Bears, free of the shackles of Grossman8, are back on track. The Hawks will probably miss the playoffs regardless of what I do, so maybe I should just move on to Aucoin33. On the other hand, I'd hate to further set the franchise back by causing a career ending injury to Havlat or Khabibulin. I can't begin using Vikings players because I learned with my Twins hat that I cannot intentionally turn the negative power of the curse against opposing forces.

Oh well. I can live with the Hawks being bad. Wirtz deserves it. The bigger question is whether the Bears are really that much better at home than on the road, or whether I need to start wearing my Urlacher jersey for all games, instead of going with the Payton jersey for road games?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Finally, A Sunday With A Bears' Game

The last time we saw the Chicago Bears they were dependent upon two defensive touchdowns, a special teams touchdown, and a missed field goal to beat a vastly inferior Arizona Cardinals club (no offense intended to a certain Deadspin editor). That was two weeks ago on Monday night. We have to go back another week before that for a Sunday Bears' game. This has sucked. There should be a Bears' game on every Sunday. On bye weeks, weeks of night games, and during the off-season, Fox should just be required to replay some game featuring Walter Payton.

Anyway, the Bears return to Sunday this week, with a game against another NFC juggernaut, the San Francisco 49ers. Once again the Bears are the much better team going into the match-up, but we've heard that before. Anything can happen, any given Sunday, etc. But saying that is just giving up. It's much better to analyze the game as best you can, and know that it could all blow up in the blink of an eye. I, for one, have the confidence to go down in flames.

I don't buy that the Cardinals game reflects great character on the part of the Bears. The Bears played like crap and got lucky. But I also don't believe that one crappy game means more than a handful of good games. The Bears remain an excellent team.

Only the Ravens have outplayed the Bears on defense. Even in the Cardinals debacle the defense played well. The Ravens and Bears are one and two against both the run and pass. Chicago's greatest weakness has been against number one receivers, and the 49ers don't have one to really scare the Bears. The Niners are completing fewer than 50% of the passes they direct towards nominal top guy Antonio Bryant. The Bears have shutdown other WRs and RBs. They're not great against TEs, but again, San Fran hasn't figured out how to use Vernon Davis at all yet.

The other unit that bailed the Bears out against the Cards was the special teams. Robbie Gould has been, by far, the best kicker in football. As odd as that sounds, it's even stranger that Gould has been nearly twice as productive as the next closest guy, Buffalo's Rian Lindell. The Bears also lead the league in kick coverage and punt returns. Special teams have allowed the Bears to control field position and consistently score points from short fields, even when drives stall out. Most importantly, Devin Hester gives the Bears one more way to put points on the board in a hurry. Take note, San Fran has a below average punt coverage crew.

The offense, on the other hand, struggled against Arizona. But overall this has been a good unit. If you want to discount the team's remarkable offensive efficiency against Green Bay, Detroit, Seattle, and Buffalo, then you need to equally discount the team's remarkable inefficiency against Arizona -- and that was only one game. The Bears have a top-10 passing attack. It sounds odd, but it's true. As bad as Rex Grossman was against the Cards, he's still in the top half of NFL quarterbacks in terms of productivity and efficiency. His top weapon has actually been Desmond Clark, the league's most productive TE. We all relaxed about the WR position because Bernard Berrian solidified the #2 spot, but it's time for Muhsin Muhammad to start playing like a #1.

The running game, like Muhammad, has been mediocre. Some of that is on the offensive line. Football Outsiders ranks the Bears' o-line 23rd in Adjusted Line Yards, a stat meant to measure the line's contribution to the running game. But Thomas Jones needs to step up as well. He's ranked 14th in overall production among NFL runners, and 17th in Success Rate, which measures how often a RB gets the yards he needs to get (four yards on 1st down, converting a third down, etc.) I've heard a lot of talk on the radio recently about Cedric Benson being a better fit right now for the Bears' running style. The Bears themselves plan to get Benson more early carries this week. So far Benson's numbers look a lot like Jones's, adjusting for the disparity in playing time. It doesn't matter who it is, but it's time for someone to become a consistent productive running back on a team that claims to "get off the bus" running the football.

The Bears' defense should have no problem containing the Niners. And, the Bears are the worst possible to team to be shaky against in punt coverage, which the Niners are. Even the offense should get back on track. The Niners are terrible against the run and the pass, and are especially susceptible to opposing tight ends. I expect to see the Bears have success with a ball control passing attack relying heavily on Clark over the middle. 24-13 or 27-10 sounds about right to me. Of course, on any given Sunday . . .

Thursday, October 26, 2006

A Night At The Opera

Ok, so it was really a night at the Blackhawks game, but there are no classic comedies named A Night at the Hockey Game. Anyway, before the season started, I thought the Hawks had a legitimate chance to compete for one of the final playoff spots in the West. This belief was reinforced by the team's strong early play, when it won four out of its first six games. So, last week I made plans with two buddies, Vanilla Weiss and Marv Levy's Spawn (see Rule 4.2 of the Rules Governing Sports Writing (holding that all friends must be identified by goofy, fake nicknames)), to go see the Hawks in person against Vancouver last night. From that point forward, the Hawks lost two straight games in which they had two goal leads late. They also lost their leading scorer, first line center and starting goaltender.

Nevertheless, we decided to forge ahead with our plan. Whatever the Hawks have, its contagious. Spawn called in sick on game day. To add economic insult to injury (or illness), he is now stuck with an unused Hawks ticket because there's not exactly a sellers' market right now. Vanilla and I persevered.

The night started strong with a trip to Al's on Taylor Street. Not only is Al's the best Italian beef in town (fries too), but growing up, it was the only place my stepdad would ever go before a trip to Chicago Stadium. A Big Beef, dipped with sweet peppers, is pretty much required fare before Hawks or Bulls games. I was feeling pretty good at this point. (Mind you, I'm going to end up in at least one argument today about the relative merits of Al's and Mr. Beef because of this paragraph.)

The tickets were good too. Hockey is a sport that can be appreciated differently from many different angles. Our seats were 200 level, near the blue line. This is one of my favorite spots. High enough to see the flow of the game, but low enough to appreciate fine puck handling. Speaking of which, my favorite moment of the game was when one Blackhawk, Rene Bourque I believe, on a power play, made a between the legs drop pass while in the process of casually cycling the puck unmolested in the Canucks zone. After a brief moment, everyone in the area broke out laughing as we all processed the absurdity of the move. Anyway, good seats.

Things started going downhill, however, once the puck dropped. It turns out that theHawks' backup goalie, the Water Boy, Brian Boucher, has a few leaks. Khabibulin may only be out a couple of weeks, but the Hawks will be fortunate to win a game during that stretch. After Henrik Sedin floated in a goal early in the second period, on a soft dump in from just inside the blue line, the crowd unleashed a torrent of boos on Boucher. Why, I wondered aloud? The Hawks now trailed 3-0, but Boucher had stopped two-thirds of the shots he'd seen. (That's a little statistical hockey humor for you).

