Wednesday, December 27, 2006

27.3% Super Bowl Shuffle

The Bears are more likely than any other team in the NFL to win the Super Bowl. Let me know when you're done laughing, and we'll continue. Ready? OK. I'm not saying the Bears are the best team in the NFL. The Ravens, Chargers and Patriots are all better. Even the Jaguars, who will miss the playoffs without help, are probably better. But that's exactly why the Bears are more likely than any of those teams to win it all. They have a much easier road.

In fact, one mathematically inclined individual has crunched the numbers and determined that the Bears have a 27.3% chance of winning it all, better than any other team in the league. San Diego and Baltimore are next, but they're kind of splitting the AFC vote, so to speak. Overall, he has the AFC with a 58% chance of winning it all. On a purely subjective level, I'd say the AFC should have an even bigger edge than that. But of course, one NFC team will be in the game, and once you make the Super Bowl anything can happen. So, maybe the NFC team does have a decent chance to win it all. And the team most likely to be that NFC team is the Bears. So, here we are again, the Bears are more likely to win the Super Bowl than any other team.

It doesn't really feel that way watching the team play recently. The Bears once dominant defense has sputtered in recent weeks. Actually, it's been below average four weeks in a row. Some of this is cascade injuries. The Bears didn't just lose Tommie Harris, they lost Harris and Tank Johnson on the defensive line. The Bears didn't just lose Mike Brown, they lost Brown, Todd Johnson, Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher in the defensive backfield. Cascade injuries catch up with you.

The good news is that some of these situations are resolving themselves. Only Harris and Brown should be missing come playoff time. When healthy the Bears' pass defense is really good. It's still the most efficient in the NFL. Tillman was tied for third in the league with a 63% Stop Rate through 13 weeks (Stop Rate measures percentage of plays that do not achieve offensive success by Football Outsiders standards: 45% of yards on first down, 60% on second down, 100% on third down). Vasher was just outside the top-10 at 57%, plus he was sixth in the league in fewest yards per attempt directed his way (it takes a while to compile these stats, so they always run a couple of weeks behind). The Bears' secondary is good and deep when healthy.

The run defense is more of a concern. The Bears are now seventh in overall efficiency against the run. That's not bad, but it's not the kind of dominance this team counts on from it's defense. What's the problem? The Bears have developed a vulnerability to two distinct plays, sweeps around the right side of their defense, and power runs attacking the left side of their interior. I actually have no explanation for the first weakness, nor do I see a quick fix. I wouldn't think Alex Brown and Lance Briggs are the problem, but given the Bears' below-average defense against runs in that direction, maybe its something that warrants further investigation. The second problem will be addressed largely through Johnson's return at left defensive. Alfonso Boone is a nice part of the rotation, but by moving him into the starting lineup, and Antonio Garay into the rotation, you significantly weaken the Bears at that spot as compared to when Tank Johnson is occupying it. Conversely, Ian Scott has done well filling in for Tommie Harris. It's not the first injury that gets you, it's the next one at the same position.

The bottom line, and there needs to be one because I'm rambling, is that the defense should be fine once some of the injured people return. I'm still more concerned about the offense. Nevertheless, I'm 27.3% sure the team can go ahead and record a new Super Bowl Shuffle.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

So Long, and Danks for All the Fish

I figured that if I was going to join the parade of bad puns arising from the White Sox' Brandon McCarthy for John Danks trade, then I might as well be more obscure than everyone else. There seems to be a fair amount of hand wringing about this deal. After all, wasn't the point of the Freddy Garcia trade to make room for McCarthy in the starting rotation? But I'm actually pretty pleased with this move.

I do think that Kenny Williams was thinking about McCarthy's future in the rotation when he dealt Freddy. But I also think he was blown away by the chance to add Danks, and to a lesser extent Nick Masset, and decided to change plans. Williams has always, above all, been about adding value. And, he won this deal.

I've never been fully sold on McCarthy. I think he has tremendous potential, but for now he is far too prone to the gopher ball to be any one's ace. For his career he's given up 1.3 home runs per nine innings in the majors. That number is consistent with his minor league numbers, and with scouting reports that he is too prone to making mistakes with his fastball and curve ball up in the zone. US Comiscular is a tough place to pitch for a homer-prone, fly ball pitcher (not that trading McCarthy to Arlington did him any favors on that front). I'm not sure if the rumors that McCarthy was stubborn and refused to work with Don Cooper to address this problem are true, or just post-trade rationalization and spin control by the Sox. But if that is true, then it's a serious warning flag about McCarthy's future.

