Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Colts' Scariest Player

Yesterday I boldly predicted that the Bears could stop, or at least contain, Peyton Manning. I'll probably be really pissed that I wrote that Sunday evening when I'm curled up fetal on my couch. Nevertheless, I'm pretty confident in how the Bears match-up with Manning and the Colts' passing game. As for the Colts' running game, not so much.

The Colts had the sixth most efficient running attack in football to compliment the league's best passing attack. They use that passing attack to set up their running attack. The Colts often spread Dallas Clark and their other tight ends out into the slot. Most teams respond by sending on their nickle defense. Then the Colts up the tempo. The defense is trapped in a nickle alignment while the Colts' no-huddle offense runs through them with a variety of traps, draws and delays. It has certainly appeared from watching the Bears, especially against the Seahawks in the playoffs, that they're vulnerable to this strategy.

The Bears ranked as the number five run defense during the regular season. Most observers of the team, however, felt that their best days came early in the season before Mike Brown and Tommie Harris were lost for the year. So, can the Bears' run defense answer the bell in the Super Bowl? The Bears' defensive tackles have continued to play well against the run all year. Tank Johnson and Ian Scott is as strong a duo against runs between the guards as the Bears can put on the field, even when Harris is healthy. Right defensive ends Alex Brown and Mark Anderson have held up fairly well, as well. And, left outside linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer is at his best playing the run.

The problem is that Hillenmeyer may spend most of the Super Bowl standing on the sidelines because of the Colts' spread out, no huddle attack. Thus, one of the Bears' best run stoppers is absent. Also, teams have had success attacking Adewale Ogunleye, a defensive weakness that may be even more exposed without Hillenmeyer backing up Ogunleye at the point of attack. And, when teams have attacked the edge on Lance Briggs's side, they've often been able to overpower him at the point of attack. So, their are holes in the Bears' run D.

The good news is that the Colts have enjoyed their greatest success running between the guards and behind left tackle Tarik Glenn, which is right into the strength of the Bears' defense. The bad news is that the Colts have been pretty good running the ball in just about any direction, and if they test Chicago's run defense, they're likely to find its flaws, especially if they succeed in keeping the Bears' nickle package on the field.

And here's where it gets really scary. The Colts' scariest player is just 5'11", 215 pounds. Joseph Addai was the NFL's fifth most productive and sixth most efficient runner this year. Twice this year, the Bears faced comparably productive runners. Tiki Barber carried the ball 19 times for 141 yards against Chicago. Stephen Jackson carried 18 times for 81 yards and a touchdown. And, Addai is actually more consistent than either Barber or Jackson. In fact, he's the most consistent back in football. He gained 1,074 yards and seven touchdowns on just 226 carries. He led the league with a 62% success rate, which represents a player's consistency, measured by successful running plays (the definition of success being different based on down and distance) divided by total running plays.

I'm having nightmares about Briggs racing back into coverage against Clark or Ben Utecht, who often line up in the slot, as Addai takes a delayed hand off around the left end. Before the night is over, I suspect Addai will hurt the Bears badly. Of course, the Bears beat both the Giants and the Rams despite giving up good to great days to New York's and St. Louis's runners. Addai's presence and the Colts' deceptively deadly running game hardly spell doom for Chicago. But if anyone was wondering what's making my stomach churn waiting for Sunday, now you know, its a little rookie from LSU.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hidden Match-up Advantages

Asked to name all the times the Chicago Bears will have an advantage of Sunday, one of the least mentioned times would be when Peyton Manning drops back to pass. And yet, the Bears match up quite well with the Colts' passing attack. More over, it's a match-up the Bears must win if they're to win this ball game.

Peyton Manning had a phenomenal season. His DPAR (defense-adjusted performance above replacement), which measures his overall contributions, was 75% higher than the next highest quarterback in football. His DVOA (defense-adjusted value above average), which measures his efficiency, was 50% higher than the next best quarterback in the league. He completed 65% of his passes for 4,305 yards and 31 touchdowns, and he only turned the ball over 10 times all year.