Seriously, the game was reminiscent of last season, and that's not a good thing. The Hawks took a ton of penalties early, and created a hole they lacked the firepower to dig out of. Actually, without Havlat, this team lacks the firepower to dig out of a pile of wet toilet paper. Anyway, when a fan behind me said, "The Hawks are lucky to escape the first down only 1-0," while there were still five minutes left, I knew we were in trouble. Sure enough, Brendan Morrison struck on the power play a minute later, and the rout was on.

Despite the 5-0 blowout, the mostly empty building, and the absurdly high ticket prices, the Blackhawks are still a pretty entertaining show. The fans roar for the national anthem. The loudest cheers of the night are reserved for the hot chick who goes last in the Shoot for Cash challenge at the first intermission. On this night, she was both hot, and missed winning 100 bucks by about two inches. The loudest boos are reserved for the guy who goes second in the same competition, stuck as he is between the kid and the hot chick.

It's still a lot like going to a Hawks game during the team's most recent flirtation with glory back in the late 80's and early 90's. But it's also kind of like being at a club too long. All of a sudden you notice that the crowd has thinned out and the lights are turned up a little too bright. Overall, it was still a good time, but it was also bittersweet. The experience reminded me of what once was, and how I keep hoping things will again be.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Where Do They Stand?

I had a crazy work day yesterday, so I apologize for skipping a day of writing. But I want to address something that was on my mind this week. As sports talk radio goes, The Boers and Bernstein Show is among the best. It's certainly the most entertaining show on the air here in Chicago. Monday night, Terry Boers said something that, based on callers' reactions, is apparently controversial.

Boers said no one should anoint the Bears the best team in the NFL. They're one of a number of good teams at the top of the league, and that number is a bigger group than people realize. Most of the callers argued that the Bears should still be considered the favorites to make and win the Super Bowl, which doesn't really address Boers's point. Because the callers kept approaching the issue from a different angle, there wasn't much actual analysis of Boers' actual contentions. But, the discussion got me thinking, so I want to address a couple of questions: (1) are the Bears clearly the best team in football, or just one of a number of good teams; and (2) how big is that group of teams at the top of the league?

At this point, the Bears are the best team in football. While the Bears are not head and shoulders better than the rest of the league, they have clearly played the best football over the full course of the season so far. There are other teams in the conversation, but no one combines the Bears' record and quality of play. It's important to remember that as poorly as the Bears played against Arizona, they played that well against Green Bay, Detroit, Buffalo, and Seattle. Each of those games told us as much about the team as the Cardinals game. Everyone else has an odd disconnect between quality of play and record. Teams like the Colts, Patriots, Broncos and Saints haven't played nearly as well as their records indicate. The Colts have played terrible defense and special teams, have played four their first six games at home, and would not be undefeated but for the fact that opposing kickers are inexplicably below 50% on field goal attempts against them. The Patriots are coming on strong, and Tom Brady is having a much better year than people realize, but this team still can't stop the pass, especially on first down. The league is geared towards short passing attacks right now, and that's exactly what the Pats are most vulnerable to. The Broncos offense is mediocre at best, and this is another team struggling on special teams. Plus, the Broncos defense is also not nearly as good as the public believes. They're among the league's ten best, but they appear dominant only because they've played the Browns and Raiders of late. Great teams blow crappy teams out. The Broncos don't put anyone away. The Saints are the weakest of the 6-0/5-1 teams. They're a legitimate top-half of the league team, but playing even with the Packers and Bucs doesn't inspire confidence. I'm not sold on their defense either.

In fact, I wouldn't put the Colts, or any of the 5-1 teams, in the conversation for best team right now. I actually think the list is pretty small. The Bears do belong in the conversation. They've been above average on offense, excellent on defense, and otherworldly on special teams. The 4-2 Chargers looked like the best team in football until they laid an egg against the Chiefs this week. They still protect their young quarterback better than any team around, have a dangerous offense, outstanding special teams, and above average defense, with or without Shawn Merriman. Conversely, the Giants looked good, but not great, until this past week when they suddenly looked like the best team in football. The Giants leap into this conversation after that win, on the strength of a high powered offense and an improving defense. But the closest contender for the Bears' perch atop the NFL is a team that is barely over .500. The 4-3 Eagles are the only team in the league that has outplayed its opponent every week of the season. This week they lost on a 62 yard field goal. Since the NFL started using new balls for every kick, no one had made one longer than 58. They lost to the Giants on a 16 yard forward fumble. This team is explosive on offense, very good on defense and above average on special teams. If luck evens out, this team might be hard to beat. After those four teams, all of whom are average or better in all three areas of the game, there is a big drop off. The next group, good teams with at least one weak area among offense, defense or special teams, is a big group. But the elite teams, based on performance so far this year, should be limited to the Bears, Chargers, Giants and Eagles, with the Bears on top for now.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Too Good to be True

The Chicago Blackhawks, more appropriately "black sheep" of the NHL's storied "Original Six" franchises, got off to a pretty good start this season, winning four of their first six games. This was too good to be true, as kharma kicked the Hawks square in the groin over the weekend.

You see, the hockey gods hate Blackhawks' owner Bill Wirtz, and rightfully so. This is an old story in Chicago, but I'll rehash some of it because I believe it provides the only possible explanation for what went down this weekend. Everyone knows by now that Wirtz's out-dated refusal to televise home games, coupled with a crappy product, has decimated the Hawks' once mighty fan base. A team that once boasted the loudest crowd in all of sports, now draws seven to 10 thousand fans a night. The absence of half the team's games from television makes it impossible to consistently follow them. But Wirtz's misdeeds extend much further, to allegedly include: repeated antitrust violations, bribery of public officials, stealing from his 'niece's' trust fund, collusion against the NHL players, and the buying of special-interest legislation. Good stuff.
So, the hockey gods hate him. And they should. But we, the few remaining Hawks' fans, suffer for it. As I mentioned, the Hawks were off to a good start this year. So, Friday night, the Blackhawks blew a two goal lead with six minutes to play. To make matters worse, the hockey gods sent Martin Havlat crashing awkwardly into the end boards, where he sprained his ankle. He'll miss two to three weeks. The hockey gods had to do something about Havlat because he was second in the league in scoring with 13 points, an unacceptably high position for a Blackhawk.