Danks meanwhile has had home run problems of his own. He put up a mediocre ERA in two levels of the minor leagues last year. But he's Baseball Prospectus's #5 ranked lefty prospect in all of baseball. He's two years younger than McCarthy, and because he's about as good as McCarthy today, probably therefore still has more upside. He has tremendous strikeout per nine and strikeout to walk ratios. Plus, he's less likely to be insulted by starting the season in AAA, which means the Sox can give the 5th starter job to the whoever looks the best among Danks, Gavin Floyd, Charlie Haeger, and Lance Broadway, instead of handing it to McCarthy to soothe his ego. Add in Masset's value, and the Sox win this trade.

At the end of the day, the Sox now have two of the top-10 lefty prospects in the league, with Danks and Gio Gonzalez, acquired from Philly in the Garcia deal. Gonzalez was only 20 last season, and like Danks he strikes out more than a batter an inning thanks largely to a curve ball that can put batters away at any level. Danks, Gonzalez, Broadway, Haeger, Floyd, and McCulloch give the Sox impressive young pitching depth, which can be used to protect the team against the absurd, spiralling cost of league average pitching (see Lilly, Ted), or to acquire established players at positions of need (see Field, Out).

I'm excited to watch the young guns duke it out for the 5th starter slot next season, and vie to establish a future pecking order over the next few years. Plus, honestly, I was starting to worry that the Sox were built for a dramatic fall within a couple of years. Now, they may still experience a fall, but they're built to sustain long-term success. And that's an exciting new position to be in.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Forum for a Bulls Rant

I was warned, before I ever saw the rant itself, that Hideki Matt Suey used my last Bears post as a forum for his own Bears rant. And, he explained, he might need to launch into a Bulls rant soon. It seems he's frustrated by the apparent lack of respect for the Bears and Bulls among the national, main-stream media. Anyway, I promised him a forum for a Bulls rant, and here it is.

The Bulls recent run of success has come again weaker competition than they played earlier in the season, and that definitely accounts for some of the improvement. The Bulls remain 0-6 against teams in the top 10 in the league in point differential. Shocking, I know that the team struggles against top opponents. There's a reason these teams are in the top 10 in point differential. But it's not that the Bulls' wins have come against the dregs of the league. While they're 8-1 against teams ranked 21 or lower in point differential, they're also 6-3 against the middle of the league -- teams ranked between 11-20.

The key issue, it appears, is that the Bulls have yet to figure out how to beat great defensive teams. They're 4-3 against teams in the top-10 in the league in scoring, and 3-4 against teams in the top-10 in effective field goal percentage. But they're 1-6 against teams in the top-10 in points allowed, and 1-6 against teams in the top-10 in effective field goal percentage against. Perhaps a team needs a true go to scorer to overcome great team defense. The Bulls rely more on ball and player movement. That creates easy shots when teams suffer defensive breakdowns, but if a team doesn't breakdown defensively, you need someone who can create his own shot.

So, the Bulls may not be ready to compete with the elite teams in basketball, especially those who really clamp down on defense. But they're better than the mediocrity that inhabits the vast wasteland of the NBA. Thus, they struggled when they travelled to Texas and out west, but excelled when they hosted Eastern Conference foes. Are they playing better basketball now? Sure, and that quality of play would have helped avoid a winless western swing. But the truth is that the Bulls could go to Texas right now, and they'd still be lucky to win a game.

And, I think the national media still largely reflects that reality. Bill Simmons has yet to acknowledge that he undersold the Bulls, though he was crowing earlier this year about how right he was when the team was struggling on the road. But the rest of TWWL seems to have the Bulls in proper perspective. They were the second highest rated team from the East in their last power rankings. So, HMS, is it worth a rant? I'm not sure it is. Now, if you want to rant on why Luol Deng deserves more national attention, respect, and an all-star invitation (best player on one of the East's few winning team, 35th best PER in the league, 7th best among all small forwards), then that's a different story.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Bear Belly

I'm back from a work and illness filled start to the week. Because I have a shortened week in which to express myself, and a short week to come as well, I'm going to put together a bit of a random thoughts column, focusing on the Bears.

Rex Grossman had 339 yards and, for the second week in a row, two touchdowns and no picks. All is well, right? Well, the Rams are the 29th ranked pass defense and the Bucs are the 30th ranked pass defense. Next week won't tell us much more because the Lions are ranked 28th. Still, when it comes to regaining confidence and rhythm it's been mission accomplished.