And Manning was not alone in his excellence. Reggie Wayne was the most productive, and third most efficient wide receiver in the NFL. He caught 63% of the passes thrown his way for 1,314 yards and nine touchdowns. Marvin Harrison was the next most productive, and fifth most efficient wide out. He caught 64% of the passes directed at him for 1,366 yards and 12 touchdowns. Among running backs, Joseph Addai was the fifth most productive, and fourth most efficient, threat out of the backfield in football. He caught 80% of the passes targeted for him for 325 yards and a touchdown. Not to be left out, the Colts' trio of tight ends did their fair share as well. Ben Utecht, Dallas Clark, and Bryan Fletcher were 16th, 17th and 18th respectively among tight ends in overall productivity. Fletcher ranked third at the position in efficiency. Combined, the three caught 63% of the balls thrown their way for 946 yards and six touchdowns. Everywhere you look there are weapons. And the line gave the passing attack time to operate, ranking second in the league in lowest adjusted sack rate allowed.

But in the playoffs the Colts' passing attack has faltered just the slightest bit. Manning has thrown two touchdowns and six picks. He's been sacked five times. And, Clark suddenly has replaced Wayne and Harrison as Manning's most reliable receiver, and that is a good thing for opponents. There's just enough sign of weakness to believe that the right defense can win the aerial match-up with the Colts (See Ravens, Baltimore).

And, the Bears are the right defense. The Bears had the second pass defense in the league, behind only Baltimore, who dominated Manning in the Ravens' play-off match-up with the Colts. The Bears led the league in shutting down opponents' tight ends and were third against opposing running backs. It's not hard to see why. The Bears have unique speed at linebacker. Also, the Bears were second in the league at stopping teams' second wide receivers and sixth against third, fourth and fifth receivers. Again, it's not hard to see why. Ricky Manning, Jr. is excellent for a nickle back, and whichever starter -- Peanut Tillman or Nathan Vasher -- doesn't draw the opponent's number one, usually has a match-up advantage. The team's only weakness is defending truly elite number one wide outs. The Bears rank only 21st in the league in stopping opponents' number one wide receivers.

The Bears' pass defense is outstanding because it takes away an opponent's options. They may not have a true shut down corner for an opponent's top guy, and the scheme doesn't provide a ton of protection is Vasher or Tillman are over matched. But the team's depth and speed reduces opposing QBs to looking in only one direction. The Colts thrive on spreading the field and spreading the ball -- Clark's emergence in the playoffs is a sign that this has been especially true this post season. That plays right into the Bears' hands as a pass defense.

Make no mistake about it: the Colts' passing attack is outstanding, the best in the league. But the Bears' pass defense is also outstanding. Despite the national media's coronation of Manning and the Colts' aerial assault, this is a match-up the Bears can win. More importantly, this is a match up the Bears must win. The Bears' rushing attack can control the clock and limit the Colts' chances, but it won't mean a thing if the Colts can strike fast and at will when they do have the ball.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Biggest Fish in the Littlest Pond

One of the recurring stories of the next week, and indeed a story that has already been overplayed in the previous week, is the dominance of the AFC over the NFC. The AFC's superiority is the reason why the Colts, with a worse record and much worse scoring differential than the Bears, are overwhelming favorites to win the Super Bowl. I think any AFC playoff team, except possibly the Chiefs and Jets, would have been favored over the Bears.

The AFC was 40-24 in interconference match-ups this season. That's the second best margin ever. But that doesn't necessarily tell us anything about what will happen in the Super Bowl. The most lopsided season in interconference history was two years ago: the 2004 season culminating in Super Bowl XXXIX. In the single most dominant season in the history of the AFC, the Patriots edged out the Eagles by only three points in the Super Bowl.

Of course, a single occurrence proves nothing. In Super Bowl XII, the Cowboys beat the Broncos by a healthy 27-10 margin. That game capped the 1977 season, in which the AFC had a nearly .700 winning percentage head-to-head. It was one of the four most unbalanced seasons in the history of conference play. But that game came in the midst of a streak during which the AFC won eight of nine Super Bowls while also besting the NFC head-to-head in nine straight years.