But the hockey gods were not satisfied with Havlat missing only a couple of weeks. So Saturday, the Hawks blew another two goal lead, this time to the juggernaut known as the St. Louis Blues. And this time the hockey gods were determined to get it right. Late in the third period, a hit on first line center Michal Handzus tore his ACL and ended his season. Handzus was +4 on the year with seven points. And to ensure that the Hawks wouldn't tighten up on D to cover for the offensive losses, the hockey gods broke Nikolai Khabibulin's finger during warm-ups Saturday night, as well.

So all is right in the hockey world now. Two-thirds of the Hawks' top line have been eliminated, as has their starting goal tender. This pretty much puts an end to any hopes of grabbing one of the last playoff spots. I made plans to go see the Hawks play the Canucks this Wednesday because I made the mistake of getting excited to see Havlat and the Hawks' new, more potent lineup. I should have known better. As long as Bill Wirtz is around to piss off the hockey gods, optimism is a misplaced emotion.

Friday, October 20, 2006

You Don't Know Jack

You don't know jack. Don't take it personally. When it comes to the baseball playoffs, none of us do. Last night, the worst and third worst pitchers, statistically speaking, to ever start a game seven faced off in New York, and engaged in an epic pitchers' duel. Sure, the umps and opposing batters helped, but somehow Jeff Suppan and Oliver Perez combined to give up six hits and two runs in 13 innings. Perez was 3-13 with an ERA over 6.50 this season. Even how they did it baffles the mind. Suppan walked five and struck out only two. That's not a recipe for 7 innings of one run ball. There's pretty much nothing about this game that any scout, analyst, or other so-called expert ever predicted. Yadier Molina hit six homeruns in 417 at-bats this year. Aaron Heilman gave up only five homeruns in 87 regular-season innings. So, of course, Molina goes deep off of Heilman to win the game.

The complete inexplicableness of the post-season extends well beyond this one game. I picked the Twins to win the World Series before the play-offs started. That didn't turn out so well. Of course, most experts picked the Yankees, and that didn't turn out much better. I'd like to take some credit for picking the Tigers over the Yankees in the divisional series, but the truth is correctly predicting post-season baseball results has little to do with one's actual skills as a prognosticator, and far more to do with luck. I was sure of one thing this October, the Cardinals were badly outmanned by every other team in the play-offs. Mr. Molina, meet Mr. Heilman.

See, that's the problem. Over the course of a full season, luck is washed out of the equation to a certain degree. There are so many pitches thrown and bats swung that the breaks generally distribute themselves within a fairly stable band near the middle of the luck spectrum. For example, some pitchers see an inordinate number of balls hit at people, but luck rarely places a bad team ahead of a good team in the final standings.

The play-offs are different. In a short series, luck can carry a bad team past a good team, no matter how wide the talent gap. Think of all the times the Devil Rays have won a three game series from the Yanks, or the Royals have taken a series from the White Sox. The playoffs aren't much longer than a three game series. In many ways, it doesn't matter who the better team is in the play-offs.

It's not necessary to just throw your hands up, however. There are a couple of indicators that do rise above the random noise of post-season baseball. Power pitching (starters who get a lot of strikeouts), a lights out closer, and great defense tend to be the traits of a World Series champion. Scoring runs is as important as run prevention, but when one looks at how a team did in the regular season, nothing about how the team scored its runs will consistently predict whether they can keep scoring runs in the post-season. On the other hand, teams that used power pitching, a great closer, and quality defense to prevent runs in the regular season are more likely than other teams to continue preventing runs in the post-season.

The Tigers are not that big a surprise using this formula. They have power pitchers in Verlander and Bonderman, and Rogers and Robertson aren't bad either. Todd Jones may not jump off the page, but the Tigers "closer" is better than just looking at Jones would tell you. The reason teams with good closers tend to succeed in the playoffs is that managers use their closers in more high leverage situations in the playoffs. Mariano Rivera owned the 8th and 9th innings of the post-season for half a decade. The Tigers, even in the playoffs, have have continued using Jones along with Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya (who are both better than Jones) to handle those high pressure situations. So Fertoddel Rojomaya is a pretty outstanding closer. And batters are intimidated by his three heads. Finally, the Tigers play good defense, featuring guys like Granderson, Pudge and Brandon Inge.

But the formula is not foolproof. The Cardinals are a bit of a disaster by this measure. They lack quality strikeout pitchers and they have no closer at all. Only their defense was playoff caliber. And yet, here we are, pondering the St. Louis Cardinals, National League champs. The Mets played comparably good D, had a lights out closer, and even with their injuries, more quality arms in their rotation. Plus, any way you look at it, the Mets had the better line up. But here we are.

So, I'm picking the Tigers over the Cards, fairly easily. The Tigers play even better defense, have a dependable bullpen, and a deeper rotation. Here's the problem with that prediction. I don't know jack.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

(Deep Breath) Da Bulls, Da Bulls, Da Bulls . . . Preview

I had a draft last night to divide a set of season tickets for the Chicago Bulls. Growing up, my family had full season tickets starting pre-MJ, and running all the way through the glory years. Through family events, and a reduced interest in going to 41 games in the Tim Floyd era, the tix are now divided six ways. It's complicated, but the important thing here is that I get great tickets (center court about 15 rows up) to five games, with the chance to pick up a couple more, and access to playoff tickets in the same location.

I'm actually quite please with my allocation this year. I have the Heat and Wizards in the East, two contenders with whom the Bulls have some degree of bad blood. From the West I have the Grizzlies and Nuggets. While neither is a powerhouse, each is a playoff caliber team, and my wife and I are Syracuse fans, so we enjoy seeing Carmelo play. I also have a Raptors game early in the season, and might have a chance to pick up the Sonics and Rockets games. Not a bad haul for only controlling a hand full of games.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the upcoming season. The Bulls' home opener is 15 days away, and with the Bears on a bye week, now seemed a good time to take a closer look. The Bulls are a deep and talented team this year. It's a fairly novel concept in the post-MJ era. The concern is that the Bulls may be too long on depth and too short on talent. But, if someone steps up to become a consistent scoring threat, and Scott Skiles finds a consistent rotation of 8 guys or so, then this team could actually contend for the title.

The Bulls have 13 legitimate NBA players. I believe that in order to find a rhythm and take the next step, the Bulls will have to limit their rotation to eight or nine guys. Let's start with the man in the middle, the NBA's highest profile free agent this past off-season, Ben Wallace. Wallace is a defensive beast. Rumors of his gradual demise are premature. He was the only player in the league in the top-10 in blocks, rebounds and steals. While, at his age -- he just turned 32 -- you expect to see some slight decline, there is no reason to believe that Wallace won't make major contributions at the defensive end for a couple more years, at least. Offensively, he doesn't score, but he does move the ball well. He ranks among league leaders at the center position for assist and turnover rates. Plus, his offensive rebounding keeps defenders honest. Thus, he's an upgrade from Tyson Chandler at the offensive end, too. Nominally, Malik Allen is the back-up, and Skiles seems to like him. In reality, he contributes little. He has no post offense, is prone to turnovers, and doesn't do much on the offensive glass. He is a willing defender who lacks the skill to be more than average. He's one of the guys I hope Skiles trims from the rotation. The Bulls are better off going small when Wallace rests.