Of greater concern is that the Bears' defense is suddenly giving up big games to opposing quarterbacks. I know some of you want to pile on by pointing out that the most recent big game was given up to Tim Rattay. But Rattay is actually pretty good. He averaged 7.3 yards per attempt as the 49ers starter in 2003, and threw seven touchdowns against just two picks. Those are good numbers. Rattay's problem has been injuries more than anything else. Still, 20 of 35 for 268 and three touchdowns in relief is worrisome. I'm hoping Nathan Vasher's eventual return will help settle this situation.

One cause or effect -- I'm not sure which -- of Grossman's resurgence is Desmond Clark's resurgence. Clark had seven catches on 10 throws his way for 125 yards and two touchdowns. It was the second best week of any wide receiver or tight end in the NFL. In fact, Clark is having the best season of any tight end in the NFC. He and Jason Witten deserved the Pro Bowl spots over Jeremy Shockey and Alge Crumpler (who's name is much greater than his game).

Speaking of the Pro Bowl, the Bears are sending three special teamers to Honolulu. It's well deserved. While special teams almost cost the Bears the game against Tampa, overall special teams have helped carry the Bears this year when other components of their game have struggled. The Bears are on pace for the best all-around special teams season since the 2002 Saints (Football Outsiders, not I, are the one's with the time and dorkiness to know that). The Bears have had better than average seasons in all five components of special teams: kick coverage, kick returns, punt coverage, punt returns and place kicking. They have the best kick coverage and punt return units in football.

Those special teams are a big reason why the Bears are the second best team in football. The Chargers are number one. But the Bears rank again of their AFC mirror image, the Ravens, because of special teams. The Ravens are good on special teams; the Bears are special. And the Colts, who are the bizarro Bears and Ravens -- all offense, inconsistent defense -- play terrible special teams.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Bring on the Creamsicles

Back in the day, Bears-Bucs was an NFC Central Division showdown. Well, back in the day, the Bucs didn't exist. But back in the not-so-distant day it was a showdown. And, back then, playing the Bucs was usually a guaranteed easy victory. So, I guess things haven't changed much since then. Except that the Bucs don't dress like creamsicles any more.

Why is it that when a team is great on offense and crappy on defense, mainstream pundits need to see that team battered into submission before acknowledging this weakness, but if a team plays great defense and struggles on offense, they're immediately demoted. The Colts were clearly worse defensively than the Bears were on offense for most of this year. But everyone labeled the Bears pretenders and the Colts contenders. This is all by way of saying that the Bears are the top team in football right now, although it's a virtual tie with Baltimore. Each team is great on D, and just average on offense. The Chargers, who are closer to being number two than number four in my mind, are great on offense and just average on defense. Jacksonville at number four, is closer to three than five, and they too are great on one side of the ball -- defense -- and average on the other. Note that these top four teams are great on one side of the ball and average on the other. Indianapolis, Cincinatti and New Orleans are overrated right now because they're great on offese. But these team don't belong in anyone's top five because they're terrible on defense. Dallas and New England are average or better on both sides of the ball, but can't dominate on either side.

My point is that the top team in football, or at the very least, one of the top four teams, is playing one of the bottom three. The only thing keeping the Bucs out of the basement on the offensive side of the ball is the Raiders, who are historically inept on offense. And the Bucs' vaunted defense is only average this year. And yet, this game may be closer than many expect.

When the Bears have the ball, they'll be relying principally on a top-10 rushing attack. But the Bucs have a top-10 rush defense. Where the Bucs defense falters is against the pass, where they rank 28th. Might the Bears impose their will running the ball? Sure. Might the Bears' 19th ranked passing attack take advantage of the Bucs' weakness? Sure. But the Bears have the least consistent offense in football. If they play as well as they have in their best games, they'll kill the Bucs, but if the Bears offense plays as poorly as it has in its worst games, this will be a low scoring slugfest.

The one thing the Bears don't really have to worry about is the Bucs scoring on them. The Bears have the top pass defense in football, and for all the angst about the run defense, the Bears are still the 7th most efficient team in the league at stopping the run. Ah, you say, but that includes games before Mike Brown and Tommie Harris got hurt. But the Bears have one of the smaller variations in all of football between their best defensive effort and their worst this year. Even post injuries, the Bears have remained consistently excellent on defense. And, as mentioned, the Bucs are terrible with the ball. They're 28th running the ball, and that's their strength. They have the 31st ranked passing attack.