So, there is some evidence on each side. Some evidence, such as the AFC's dominance in the 1970's suggests that we should pay attention to the conference's head-to-head records. Other evidence, however, such as Super Bowl XII, St. Louis's win in Super Bowl XXXIV, or the seven NFC teams that won Super Bowls during the 80's and 90's in years in which the AFC won the head-to-head battle, suggests that interconference records don't mean much.

The truth is, there has been nothing cyclical about the balance of power between the conferences, and yet dominance in the Super Bowl has been cyclical. For three decades now the AFC has owned the NFC when it comes to interconference play. The AFC has had the better record in 22 of the 31 seasons since the merger. But the NFC has won 17 of the 31 Super Bowls.

The superiority of the AFC will be a common story this week. It's an easy way to say something about the game, look like your providing insight, but avoid any actual in-depth analysis. Don't let the simple story fool you. Like Tom Brady's clutchness or Peyton Manning's inability to win "the big one," analytical story lines that fell by the wayside in the conference championship game, the balance of power between the conferences is a red herring. Those who try to glean something from the AFC's dominance this year are wasting their time. Only actual analysis of the two teams involved in this specific game will shed any light on the proceedings. So, for the rest of the week, we'll leave the obvious story lines to the highly paid columnists, and focus solely on breaking down key match-ups between the Bears and the Colts, who, unlike the NFC and AFC, will actually meet on the field in Super Bowl XLI.

Friday, January 26, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

There may be some local law that I'm violating by writing about something other than the Bears. But when the home team puts the hurt to the NBA's best team (they're #1 or #1A depending upon how you feel about the Suns), that deserves some attention.

The Bulls out hustled and outplayed the Mavericks early, and opened a big lead in the first quarter. But for a brief scare (scare is probably too strong a word) in the fourth, the Bulls were never even challenged.

The Mavs entered the game on an 8 game winning streak. They had won 21 out of their last 22 games. Their 7.33 scoring margin is third in the NBA behind the Suns and Spurs, and they're second in the league in scoring margin over the last 10 games. They are third in the league in offensive efficiency, and sixth in defensive efficiency. The Mavs are a very good basketball team.

And yet the Bulls manhandled them. The Bulls' starting five was plus-15 in their first stint together to start the game. Ben Gordon had 12 first quarter points and Luol Deng had eight. The Bulls led 23-6 before the Mavs started to chip away. But just when the Mavs climbed to within single digits mid-way through the second quarter, the Bulls stretched the lead back out. This time, starters Gordon, Deng and Ben Wallace, were joined by Chris Duhon and Andres Nocioni.

One of the keys to the Bulls success last night, and this season in general, is that they have nine legitimate contributors. Wallace, PJ Brown and Tyrus Thomas have become a productive-enough front court rotation, and its one that rebounds and plays excellent defense. The forward combo of Deng and Nocioni provides a little bit of everything, and their aggressive drives produce most of the Bulls' easy baskets. And in the back court, Gordon has become a quality scoring threat, Kirk Hinrich remains the team's "veteran" leader, and Duhon and Thabo Sefolosha provide depth that most teams would be envious of.

Twice more the Mavs would make runs. In the third quarter the Bulls starters posted an 8-0 run late in the quarter to reestablish a double digit lead. In the fourth, the Mavs crept within three late, before the Bulls starting five once again put the game out of reach with five unanswered points, and then a 10-2 run.

Since the reinsertion of Brown and Gordon into the starting line-up, that group has been playing well. Brown looks much more comfortable, following up a double digit performance against Atlanta with 12 points last night on 6 of 11 shooting. Brown is now +10.8 per 48 minutes, the best among Chicago's regulars. Gordon has become a legitimate NBA scorer. Efforts like last night's 30 point outing are becoming routine. Among the starters, only Wallace didn't score in double digits last night, and he had 17 rebounds.

The Bulls are pushing the ball successfully, shooting earlier in the shot clock than their opponents, which is when teams tend to have their highest effective field goal percentage. In the Bulls' case, their eFG% in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock is .534. They're under 49% at every other segment of clock usage. So, it's a good thing that the team is now taking 41% of its shots early in the shot clock.

Quality depth, a consistent starting five, aggressively pushing the ball -- these are just a few reasons why the Bulls are emerging as the team to beat in the Eastern Conference. Now, that's sort of like being the team to beat in the NFC, but look where that has gotten the Bears. (See, now I've fulfilled my civic duty to mention the Bears).