And there is plenty of depth at power forward to do just that. In order to get everyone minutes, sliding someone up to center a few minutes a game seems like an obvious call. The starter, for now, is PJ Brown. Like Wallace, he is an effective ball handler for a big man. Unlike Wallace, the 37 year old Brown is starting to show his age. His scoring and offensive rebounding slipped a lot last year. He also brings a lot to the locker room and is a quality defender. Still, he's better suited to backing up, and is the most natural choice to slide to center when Wallace rests. The future starter at the four spot is rookie Tyrus Thomas, and I think the future will come sooner than later. Thomas has unlimited upside thanks to his athleticism. He is already a great rebounder and shot blocker. He is also phenomenally aggressive attacking the rim, although his repertoire of offensive moves is pretty limited. He should be the starter by season's end, with Brown backing up both Thomas and Wallace. The Bulls also may get a few minutes a game in their post rotation from newly acquired Viktor Khryapa. Khryapa is a hard worker, which should appeal to Skiles. He's also looked pretty good this pre-season. However, his past production in Portland indicates that he's far more effort than talent, and with the Bulls' glut of forwards, Khryapa is another player who Skiles should usually leave out of the rotation.

In Portland Khryapa played a lot of small forward. That won't be necessary with the Bulls. Starter Luol Deng is the player most likely to make the leap this year for Chicago. Deng is still a baby at 21 years of age (I just mean he's young, not that he's immature). He made great progress in his sophomore campaign last season, despite missing the entire off-season with a wrist injury. With a full off-season under his belt, year 3 could be a huge one. Deng greatly improved his ball handling last year, while increasing his aggressiveness going to the basket. He also cut back on his threes, which are not a strong suit. He's learning who he is as a ball player, so, imagine how good he'll be when he figures it out, and when he adds some offensive moves. Deng attacks the basket in a straight line right now, but he's a good enough ball handler to add some creativity and become vastly more effective on the offensive end. He could make the jump to a 20 point a night player this year. Defensively his long arms and effort make him pretty effective. As he learns more about the NBA game and opposing players, he has the potential to be an all-league defender.

The biggest obstacle to Deng taking that next step is if his back-up, Andres Nocioni, beats him to it. I'm guessing Nocioni makes a strong push for 6th Man honors this season. Nocioni's shooting and ball handling were much improved last season as he adjusted to the North American game. And, he was the Bulls' best player in the play-offs. Nocioni runs the court, plays hard on D, is fearless in the paint, and never stops hustling. The crowd loves him for it, but it probably makes him better suited for explosive stints off the bench, than the starting line-up. While he can maintain the frenetic pace for 34 minutes a night in a short playoff series, it's hard to imagine him not losing some steam if forced to play that much for 82 games. But he can play alongside Deng, especially with Wallace on the floor, and I'd like to see the Bulls' front court rotation reduced to Wallace, Thomas, Deng, Nocioni, and Brown.

The back court situation is somewhat clearer. Four men -- Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon, and Thabo Sefolosha -- will share the minutes. Hinrich is the leader, coming off a summer spent representing his country with Team USA. Hinrich didn't improve as much as expected last year. Maybe improved confidence from his time on the national team will help. Hinrich is sometimes too fundamentally sound. He shoots 41% from the floor, which is low, but wouldn't be a problem if he took more 3's and fewer long 2's. Fewer than a third of Hinrich's shots came from beyond the arc, too few for a shooter as good as Captain Kirk. Hinrich needs to force the issue a little from three, rather than just settle for two-point jumpers that come in the regular offense. He is, however, a sound defender and ball handler.

Ben Gordon also failed to improve much last season. Like Hinrich, he should probably be taking a higher percentage of his shots from beyond the arc. For all the talk of Gordon's "giant killers" in the lane, Gordon shot a better percentage from three than from two. Unlike Hinrich, Gordon doesn't bring a lot to the table when he's not shooting the basketball. He has worked hard to make himself an average ball handler. And, despite the weaknesses many observers spot in Gordon's defense, the Bulls gave up a comparable number of points when he was on the floor as when he was not. The bottom line is that Gordon's future is probably not stardom, but rather a high volume shooter -- either off the bench for a good team, or as a starter for a bad team. For now, he'll be something in between for the Bulls. He'll provide an offensive spark when he's on, but my guess is Skiles will exile him to the bench when his shot is not falling.

Chris Duhon is the anti-Gordon in some ways. Like Gordon, he's a good shooter from three. Unlike Gordon, Duhon knows that's his best attribute as a scorer, and he takes most of his shots from long range. He did go to basket more last season than as a rookie, and gets to the free throw line more than you might expect. Ignore Duhon's assist numbers, they reflect another contrast between Gordon and Duhon -- Duhon's scarcity of shots attempted -- not good ball handling. Duhon is disturbingly turnover prone. Duhon's greatest strengths are on the defensive end. But with the Bulls' depth, his minutes will be squeezed if he can't at least match last year's offensive production.

The man putting the pressure on Duhon and Gordon is Thabo Sefolosha. The Swiss rookie provides the Bulls with the size they've been missing and seeking in the back court. He's athletic, rebounds and plays good defense. His offensive game is not fully developed, but he should be in the Bulls' rotation right off the bat. His presence will allow Hinrich to stay at the point, and reduce Duhon's minutes. On nights Gordon's shot isn't falling, Sefolosha figures to play big minutes because he'll play better defense and rebound better than Gordon. He won't be ready to start this year, but if his offense develops, he'll push Gordon to the bench, or out the door entirely.

As I mentioned, the Bulls are very deep. Even some of the guys not discussed above, like Adrian Griffin and Mike Sweetney, bring skills to the table that will prove useful in certain circumstances. But only five guys can play at a time, and Skiles needs to make sure that his best players are playing the majority of the minutes. Khryapa may be an ok NBA player, but he shouldn't be playing at the expense of Deng, Nocioni, or Thomas. Skiles should restrict his rotation to nine guys. Wallace should start at center, backed by Brown. Thomas will eventually be the starter at power forward, with both Brown and Nocioni providing depth. Deng is the quick forward, and the guy with the chance to take the team to the next level. Nocioni will sometimes play alongside Deng, and sometimes give him a rest. Gordon starts at the two-guard, but Sefolosha figures to play when Gordon's shot isn't falling. Hinrich is the point, and Duhon is well suited to a role as a back-up point who can play D and knock down the occasional 3. The pieces are in place. If they're used right, the Chicago Bulls are well positioned for a deep postseason run. It's been too long since we could say as much.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

A Day Late . . .