I'm intentionally ignoring the Tank Johnson issue for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that there is no reason yet to believe that this will affect the team on the field this Sunday. But with or without Johnson, the Bucs won't score much. So I offer two possible scores: 34-3 if the Bears offense plays well, or 10-3 if they don't. It's never something inbetween with this crew.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Ben Wallace: Offensive Juggernaut

The Chicago Bulls have won nine of 10 games, are two games over .500, and two games behind Orlando for the best record in the Eastern Conference. That says a lot about the power of home court in the NBA, as the Bulls' turnaround began right after they returned home from the infamous Circus Trip. It also says even more about how important it is to consider competition when analyzing a team's performance over the short term. The Bulls struggled against some of the top teams in the West, and have gotten healthy largely by beating weak sisters from the East. Which brings us to the final point: it says a lot about how crappy the East is. Not only did the Bulls start winning when they started playing Eastern Conference foes, but how the heck are they only two games over .500 and withing two games of the best record in the conference?

Anyway, there were some new wrinkles and some old wrinkles in last night's win over the listless Sonics. Ben Wallace scored 15 points, which is something new. He also grabbed 20 rebounds, blocked five shots and recorded two steals, which is something old. Mr. Reliable, Luol Deng, had only 13 points and struggled with his shot, which is something new. But he did get double figures, as he always does, and Andres Nocioni dropped 20, which is also becoming old hat for him. And, Ben Gordon was hot, dropping 27, which is both new and old, you never really know from one game to the next.

The starting line-up came out hot. Deng had eight points and Nocioni had nine, as the Bulls built a 28-12 lead with 2:31 remaining in the first quarter. The starters need to be hot because they're pretty much the only one's playing. Gordon gets plenty of time, but beyond the top six, almost no one sees significant minutes. Especially last night, with PJ Brown out, Skiles has shortened his bench. I'm glad to see it, and it's working, but I think he could get something out of the rookies, Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas. Still, I'm not complaining because the shortened rotation has coincided with the Bulls' current winning form.

The trio of Gordon, Nocioni and Deng have given the Bulls the firepower to win games, even when the defense isn't at it's absolute best. Gordon is averaging 29.7 points per 48 minutes, Nocioni is averaging 27.3, and Deng is averaging 24.8. That trio also leads the team in +/- rating. Nocioni is +106, Gordon is +96, and Deng is +84. Gordon and Deng are +103 as a tandem, one of only five tandems in all of basketball, and the only duo in the East, with a +/- greater than 100. We know Gordon will receive consideration for the top 6th man award if he continues playing like this, but few seem to have noticed that the Bulls' forward tandem are playing at an all-star level. This is especially true in the talent deprived Eastern Conference, and I should probably devote an entire column to their candidacy at some point, now that I think about it.

In 1956-57, the St. Louis Hawks emerged from a weak Western Division to challenge the mighty Boston Celtics in the finals. They had what remains to this day, the second worst record of any NBA or ABA finalist ever. And, while they pushed the Celts more than anticipated, they eventually fell in six games. But the Hawks were a team on the rise, and the next year Bob Pettit led them to an NBA championship. Ladies and gentlemen, your 2007-08 NBA Champs: the Chicago Bulls!

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

And Now For Something Completely Different

Obviously, it's time for me to write something about the Bears' win Monday night over the St. Louis Rams. The problem is that I have absolutely no idea what to make of it. That's why it's 3:00 in the afternoon, and I'm just now getting around to writing.

Rex Grossman looked pretty good. Clearly, he looked much better than he did against New England or Minnesota. On the other hand, his performance has to be discounted somewhat for the weak Rams' defense. Also, officiating and Bernard Berrian each avoided a turnover for Grossman, and two turnovers would make this performance look a lot less rosy. Still, Grossman used some accurate throws, his rediscovered legs, and a more reasonable game plan to consistently move the team and put points on the board.

The running game also looked good. Again, the Rams' poor tackling and positioning had something to do with this. I also thought Cedric Benson looked better on the whole than Thomas Jones. Jones broke a big run, but Benson was more consistently productive. He's simply a more decisive, authoritative runner at this point. And since, as the God-like Ron Jaworski recently pointed out, Jones, contrary to reputation, is terrible at picking up blitzes, it seems to me that its time for Benson to take over as the every down back. Quite frankly, the team looked better with Benson and Adrian Peterson sharing the load than with Jones playing every down.