The Bulls have the best scoring margin in the East by a mile. They've done this mostly by winning blowouts. They're 11-5 in games decided by 15 points or more. Research has shown that blowing out opponents, and not getting blown out yourself, is a much better indicator of a team's quality than its record in close games, which are often decided by luck. Their blowout flow from their defense. They rank second in the league whether you measure by field goal percentage against, or defensive efficiency.

There are plenty of teams who can derail the Bulls in the East. Washington, Cleveland, Detroit, Miami, maybe even Orlando or Toronto. Always bet the field against an individual team. But right now the Bulls are the best team in the Eastern Conference, and you saw all the reasons why last night.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

What A Bear Can Learn From A Fish

Bill Parcells retired this week, but his impact on the NFL will continue long after he's coached his last game. In fact, his shadow will loom large over Super Bowl XLI between the Bears and Colts. Why will Fred Miller, Adewale Ogunleye, and John Tait be among the five highest paid Bears on Super Bowl Sunday? Why are Tarik Glenn, Ryan Diem, and Dwight Freeney among the highest paid Colts? Because in 1981 Bill Parcells unleashed a new concept on the NFL: the blindside rusher. The impact of this move and the various counter moves attempted by Giants' opponents on personal decisions and on-field strategy are immense, and detailed in Michael Lewis's book, Blind Side. No question Parcells benefited from picking the right guy, Lawrence Taylor, to plug into his new scheme. But teams pay edge rushers, and the unnaturally large, athletic men meant to stop them, huge sums of money today because of how Parcells changed the game.

But it's another moment from Parcells' career that I look to as I consider how the Bears might beat the offensive juggernaut Indianapolis Colts. In 1990, Bill Parcells took a 13-3 Giants team into the Super Bowl. And yet, NO ONE respected the squad. The Giants finished that year among the league's dregs in points scored. Ottis Anderson led the team in rushing, but didn't top 1,000 yards. No one on the team had 30 catches. They had a quarterback controversy on their hands, with the inexperienced Jeff Hostetler retaining the reigns after collecting 614 yards and three touchdowns.

Meanwhile, arrayed against the might of this successful, but underwhelming Giants squad, was a STRONG Buffalo Bills team. 1990 was the best team of the Bills' run atop the AFC. They too went 13-3. They scored 95 points in the two pre-Super Bowl playoff games, including winning the AFC Championship by 48. Thurmon Thomas topped 1800 yards from scrimmage, and had 13 touchdowns. Jim Kelly had the highest passer rating of his career. Andre Reed and James Lofton were unguardable on the outside. The Bills were favored by more than a touchdown.

Sound familiar? If you know how this turns out, you're a happy Bears fan right now. Of course, I just asked one of my law school buddies if he saw the obvious parallels with Super Bowl XXV, and he replied, "Dude, I don't remember that game; I was eight." Ouch. That's what I get for trying my hand at journalism before going to law school. So, for those of you born after 1980: The Giants controlled the clock for 40 minutes and won 20-19. They ran the ball 40 times for 172 yards. While the Bills averaged nearly a yard and a half more per play than the Giants, the Giants limited the Bills opportunities by playing mistake free, ball control football. They ran nearly 20 more plays than the AFC champs.

These Bears are better than those Giants. And these Colts aren't as good as those Bills. The Bills led the NFL in scoring that year and were sixth in the league in scoring defense. While this year's Colts were also the best in the league on offense, their defense was in the bottom five to ten units no matter how you measure. Both the 1990 Giants and 2006 Bears were one of the top two defenses in football in the relevant season. And each was in the bottom half of the league offensively. But the Giants entered the Super Bowl without star quarterback Phil Simms. No remaining weapon on that team compared to the Bears' two-headed rushing attack.