Sorry, I'm a day late commenting on the strangest football game ever, but "real" work interfered yesterday. Anyway, holy crap! What a weird freakin' game.

Let's face it, Bears fans were getting a little full of themselves. My buddy, whom I shall call Hideki Matt Suey in accordance with Sports Writer Regulation 7.2 (The writer shall refer to all friends by goofy, invented nicknames), and I spent Monday trading e-mails about our excitement regarding watching Matt Leinert shed blood in high definition on Mr. Matt Suey's new plasma. Still, as we sat down to watch the game, I said that I had a really bad feeling about the game. "Yeah," he replied, "This team has crossed the threshold to full fledged arrogance."

And, it had. The Bears' players said all the right things, but you could see that they weren't as prepared, as focused, as they needed to be. The gap between the very best NFL team and the very worst NFL team is not that wide. Rex Grossman never adjusted to the Cardinals' approach of taking away the deep routes. Around the time of his third turnover I began contemplating what Grossman's trial would be like when it came out that he had taken money from gamblers. (These are the kinds of thoughts that only occur to a White Sox fan.)

Anyway, you all know what went down on the field. I left with the Bears down 23-10, having just turned the ball over again. As I left the building, Matt Suey leaned out a window and hollered, "Uh, you might want to come back up here." I returned to the replays of Brian Urlacher mugging Edge James (football is a cool sport because mugging is legal, despite the protestations of resident Seahawks fan, Scalia's Gavel).

A few minutes later, as Devin Hester walked into the endzone (did anyone think the punter with no freakin' face mask was going to make the game saving tackle?), I received 42 text messages in the space of 18 seconds. Most of them were virtually identical. "Ridiculous," said Mr. Koosed. "Wow," said Tank Purdy. Oddly, this was quite similar to the "professional" analysis on ESPN. "Unbelievable," said Joe Thees-man, right before Tony Kornheiser resumed his verbal fellatio of Matt Leinert.

There'll be plenty of time during the bye week to ask what this one game really tells us about the 2006 Chicago Bears. Everyone is saying that it should finally put to bed all of the comparisons to the 1985 Chicago Bears. First, why does everyone forget that the '85 Bears needed a miracle to beat a pretty crappy Vikings' team early in the year? Second, I care far more about comparisons to the 2006 Eagles and Chargers than to the 1985 Bears.

All of that is for later in the week though. For now, let's just look back with joy at remaining undefeated when we so clearly didn't deserve to. Football Outsiders hasn't finished the research yet, but the speculation is that no team has ever won a game in which it was so thoroughly outplayed. In fact, Mr. Koosed sent some follow up analysis this morning that I believe most proficiently breaks down what happened Monday night. "Ridiculous," he said.

Monday, October 16, 2006

A Funny Thing Happened

I'm the commissioner of a fantasy football league. I refuse to submit to the columnist regulation that requires me to label it my "East Coast Fantasy Football League." It's just a bunch of people from around the country who I know through law school or work. Respectable people all, managing teams with names like LiLo Loves the Spocker in a league called You're With Me, Leather. I'll never cease to marvel at the power of fantasy football to reduce us to the age of 13 again.

But I was marveling at something else this morning as I perused the league's scores. Almost every game in the league hinges to some extent on players in the Monday night game. That is not so uncommon an occurrence. And, in a game featuring Edge James, Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin, and Kurt Warner, even before the season began, this would have been a week one expected Monday night to matter. Although, if one were looking ahead at key Monday night match-ups for fantasy purposes, one might need to get a life.

But that's not the point. Larry Fitzgerald is out, Kurt Warner is benched, Edge James is still relevant, but not the fantasy force he once was. No, this Monday night matters because the Chicago Bears have suddenly become a fantasy powerhouse. Rex Grossman, Muhsin Muhammad, Bernard Berrian, Thomas Jones, Desmond Clark, Robbie Gould, and the Bears' defense are all in starting line-ups for teams tonight. They're all on good teams, and the owners depending on these players are probably feeling pretty good right now. Grossman is the 4th ranked QB, Jones is among the top-25 RBs and gaining after a slow start, Berrian is the #6 WR, Clark is the 8th best TE, Gould is #1 at K, and the D trails only the Ravens.

It's hard to explain how odd this is. Kyle Orton, Chad Hutchinson, Craig Krenzel, Kordell Stewart -- these are not names that sent fantasy owners scrambling to make a waiver claim. While Thomas Jones was a top-10 back last year, he wasn't exactly a fantasy force as recently as 2004. And, Anthony Thomas and James Allen weren't exactly the kind of guy carrying teams to championships before that. Muhsin is coming off a down year, and Justin Gage, David Terrell, Bobby Wade, and Dez White is almost as impressive a list as the QBs.

No, Bears' players just aren't supposed to be exciting fantasy commodities. And yet, Team Mandlebaum waits to see if Bernard Berrian and Robbie Gould can overcome a 15 point deficit. And he's got to be feeling pretty confident. Just one more reason why this season might finally be different than the last 20.

Friday, October 13, 2006

It's Too Bad He's Not Jewish

It's too bad Rex Grossman is not Jewish. All the greatest Bears' quarterbacks are, right? And, with that name, clearly some error of record keeping must be all that stands between Chicagoans and a continued history of tribal quarterbacking excellence.

Seriously, though, this year has been a long strange trip already for Grossman, even if he is a goyim. Before the season, everyone in Chicago was calling for his head. Brian Griese was the most popular man in town. Even those of us defending Grossman, were doing so mostly on a wing and a prayer. By the way, I deserve no credit for standing by Grossman as the Bears' starter; I also was calling for Cedric Benson to take Thomas Jones' job as recently as two weeks ago. But the most important person in this whole equation, Lovie Smith, also stood by Grossman.

Today, Mike Mulligan unveiled the results of a little locker room poll he conducted. He asked Bears' players who the the team could least afford to lose to an injury -- who the most indispensable Bear is. Number one is no surprise: Brian Urlacher. Number two? That's right: Rex Grossman. Six weeks ago this guy was so dispensable that everyone thought Griese should start. Now the general consensus is that if Griese does have to start, the team's Super Bowl aspirations will go up in a cloud of smoke, or three yards and a cloud of dust.

Grossman's teammates pointed out that the QB is a playmaker, not just a game manager, and that while the Bears could survive on offense without him, they probably couldn't thrive. Tackle Fred Miller compared Grossman to an old teammate of his, the Rams' MVP-era Kurt Warner.