Devin Hester is awesome. Not much more need be said. There is a general belief that teams that rely too much on special teams for regular season success struggle in the playoffs. This is because special teams play tends to regress more heavily towards the mean than offense or defense. The Bears are proving to be an exception. They have dominated consistently on special teams from the beginning of the year. I leave it to people like Football Outsiders to do this kind of analysis, but I suspect the Bears are the most dominant special teams unit in recorded history. I don't mean that as hyperbole. Also, now that Hester has taken over Rashied Davis's job as a kick returner, I wouldn't be shocked to see Hester take Davis's job as the fourth receiver too.

Defensively, the Bears will be able to overcome the loss of Tommie Harris. Harris is great, but the defense looked fine against a good offensive football team until garbage time. Yes, I know they gave up a 99 yard drive, but that was just the football gods punishing Lovie Smith for punting from his opponent's 37 yard line. There is no excuse for punting inside your opponent's 40 yard line, and rarely an excuse for punting anywhere in your opponent's territory. Anyway, the return of Ian Scott to more duty seemed to actually help a run defense that was starting to look a little too vulnerable in recent weeks. And given Mark Anderson's continued excellence, the idea of moving Alex Brown inside and giving Anderson more time on passing downs has definate promise.

Nathan Vasher's absence was more noticeable. The pass defense looked pretty mediocre. But with Vasher in the line-up, Hester will never be asked to cover Torry Holt one-on-one again. As Holt expressed clearly to a national viewing audience, having Hester, a rookie who is a defensive back in name only, cover him one-on-0ne is a terrible idea. Vasher should be back in a couple of weeks, in time to be at full speed for the playoffs. I'm not worried.

The Rams are a mediocre team headed in the wrong direction. And as a Bears fan, 42-27 makes me a little sick to my stomach. Way too much scoring. By both teams, really. And yet, the Bears won, and they won comfortably, as they should against weak competition. Objectively, I was happy with everything I saw. So, I guess I'm really happy about Monday night's play and outcome. I think.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Last Chance to Impress

The word is that Lovie Smith will replace Rex Grossman at halftime tonight if the Bears' quarterback struggles in the first half against the St. Louis Rams. This should be a good night for Grossman to finally break out, and for the same reasons, if he cannot, this should be a good night for Brian Griese to smoothly transition to QB1 (Sorry Saracen, you're out).

St. Louis, of course, is not a very good team. It's offense and special teams are average, but the offense has been in a slide since Orlando Pace went down. It's on defense, though, where St. Louis's true incompetence shines through. The Rams are 29th in defensive efficiency in the entire NFL. They're 26th against the pass and 29th against the run.

What is most interesting though is that St. Louis's defense should invite the kind of game calling designed to get a quarterback into a rhythm, and help him relocate (Rex) or establish (Griese) some confidence.

The Rams do a decent job on #1 wide receivers. That's fine because the Bears don't really have a dominant #1, and in any case, plays on which Grossman locks on to a wide out are exactly why we're in this mess. Beyond simply encouraging Grossman and the Bears to spread the ball around, however, the Rams are particularly vulnerable to (among many things) passes to the tightend and running backs. They rank 23rd in pass defense against tight ends and 21st against running backs.

Early in the season when Rex was having success the Bears were utilizing Desmond Clark a lot more. They were even making use of the fullback out of the backfield. And if Grossman struggles, this kind of ball control passing attack is both Griese's strength, and a good way to help Griese establish his rhythm and confidence.

So, I expect Grossman to finally play his way out of this slump tonight. But if he doesn't, this is the perfect opportunity for Griese to smoothly transition into the job.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Running of the Bulls

I'm going to hold off on commenting about the White Sox trade because rumors are rampant that there is another shoe to drop. Until we have some sense of how Kenny Williams plans to tie the bow on this package, analysis is premature. In the meantime, I went to the Bulls game last night, so now seems as good a time as any to mention that the team has streaked its way right back to .500.

I'll admit that a couple of weeks ago I was afraid that Scott Skiles' warranty had just expired. But I also realized near the end of the Circus Trip that the club had played a preposterously tough schedule and was likely to rebound just by virtue of reaching an easier part of its season. It only took back to back games with the Knicks to set them on the right course.

What I did not anticipate was how well this team would start playing. They're not just beating weak opponents, they're dominating them, as a good team should. Last night they whipped Philly 121-94. The game was over in the 1st quarter, as the Bulls led 39-16 at the end of one. Luol Deng, Andres Nocioni, Ben Wallace and Chris Duhon all contributed, but it was Ben Gordon who did the most damage. He replaced Kirk Hinrich, who had picked up two fouls chasing Allen Iverson, at the six minute mark. In 6:13, Gordon dropped 17 points.