All next week, I'll look at this game match-up by match-up. But for now, if anyone tries to tell you that the Colts will destroy the Bears on Super Bowl Sunday, remind them of Bill Parcells finest coaching hour.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Kibbles and Bits

The urge to begin analyzing every aspect of the Bears/Colts match-up is nearly overwhelming. But we have two long weeks of build-up, so it's essential that we pace ourselves. It is only great will power, and the fact that I'm somewhat swamped and afraid I'm going to flunk out of work, that empowers me to show restraint. Rather than begin the obsessive analysis of the game, I'll mention only three small bits of newsiness today.

First, nothing says class about an organization more than waiting eagerly to find out whether a judge will let your star defensive tackle leave the state. A Cook County judge put Tank Johnson on home confinement until he could determine whether Johnson violated the terms of his probation when he was charged with 10 weapons-related counts in Lake County earlier this season. A Lake County judge has already ruled that Johnson can travel with the team while his case their is pending. Under Cook County's order, however, Johnson can only leave his home to travel to a game or practice, and must return home immediately without making any stops. It's not clear whether that contemplates travelling to Miami. Travel restrictions on probationers are fairly common, entirely legal, and pretty much at the discretion of the presiding judge. We'll find out today whether Johnson will be anchoring the middle of the Bears' D-line, or anchored to his couch.

[EDIT/UPDATE: The judge has decided to allow Johnson to travel with the team, apparently without any further restrictions. I still suspect the Bears will keep a close eye on the Tank. Apparently crucial to the decision, that the travel was for a legitimate work reason (do you think the judge asked for evidence to corroborate Johnson's story that he was a member of some organization that was having a crucial meeting in the Miami area?), and that Johnson has complied with the terms of his house confinement up until now. Good Tank. Sit. Stay. Now kill the quarterback. NO! Not literally! Oy.]

Another story making the rounds today that doesn't fit into the warm and fuzzy category when it comes to Super Bowl hype is that Bears' coach Lovie Smith may be headed to Dallas to replace Bill Parcells. Smith is underpaid for the market, and seems to be fairly far apart from team management on a contract extension. Smith is from Texas, and would seem to be a hot commodity. Smith does have one year left on his contract, and I've heard some speculation that the Bears would gladly take a couple of first round draft picks in exchange for Smith before naming Ron Rivera head coach. While this story may give hope to Cowboy fans, and leverage to Smith, I doubt Smith will be replacing The Tuna. The Cowboys have spent several drafts targeting players specially suited for their 3-4 defensive scheme. Smith's greatest asset is the 4-3 based scheme he brings with him. I don't think the Cowboys will bring in a coach who forces them to abandon the talent they've been collecting over the past few years. Tomorrow, I'll explain why I do think Parcells is a relevant discussion point for this Super Bowl. (We call that a tease, in the business.)

Finally, I was delighted to hear that 57% of Americans voted to give today's Just Shut Up Award on Mike and Mike to ESPN's "football experts," all of whom picked the Saints to beat the Bears handily. It doesn't fix the problem that the so-called experts pushed by the mainstream media are generally clueless, but it was nice of someone at the World Wide Leader to at least admit it.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Super Bowl Shufflin'

There'll be plenty of time for analysis, both of the Saints game and the Colts game, in the LONG weeks to come. Right now, time and work are conspiring to abridge my work. That's probably for the best as far as you, the readers, are concerned. But, in case any of you are inexplicably waiting on my impressions, I'll offer a few observations now, and I promise a full analysis lies just a day away.

The defense responded in a big way. They heard all the talk of getting gashed up the middle, and answered. In fact, they were stout enough that the Saints gave up on the run entirely. I'm not saying the Saints were right to do that, but nevertheless, the D accomplished its mission. The one thing that surprised me was Reggie Bush's speed. I didn't expect him to hurt the Bears catching the ball out of the backfield because the Bears' linebackers and safeties have done a great job in coverage on running backs all season. But he killed us, even beyond that really well designed pick play that went for 85 yards.

Marques Colston also hurt us, but overall the Saints' offense didn't have too many chances to punish the Bears, in large part because the Bears' offense, especially the rushing attack, came through when they had to. The only time the Saints slowed the Bears' rushing attack is when the Bears got cute, and used draws or delayed handoffs. The Saints penetrated and disrupted those plays. But when the Bears ran straight at the Saints, the Bears' front five manhandled New Orleans.