The Bears' players are right. The team's offense is the third most efficient in football, behind the league's most efficient passing attack. The running game has been just average so far. Grossman has been the NFL's most efficient quarterback, and it's third most productive overall. In 152 passes, he has produced 1212 yards, 10 touchdowns and only three turnovers. That touchdown total is second in football to Donovan McNabb. In fact, Grossman probably joins McNabb and Peyton Manning as the current leaders in the MVP race. In other words, holy crap, Grossman really is indispensable.

In many ways this is a great development. Grossman is finally living up to the potential that the Bears, and Grossman's college coach Steve Spurrier, saw in him when he was a first round draft pick. On the other hand, the reason Grossman has yet to live up to his potential is because he's been fairly snakebit and injury prone so far in his career. Hopefully he's past that. But this could just mean it's going to suck even more when Grossman invariably fractures his coccyx jogging out to the huddle in week 8.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Chaos Theory

My morning was chaos. Someone fell on my bus to work (a passenger, as opposed to someone dropping from the sky and landing on the bus). For those of you familiar with the city, just as we went over the little hump on Lake Shore Drive at the Fullerton exit, he apparently lost his grip and went crashing down. So, we stopped. A doctor checked him out and declare him to be okay. Per CTA regulations, the bus had to get off the Drive at Michigan and pull over to file a report on the incident. I now found myself standing at Michigan and Oak in rush hour hoping to find a way to work. Needless to say, competition for cabs and busses was fairly heavy. I finally caught a cab at Chicago and State (might as well have just finished walking to work). Anyway, as I'm getting out of the cab, I snag, and tear, my suit pants. I had a meeting this morning with the Solicitor General, aka my boss, and I thought the hole in the slacks look was inappropriate. So, I ducked into a tailor, and for 10 bucks he repaired my pants while I stood around in my boxer shorts. It is now 11:00 and I've completed zero work. And, we have a fire drill this afternoon. What is that crap?

Anyway, I need to work, but I did want to take a moment to talk about the Bulls' first pre-season game -- a last second victory over the Washington Wizards Wednesday night. I thought it was funny last night that the newcomers, from Ben Wallace to PJ Brown to Viktor Khryapa could do no wrong as far as Red Kerr, Stacey King and Tom Dore were concerned. This despite the fact that PJ looked lost and indifferent. But, there is a lot of promise to this team, and it was visible last night. They can crank up the pressure and intensity on both ends of the court because they have the depth to come at you in waves. The Bulls still figure to be a fairly inefficient offensive team. But they should generate enough offensive opportunities to off set that weakness. Steals and offensive boards, which should come in bunches for this team, equal scoring chances that the opponent doesn't have. In a funny way, this team will swarm around much like the Phoenix Suns, but the focus of the energy will be on the defensive end and the boards. In the backcourt, Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon are backed up by Chris Duhon and Thabo Sefolosha, who brings size, length and athleticism that was previously missing. The duo of Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni is very effective. Either or both could really emerge this year as the team's best offensive player. And finally, the team has some quality in the post rotation. Wallace, Brown, Khryapa, Tyrus Thomas and Malik Allen may not threaten Wilt's or Kareem's scoring records, but they are all aggressive rebounders and defenders and will catch, finish and move the basketball better than Tyson Chandler did. Can I imagine this team beating Dallas or Phoenix? Not really. A really talented offensive team will probably prove to much for the Bulls unless Deng or Nocioni emerges as a go-to guy. But the Bulls should win their first play off series since a certain #23 retired, and that's progress.

By the way, I have my distribution draft for the season tix I share with a number of other people. I'm torn as to whether I should go for top teams from the West who only come to town once, rivalries like Cleveland and Detroit, players I like to watch like Carmelo, or teams that should make for fairly even match-ups and exciting games like the Nets or Clippers. Any advice?

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

We're #1 !!!

I'm not actually prone to irrational exuberance. I'm not even prone to perfectly rational exuberance. Basically, exuberance is just not a word that comes up often when one is discussing me. But the evidence is becoming overwhelming: the Chicago Bears are the best team in football right now, and it's not that close.

Let's start with what was expected to be the team's strength. The Bears' defense has been the second most efficient in football. Only Baltimore has played better so far, and the Bears may well overtake them before the year is done. Chicago is ranked second against the pass and seventh against the run. But this week, the Bears corrected the closest thing to a defensive weakness, and held the league's leading rusher to only 50 yards. Early in the season, a few big plays against a defense can skew statistics, and the Bears rank near the bottom of the league preventing the long run. Avoid the big running play in the future and the Bears' run defense will rank even higher. Already, the Bears rank among the best in football at stopping their opponents when it counts most -- on third and fourth down short yardage situations.

What is more of a surprise is the team's offensive success. The Bears' offense, third most efficient in the NFL, is led by the league's best passing attack. WHAT?!? Strange, but true. Rex Grossman has been the third most productive quarterback in football, and THE most efficient. He has 1212 yards, 10 touchdowns and only three turnovers in 152 passes. That's as many yards and more touchdowns than Peyton Manning in 20 fewer pass attempts. Bernard Berrian and Muhsin Muhammad, Grossman's top targets, rank 10th and 11th, respectively, among NFL receivers. Berrian has caught 53% of passes thrown his way for 413 yards and four touchdowns. Muhammad has caught 65% of passes thrown his way for 334 yards and a TD. Add in the league's most productive tight end, even after a quiet week against the Bills, Desmond Clark, and the Bears' passing attack is positively unBear-like.

And, while the rushing attack has been average so far, average is far better than where it stood before the Seahawks and Bills games. Thomas Jones has shaken off a slow start that had some idiots -- um, me -- calling for his head, and now ranks 16th among NFL running backs in overall production. He's carried 106 times for 388 yards and two touchdowns. He's closing in on a 50% success rate on his carries (in general, a play counts as a success if it gains 40% of yards on first down, 60% of yards on second down, and 100% of yards on third down). Again, not great, but pretty impressive given the way he started.

Also, let's not forget special teams, where the Bears rank #1 in all of football. Robbie Gould deserves a lot of credit for the Bears' success. The team's field goal and kick off units rank as the best in the NFL. The punt return unit has also been the 5th best in the league. Basically, everything the Bears can control, they're doing well, even the so-called little things.

Who's the competition for the top spot? Well, the Colts are undefeated, but rank 27th in defense. They rank 30th in run defense. That's not a recipe for continued success. I'd say the Chargers are actually number two; they're the only other team ranked in the top five in offense, defense and special teams. As for Michael Irvin's asinine insistence that the Cowboys are the top team in the NFC, well, it's asinine. Besides the Bears, I'd rank the Eagles, Seahawks, Giants, Falcons and Panthers ahead of the Cowboys. That would be seventh. At this point, I'm expecting the Cowboys to miss the play-offs. The Eagles, on the other hand, are the real deal. They've been winning despite bad luck in terms of fumble recoveries and opponents' field goals (both areas that a team has little or no control over). They also have the best offense in football.