In the 2nd quarter, the Bulls were actually outscored 32-30, but they still took a 21 point lead into the half. The most exciting thing about the 2nd quarter was the team's leading scorer. Tyrus Thomas led the Bulls with nine points and three rebounds in a little less than six minutes of 2nd quarter action. Thomas looked like a top draft pick last night, despite the idiot behind me who yelled "Stacey Queen" every time he touched the ball.

Seven Bulls reached double figures in all, including Deng, who scored 21, and continued to be the reliable scoring option the team needs. Only two Bulls failed to score: Mike Sweetney and, suprisingly, Hinrich. Hinrich was limited to 11 minutes by early foul trouble and Gordon's hot hand. He appeared to be sulking on the end of the bench as the team raced away to a win. I haven't seen any reports of discontent, either with him or by him, so hopefully he was just frustrated with his own effort and the officiating, which together prevented him from covering Iverson without fouling him. Speaking of Iverson, Duhon did a decent job on him, and Thabo Sefolosha did a rather remarkable job on him in the brief time he was on the floor.

The Bulls have reached .500; they have the 4th best record in the weak Eastern Conference; they're only two games behind Detroit and Cleveland; they've already played the toughest stretch on their schedule; and none of Detroit, Cleveland, or Orlando -- the three teams with better records -- is so much better than the Bulls, that Chicago couldn't take them in a seven game series. Neither are the Nets or One Man Gang Heat. In other words, the Bulls are a legitimate threat to win the conference championship. That thought is almost too strange to process, especially given where the team was a couple of weeks ago, but isn't this where this team was supposed to be after shelling out top dollar for Ben Wallace?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Exit Polling

A new poll in the Chicago Sun-Times shows that Bears fans, by a margin of 51% to 49%, favor sticking with Rex Grossman at quarterback, rather than replacing him with Brian Griese. Some of the paper's columnists, who were obviously expecting the poll results to vindicate their argument that coach Lovie Smith is letting down the fans by remaining loyal to Grossman, responded as if the fans are idiot children.

Rick Telander, who I actually prefer to most of the city's sports columnists, made it sound as if the fans were insanely clinging to the belief that Smith knows what he's doing. It's like Lovie is serving Kool-Aid, and we're all partaking. Instead, Telander insists, Lovie is insanely gambling his entire career, and the Bears' window of opportunity, on Grossman.

Generally, when everyone disagrees with me about something, I question my assumptions. I don't automatically change my mind, but I at least ask myself, what is it that I might be assuming that would cause me to deviate from the majority viewpoint. Apparently, such thinking is anathema to sports writing. Telander isn't questioning his own assumptions (like the inaccurate assumption that Griese doesn't turn the ball over often), but rather when everyone else went insane.

As I've said, I'm no longer sure whether the Bears are better off sticking with Grossman or turning to Griese. But I hardly think it requires blind, canine-like loyalty to believe that Grossman remains the team's best option. Aaron Schatz put this more succinctly than I ever have, but in essence the reason I've said the Bears should stick with Grossman is this: "Grossman has mixed great games with terrible ones, sure — but while Brian Griese would be more consistent, he also would be less likely to play well enough to win if the defense ever had an off day."

And, Schatz has also succintly summed up why now I'm wavering in that belief: "After this week, I took a closer look, and the Bears may need to switch to Griese anyway, because the Good Rex may not be coming back. . . . Grossman was good for the first half of the year, and he's been bad in the second half. Check out the numbers:
Weeks 1-5: 61 percent completions, 8.2 yards per pass, 249 yards per game, 10 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions. DPAR value: 38.4.
Week 9-13: 46 percent completions, 5.3 yards per pass, 157 yards per game, 5 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. DPAR value: -31.3.
That's not inconsistency, that's regression."

There are legitimate arguments on both sides of this debate. That is what the 51/49 split in the Sun-Times poll reflects. Believing that the Bears should stick with Grossman doesn't require blind loyalty to Smith or Grossman, rather just a belief that this is the Bears' window and Grossman remains the best bet to fit through it, even if he's also the best bet to fall off the ledge too.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

This Week's Sign . . .

Just a quick post to share this week's sign that the apocalypse is upon us, courtesy of

"When the Ford C. Frick electorate sits down to pick a 2006 winner and the next broadcaster to enter into the Hall of Fame, Ken 'Hawk' Harrelson's name will be among the list of 10 final candidates. Harrelson's nomination can be attributed to his excellence behind the microphone covering three decades, not to mention his colorful passion for the White Sox, including his trademark catchphrases and nicknames.Harrelson was one of three broadcasters picked from an online fan ballot, with the Chicago fan base once again making the city proud with its ability to get out the vote."