Also, Ron Turner has learned to minimize the damage when Rex Grossman is off. The Bears ran the ball two-thirds of the time Sunday. Grossman didn't kill the Bears early when he was cold, and got hot just long enough to help the Bears to one score. The Bears will probably need a little more than that against Indy, but that was a 25 point beating administered in the NFC Championship Game with BAD Rex on the field.

I took nominations on what to talk about today around my family room yesterday. The Official Wife of the Ron Karkovice Fan Club, aka The Redhead, suggested I analyze why every touchdown seemed to be scored by someone doing a somersault, be it Bernard Berrian, Thomas Jones, or most conspicuously, Reggie Bush. Bush's somersault didn't bother me, but his pointing routine before that certainly did. I was glad to hear he apologized after the game. Young men get carried away sometimes in the heat of the moment. It says more about his character that he recognized his mistake than if he had never taunted at all. Now, don't do it again.

Hideki Matt Suey's wife suggested I discuss the bizarre referee track pants. Now, for regular football fans, the odd new officials' uniforms are old news. But for some of the people watching Sunday, this was a first exposure. Some in the family room suggested they were borrowed from the closet of an old lady in Boca Raton. She'll need them back to go to dinner at the club tonight. Others suggested the refs moonlight as exotic dancers, and that their pants are actually of the tear away variety, much like those basketball players wear to warm-ups. Regardless, the new unis look terrible, but we knew this. More importantly, the refs got all the tough calls right yesterday. They deserve credit.

One other note on The Redhead. She had to be temporarily banned from the room yesterday. With the Bears leading 16-0 she declared that she felt sorry for the Saints, and that the Bears should just let them score once. Following Drew Brees's touchdown strike to Marques Colston, we booted her from the room until the Saints' second touchdown, during which she was absent, proved conclusively that the first had not, in fact, been her fault.

The announcers were, of course, annoying yesterday. Troy Aikman spent the entire game being shocked that Cedric Benson was getting as many carries as Thomas Jones. Benson averaged more carries per game than Jones from week 10 on. Way to do your homework, Troy. At least the experts, all of whom picked the Saints, should be amusing today as they try to explain why they bought, without reservation, into the warm, fuzzy story of the Saints even though the Bears had been a superior team all season.

Finally, I'm enjoying watching the various Packers' fans with whom I'm in direct or indirect contact enter a flurry of resentful, irrational activity. So far, I've heard them explain that the Bears are mortal locks to lose by double digits, explain away the team's Super Bowl berth as the result of "an historically bad NFC," and refer to Grossman as Mex Grossman because QB'ing the Bears is a job that no American would want. Their angst merely adds to my pleasure.

For now, let's enjoy the moment. Two weeks of obsessive analysis begins tomorrow. Just remember this in the meantime: Bears' yards per carry on runs between the guards -- first in the NFL; Colts' yards allowed per carry on runs between the guards -- 32nd in the NFL.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Insert Lame Saints Pun Here

When the Saints come marching . . . oh, never mind. Though it appears to be required this week, I can't bring myself to engage in the lame pun-ditry involving the Saints and references to New Orleans food, music and culture. I'm just too freakin' excited. I mean, holy crap, I'm wound up. Last weekend, I spent the entire game rocking slowly in my living room chair. This week I may have to investigate how my insurance policy handles ulcer surgeries.

It's just that we, Bears fans, have rarely been in this exact position. I guess some people felt the 1984 Bears had a chance against San Francisco after a magical win at Washington, but I never felt like the Bears were going to the Super Bowl that year. Conversely, in 1985, I never doubted that the Bears would dominate the Rams. Again in 1988, it was clear to most that an overachieving Bears team, with no healthy quarterbacks, could never beat the mighty 49ers. So, this is the first time the Bears sit one game from the Super Bowl, and I feel a mix of hope and anxiety.

These are two very closely balanced teams. Though the Bears were three games better in the standings, the Bears played their best football at the beginning of the season. That Bears team, from before the Arizona game, would handle the Saints, even on their best day. But that Bears team ceased to exist when Mike Brown and Tommie Harris went down. Still, the team that remains is at least as good as the Saints, who are excellent in some facets, and deeply flawed in others.