But forget the Chargers, Eagles, and everyone else. Right now, the Chicago Bears are the best team in football. That probably hasn't been the case since the mid-80's. So, whether you're prone to irrational exuberance or not, if you're a Bears fan, it's probably time to start getting excited.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

It's the Bears, Stupid.

I'm home sick today, but that's not going to stop me from posting. I'm a tough guy like that. I'm just going to play with pain. Anyway, Sunday morning I was watching the ESPN pre-game show and Mike Ditka got in an argument with Michael Irvin (this is like God arguing with a gopher) about the best team in the NFC. Ditka was taking the Bears (no surprise) and Irvin was taking the Cowboys (even less of a surprise). I think the debate has been settled.

The Chicago Bears defense dominated the Buffalo Bills. JP Losman came into the game with a 90.6 passer rating. His rating against the Bears: 35.8. He threw three picks after throwing one all season coming into the game. Meanwhile, the special teams were recovering turnovers, and, oh yeah, the offense put up 40.

Rex Grossman, who has been playing like an all-pro, had a quiet day. He didn't have a bad day, he just wasn't asked to do much. His 15 for 27, 182 yards, and 2 touchdowns made him the league's 12th most productive quarterback on the day. Thomas Jones continued to rev up to last year's high standards with his first 100 yard rushing day of the season. Cedric Benson contributed nearly 50 more yards and his first two NFL touchdowns. And, the special teams and defense kept giving the offense a short field. Two plays stand out. The fake punt on 4th and 6 was an act of desperation early in the game, and the Bears' excellent special teams were more than up to the task of jumping on an easy opportunity. And, Losman's interception to Lance Briggs was the kind of throw a man makes when a defense has drilled itself into his head. Who was he even throwing to?

Obviously, things change over the course of a season, but right now there is no one in the NFL who could stand up against the Bears' defense. Sorry, Playmaker, the Bears are the only possible answer at the moment. Tomorrow, maybe I'll explain to you why the Cowboys aren't even in the discussion for number two.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Oh Yeah, We Have a Hockey Team

My friend, who we shall call Vanilla Weiss (I blame Bill Simmons for the federal regulation requiring anyone writing about sports to refer to their friends by inane, contrived nicknames), thinks it's funny that the banner of Ron Karkovice Fan Club disses the Cubs and Blackhawks. Only one of these disses was intentional. I thought it would be funny to list all the Chicago teams, but not include the Cubs. But then I accidentally forgot to include the Blackhawks. That just goes to show how badly Blackhawks' ownership has eroded the cultural relevance of a once proud franchise. They're one of the original six. At one time a Blackhawks game at Chicago Stadium was the most exciting sporting event in town. No other venue could even match the intensity of the national anthem at a Blackhawks game. Now, I forget they exist.

But I like the Blackhawks. I enjoy hockey. And, I think that now that players have had a full year to adjust to how the game is going to be called in the post-lockout era, the "new" NHL has the potential to return to the free wheeling, fun loving days of the 80's. Someone at Comcast apparently agrees with me because every time the Blackhawks scored last night, they cut to a shot of a giddy Dennis Savard on the Chicago bench.

Still, I almost dissed the team again. Last night I was watching the Blackhawks and Predators punch holes in Khabibulin and Vokoun when I realized that in my zeal to write an NFL quarterly review piece, I had left the Bears-Bills preview for today, when I intended to write about the Blackhawks' opening night. So, there I was, ready to dis the Blackhawks again.

But, I'm making a stand. No more dissing the NHL for the NFL, NBA, MLB, NCAA or professional bull riding. Hockey deserves its place, however small, in the sun (although I am concerned that may melt the ice). So while, honestly, I'm much more excited about Sunday's football game, I will refrain from previewing it, so I can remind people that hockey is back.

And, if last night is any indication, the Blackhawks may be as well. Newly acquired Martin Havlat and second-year man Rene Bourque led a high powered attack that probably confused and confounded those Blackhawk fans who remembered to tune in, or even that they could tune in. And, while Khabibulin did give up six goals, he also made 34 saves, some of them while standing on his head. Last year, the Blackhawks looked like they were unaware of the new goal scoring environment in the NHL. It's obviously preposterously early, but the team is turning the corner, and may have already turned it. A power play that ranked near the bottom of the league last year was 2 for 2 Thursday night. Newcomers Havlat and Michal Handzus combined to set up the first power play goal, as Havlat gave Martin Lapointe the puck alone in front of an empty net. And, Adrian Aucoin, acquired last year to quarterback the power play, got together with Bourque on a power play fast break that ended when Bryan Smolinski, another newcomer, put the puck in the back of the net (note, by the way, that I just combined hockey, football and basketball terminology in one sentence).

The Blackhawks ended last season as one of the two worst teams in hockey. They're not a Stanley Cup contender this year. But staying in contention for one of the final play-off spots would be a huge step, and is a realistic goal. The continued growth of emerging youngsters and the acquisition of some offensive minded veterans have given the Blackhawks the firepower to compete in the NHL. It could make for a pretty entertaining show. Hopefully, someone will show up to watch.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

NFL’s Quarterly Statement

It is, of course, somewhat arbitrary that we tend to analyze performance at the end of quarters and halves. There is no particular reason that our impressions of individual and team performance are more legitimate today than they were last week. At least no reason that wouldn't also make our analysis more legitimate next week than this. I'm not easily swayed by convention, but this time I'll bite because I want to, if for no other reason. And, if this is the first week Football Outsiders feels it has enough data to adjust its stats for strength of opposition, then I'll use that to rationalize succumbing to the dominant paradigm.

Best Team: Chicago Bears
This isn't homerism; the Bears have been the best team in the NFL so far. Their defense, expected to be a strength, has been top-five in the league by any measure. The offense, surprisingly, has also emerged as one of the best in football. And the special teams have been the best in the league. The defense has been led by a defensive line that is terrorizing quarterbacks, while remaining stout against the run. Meanwhile, the Bears' own QB, Rex Grossman, has led one of the best passing attacks in the league, covering for a rushing attack that has been the team's only weak spot. Even with the running game just now rounding into shape, the Bears are 6th in the league in yards per drive and 2nd in the league in points per drive.

Worst Team: Tennessee Titans
The Titans have been uniquely terrible, even compared to other winless teams like Detroit, Tampa and Oakland. Detroit's offense is average, Oakland defense is not atrocious, and Tampa has played poorly, but not horribly, on both sides of the ball. Tennessee, however, is second to last in the NFL in both offensive and defensive efficiency. In fact, there is no area in which the Titans have not been terrible, with the exception of average punt and kick coverage. That's not much to get excited about.