I am both speechless and aghast at this horror.

It's Not Chicago, but . . .

Most of Chicago-area sports bloggers can indulge their interests in college sports because they root for Notre Dame or some other "local" school. Not I. I'm a Syracuse fan. My dad played ball at Syracuse way back when, and I was raised to live and die with every ill-advised Pearl Washington pass. So, for those of you looking for more of the typically witty and insightful Chicago sports commentary you usually find here, indulge me today. Today we're talking Syracuse hoops.

Having exhausted his record 23rd year of eligibility, Gerry McNamara has moved on, leaving uncertainty in his wake. But he also leaves several skilled upperclassmen and a super frosh in his wake. And, the word from under the Dome's baggy roof is that a lot of the guys feel a whole lot better now that the teacher's pet is no longer in the room. McNamara had a deservedly long leash from Jim Boeheim, but it made it harder for a lot of the other players to understand why they remained on Boeheim's typically shorter leash.

The Gender Neutral Orange have played their usual New York-centric early season schedule this year. Quite frankly, who can blame them when they have the Big East waiting down the road. Plenty of challenges ahead. Still, the pre-conference schedule offers a couple of interesting pairings, one of which takes place tonight. Already this season, Syracuse stretched their legs in fine fashion against perenial Ivy League champ and NCAA tournament team Penn. They also lost a close game to Missouri Valley power Wichita State. Yes, the Shockers are a legit power this year, and the MVC is clearly one of the top conferences in the country right now. If the Shockers don't make the Sweet 16, this season will be a disappointment for them, and actually, I thought the close game against them was a good sign for Syracuse.

Tonight, Syracuse gets another good early season test against Oklahoma State on a "neutral" floor. No, they're not leaving New York state, let's not get crazy. But Madison Square Garden isn't the Dome, and I know some OSU fans headed to the game tonight. JamesOn Curry is the Cowboys' nominal leader. He plays the most minutes for them, and is one of their go-to guys. He's a good overall offensive player, distributes the ball fairly well, and is better than average protecting it. Their best player though is Mario Boggan. Boggan is highly efficient on the offensive end, with an effective field goal percentage over 64%. He's aggressive enough to take advantage of his offensive efficiency, and he does a nice job on the offensive glass. The guy who needs to step up for them to become a real contender is David Monds. Monds is also very efficient on offense, but he takes only a peripheral role in the offense. He is the team's best rebounder and a decent shot blocker. If he gets more aggressive, he could really lift them.

The Cowboys will provide a test, but Syracuse should win this game. They play smothering defense, especially on the interior, and are second in the NCAA in percentage of opponents' shot attempts blocked. They also collect more than their fair share of steals because of the length and athleticism they feature around the perimeter of their vaunted 2-3 zone. Darryl Watkins doesn't play a ton of minutes, but he is a game changing shot blocker when he's on the court. Watkins blocks nearly one out of every five two-point shot attempts while he's on the floor. Terrance Roberts and Matt Gorman are good shot blockers as well.

Offensively, the Orange are not nearly as efficient. Eric Devendorf is the team's go-to scorer. He's the only player on the team who uses more than 25% of the team's possessions while he is on the floor. Unfortunately, he's also the team's least efficient offensive player. The team will function better on offense this year if Devendorf surrenders a little more of the scoring burden to Demetris Nichols and freshman Paul Harris.

As much as the team's offense remains a work in progress, Syracuse should win tonight thanks to its excellent defense. I'm predicting 75-70 tonight in the Garden, and then a month of easy wins as the 'Cuse gets ready for Pitt, a month from now under the Dome.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Rex Grossman -- Freakin' Exhausting

As much as I'd like to believe Rex Grossman can play his way out of this funk, and as much as I doubt Brian Griese is the answer, Griese can't be worse than Grossman has been. And as much as I've supported Grossman, and argued that he should remain the Chicago Bears' starting quarterback, I'm too exhausted to keep it up. Watching him play QB the last couple of weeks has just worn me down. This past Sunday against Minnesota was the proverbial straw breaking my back, and I'm too tired to even really know what this means for the Bears this season.

The problem, of course, is that Griese isn't very good. If the Bears go to Griese they'll know what they're going to get at QB. That would consist of a lot of short completions, a shortage of touchdowns, and more turnovers than most people realize. Still, that's a heck of a lot better than Rex. With this defense, the emerging running game, and the most dangerous special teams around, that's probably enough to win a play-off game, maybe even two. But I doubt it's enough to win a Super Bowl.

On the other hand, Good Rex adds the extra element the Bears will need to beat the best in the AFC. Bad Rex probably means one and done in the post-season. So, what to do? Do you play Rex, hope he gets his act together, and compete for the shiny football? Or do you play Griese, avoid potential embarrassment in the play offs, but pretty much kiss championship dreams goodbye? Like I said, I'm so tired of watching Bad Rex, that I'm too exhausted to make up my mind.

Regardless of who plays quarterback the rest of the way, someone needs to figure out who replaced Ron Turner with a 13 year old kid and his Madden '06. Early in the season the Bears had success spreading the ball around to a mix of wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs. Now the passing game consists of an inordinate number of bombs, Desmond Clark is targeted about once a week, and the fullback might as well not be on the field. These short passes help a quarterback establish rhythm and confidence, which helps ensure that when he does go deep, he doesn't over or under throw his target by ten yards. Also, the Bears do a nice job running on third and short. They don't do a nice job passing in those situations. I throw things at my TV when the Bears have third and three or less and don't run the ball. Please, Ron, don't make me break my TV.

The passing game is out of synch in every way. Grossman sucks, the receivers get no separation, the line still struggles with complex rush schemes, the tight end and running backs have vanished, and the offensive coordinator has lost the plot. I suppose it's pointless to speculate about Griese because the coaches have made it clear that Grossman will start at least one more game. Honestly, I hope Rex looks great, and the Bears enter the play-offs with an offense that compliments their defense and special teams. But another week like this one from Rex, and I'll be begging for Griese just so I don't inflict harm on myself while watching the Bears suffer another home play-off loss.

Friday, December 01, 2006

It's Bear Weather

As I write, wind is whipping, temperatures are falling, and snow is accumulating here in Chicago. And these conditions are expected to continue off and on throughout the weekend. I don't need advanced statistical analysis to tell me that the Bears are going to beat up on those dome sissies, the Minnesota Vikings. It's Bear weather. Every time I see these conditions, I picture a convoy of Bear defenders headed down the sideline as the snow starts falling, the crowd starts screaming, and the Los Angeles Rams start packing their bags for the off season, while the Bears start packing for the Super Bowl.

Seriously though, who could ask for a better welcome home for the road weary Bears? Before the season, winning two of three on this road trip seemed unlikely. After the debacle against the Dolphins, avoiding a sweep on this road trip would have seemed like a victory. And yet, because the Bears lost the last of the three games, and did so with their biggest question mark looking like, well, a question mark, Chicagoans are acting like the sky is falling. The Bears just went on the road against three straight teams with winning records, won two of the games, and only lost in what was essentially a toss-up game. The defense is playing well, the running game is waking up, and Ron Turner will have five weeks of relatively low pressure outings in which to figure out how to play to Rex Grossman's strengths and stay away from his weaknesses.

Speaking of which, the Vikings actually pose a tricky match-up for the Bears. On defense, they stifle the run, but are vulnerable to the pass. In other words, the Bears' best bet is to put the ball in Rex's hands, and ask him to win the game. This concept probably just made some of you throw up a little bit in your mouths,but this may be just what Rex needs.

There shouldn't be too much pressure to put points on the board because the Vikings offense shouldn't have much luck against the Bears' D. The Vikings offense ranks behind the Bears in overall efficiency, and in both passing and rushing efficiency. Grossman has struggled, but Brad Johnson has been just as unproductive and inefficient. Johnson has eight touchdowns and 10 picks, plus he's fumbled eight times and lost three of them. Plus, while Chester Taylor has received a fair amount of attention for his gaudy rushing yardage, the Vikings rushing attack has been one of the least efficient overall in all of football. Taylor has nearly as many fumbles as touchdowns.

Combine the Vikings' offensive ineptitude with the Bears' heavy advantage on special teams, and you have the recipe for some very short fields. The Bears still have the most efficient punt return unit in the game, and the Vikes are only average covering punts.

So, Rex should have short fields to work with, little pressure to put a ton of points on the board, but the team will need him to play well if they're going to move the ball at all on offense. It's a test for Rex, but one he should easily pass. Grossman seems like a streaky kid, and this may be exactly the game he needs to get his confidence and rhythm back. And if he can't pass this test, then as much as I don't like Brian Griese, it may really be time to consider a change.