Surprise Team: New Orleans Saints
Not much was expected from the Saints this year. They were terrible last season, and while some new parts were added -- Drew Brees and Reggie Bush most notably -- there remained more questions than answers. But the Saints are 3-1. After two wins over bad teams, the Saints won impressively in their emotional home opener, and even their first loss earned the team some extra credit, as they played a good Carolina team tough on the road. The Saints are ranked right around the top 10 in the league on both sides of the ball. The only notable negative is that the team hasn't had much success running the ball or stopping the run. But that's of overrated importance; just ask the New York Giants, who rank in the top 5 in the league in both categories, but are one lucky quarter away from being winless.

Disappointing Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
This is a tough category. I expected huge things from the Seattle Seahawks this year, but they've played quite poorly. Still, they're somehow 3-1, so that's not so disappointing. The aforementioned Giants have disappointed many, but I had limited expectations for them to begin with. The Steelers have played poorly, and are 1-2 with a very tough game against the Chargers on deck. Some of their struggles may be attributable to Ben Roethlisberger's unfortunate offseason. Unquestionably, some of their struggles are attributable to his crappy play. He has 5 turnovers and no touchdowns. Among qualifying QBs, only Andrew Walter ranks behing Big Ben in overall contribution, and on a per play basis.

MVP: Peyton Manning
We've come to expect so much that we can tend to overlook his excellence. He's collected 1,063 yards on 139 passes, and thrown six touchdowns while turning the ball over only once. He is once again leading the league's most efficient passing attack. The only question is whether Manning will survive the season. The departure of Edgerrin James to Arizona hasn't really hurt the Colts' rushing attack, which is the 10th most efficient in the league, but it is killing the team's pass protection. Manning is on pace to be sacked more than in any season since 2001, which James missed with a torn ACL. I suppose it makes Manning's continued efficiency all the more impressive. I just hope he doesn't get decapitated at some point. And, will somebody please get this man an endorsement deal! What does a guy have to do to get on tv around here?

Rookie of the Year: Marques Colston
Um, who? Colston is the Saints' seventh round draft pick out of Hofstra. His name is starting to penetrate the national consciousness because he qualifies as a TE in fantasy football. He is, in fact, a wide receiver, and a 6'4", 230 lb. wide receiver at that. He has been the 16th most productive wideout in all of football so far. On 33 passes thrown his way, he has 336 yards and three touchdowns. Sixty-one percent of passes intended for Colston have been completed. Colston is not running away with the race, however. The New England Patriots' Laurence Maroney has been almost as good. He has 294 yards on 60 carries, and three touchdowns of his own. He's "succesful" on 50% of his carries. That means he is gaining 40% of the yards remaining on 1st down, 60% of the yards remaining on second down, or 100% of the yards remaining on third down. Only ten backs have a higher success rate in the entire league. Plus, Tom Brady is 6 for 9 for 76 yards on passes directed towards Maroney. If Colston is the number 1 rookie so far this year, Maroney is 1A.

Super Bowl Favorite: San Diego Chargers
I know I just said that the Bears are playing the best football right now, and the Chargers are coming off a loss, but mixing what I've seen so far with my expectations for each team before the season started, I now expect to see the Chargers standing tall at the end of the year. First, the Chargers lost to the Baltimore Ravens because of a botched field goal and an intentional safety. They basically outplayed another top team on the road. More importantly, the Chargers are the only team in football that is among the league's 10 most efficient teams in rush offense, pass offense, run defense, pass defense, and special teams. That's balance. And the great LaDainian Tomlinson hasn't even really gotten on track yet. He has 300 yards on 76 attempts, for a 3.9 yard per carry average. That's nearly half a yard under his career average. When he gets rolling, and he will because the Chargers' passing attack is good enough to keep teams honest, the Chargers will be even better.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

First Quarter Returns

I said before the Chicago Bears' showdown with the Seattle Seahawks that little things would make a big difference in the game. I was wrong. Big things made a big difference. The game wasn't close enough for the little things to matter much.

The Bears' 37-6 win wraps up an impressive first quarter for Chicago. Coincidentally, one of the keys to that fast start has been great first quarters of games, and that was an important factor for the Bears against Seattle, as well. After Seattle took a 3-0 lead, the Bears took possession on their own 31 yard line with 8:51 to go in the 1st quarter. What happened next wasn't always pretty, but it catapulted the Bears to an eventual win. A Rex Grossman to Muhsin Muhammad pass and a Seattle penalty made it 1st and 5 at midfield. But then Grossman got sacked, leaving the Bears facing 2nd and 18. Grossman to Desmond Clark picked up 17 of those yards on a huge 2nd down pass play, but Grossman to fullback Jason McKie went for no gain. 4th and 1 on the Seahawks' 46. Far too many coaches would go the safe route and punt. But Bears' coach Lovie Smith did the right thing. A Grossman sneak gave the Bears 1st and 10. The most important thing in football is possession of the ball. The Bears kept possession when many coaches would have voluntarily turned the ball over. Seven plays later, Grossman hit Muhammad again, this time for a 9 yard touchdown on 3rd and 8. The Bears would score on their next possession, as well, and less than two minutes into the 2nd quarter Chicago had a 10-3 lead that they would never relinquish.

It's nothing new, either. Rex Grossman has been the best 1st quarter QB in football, according to Football Outsiders. Fourth quarter highlights get on ESPN, but 1st quarter production allows a team to dictate the pace and style of the game. The Bears have outscored opponents 20-6 in the 1st quarters of games this year. It's no coincidence that they're 4-0. The only game in which they've been challenged was against the Vikings, which is the only game the Bears haven't led at the end of one quarter. That's no coincidence either.

Overall, Grossman was 17 of 31 for 232 yards, 2 touchdowns and no picks. Only five QBs outperformed him on Sunday, and he's the number 3 rated quarterback in the NFL through 4 weeks. (Maybe that explains why John Madden has developed a man crush on Grossman. Every time Madden suggested that Grossman "has a little Brett Favre in him," I got uncomfortable, both in football and non-football terms.) Meanwhile, the Bears' defense reduced Matt Hasselbeck to an Arizona Cardinal. Hasselbeck's number 24 ranking on the week slots in between Kurt Warner and Matt Leinert, according to FO. Hasselbeck completed less than half his passes for fewer than 200 yards, threw 2 picks, and went without a touchdown. The Bears' coaches attacked Seattle's offense from every angle. The defensive line collected 5 sacks, and Ricky Manning, Jr. collected two picks (and no assault charges, which for him is an accomplishment).

In the end, the 37-6 score reflects the actual dominance the Bears displayed on Sunday night. It just goes to show that 1st quarter returns can pay dividends. That's a little fiscal humor for you there. Thank you. I'll be here all week. Try the veal picata and don't forget to tip your waitress. Enjoy Toad the Wet Sprocket, ladies and gentlemen.