When the Saints have the ball the two teams will pit strength versus strength. No, the Bears defense is not as good as it was before losing two stars, but it's still one of the better in football. New Orleans had the 4th most efficient passing attack and 10th best rushing attack in the NFL this season. Drew Brees was one of the top two quarterbacks in the NFC. He completed 65% of his passes for 4,322 yards and 26 touchdowns. He did turn the ball over 13 times. His best receiver was Marques Colston, who caught 61% of the passes directed his way, for 1,038 yards and eight touchdowns. The Saints also got big contributions from Devery Henderson (59% completion, 745 yards, five touchdowns) and Joe Horn (61% completion, 679 yards, four touchdowns). Then there's running back Reggie Bush, who caught 73% of the passes directed his way, for 748 yards and two touchdowns. You get the idea. Lots of weapons.

The Bears had the 2nd best pass defense in the league this year. People have lamented the recent lack of a pass rush, but the Bears compiled that ranking despite not getting much pressure all season. When you adjust the Bears' sacks for the number of pass attempts by their opponents, the Bears rank only 21st in the league rushing the passer. The Bears' pass defense is keyed by their ability to cover people. You can put away Henderson and Horn. The Bears ranked second in the league stopping #2 wide receivers, and sixth stopping #3 wide outs. And, you can take a breath about Bush. The Bears' excellent linebackers and safeties combined to post the 3rd best numbers in football stopping running backs in the passing game. But this whole game could hinge on the Bears' ability to control Colston. The Bears were just 21st in the league against top receivers, and Colston has become a true #1 as a rookie. Peanut Tillman did an excellent job when the Bears asked him to take away the New York Giants' Plaxico Burress, who many see as a model for Colston. The Bears need Tillman to do it again, but make no mistake, Colston is already a far better player than Burress.

Of course, if you stop the pass, you still need to deal with New Orleans' top-10 rushing attack. Deuce McAllister, once one of the most overrated running backs in football, returned from his knee injury a new, and much better back. He gained 1,061 yards on 245 carries, and 11 touchdowns. But most impressively for the former boom or bust specialist, he was seventh in the league in success rate, which measures a back's ability to consistently get the yards his team needs -- four yards on first down, three yards on third and two, etc. Conversely, Bush, who gained 559 yards on 154 carries, ranked 39th in success rate. As dangerous as Bush is in the passing game, he's a serious risk in the ground game. I doubt you'll see Bush carry the ball often as the Saints try to avoid third and long situations. So, it'll be a lot of McAllister straight ahead. Why do I say straight ahead? More than half of New Orleans' runs this year were between the guards. And, that's where they enjoyed their most success, ranking 10th in the league in yards per carry on those types of runs. Of course, that's where teams attacked Chicago most often this year too. Forty-two percent of runs against the Bears targeted the middle of the line. Fortunately, it's a myth that the Bears' vulnerability lies up the middle. The Bears ranked fifth in the entire league stopping runs up the middle.

No matter how well the Bears' defense plays, and unless Colston explodes I suspect they'll play pretty well, they're going to give up some points to the Saints' offense. The Saints are just too good on that side of the ball. So, the Bears' offense will need to do some producing of its own. When the Bears have the ball you'll see the 18th ranked offense face off against the 19th ranked defense. Scintillating. The Bears' offensive strength is their ninth ranked rushing attack. Thomas Jones was 11th among running backs in overall production, and the 19th most efficient back. Cedric Benson was 18th in overall production, and 10th in efficiency. Together, they combined for 1,857 yards and 12 touchdowns. Most of that damage came between the guards, although the Bears actually had a better inside/outside split than the Saints. But the Bears led the league in yards per carry between the guards, where the Saints are only average defensively. Plus, the Bears also enjoyed success running off-tackle behind John Tait. Meanwhile, the Saints ranked 20th in run defense and were 25th against off-tackle runs to their right. In other words, the Bears can use John Tait to attack the Saints' pass rush specialist Will Smith to great effect.

The potential for the Bears to move the ball on the ground means they won't have to rely too heavily on their 23rd ranked passing attack. Rex Grossman finished the season with 3,052 yards and 23 touchdowns, but he also turned the ball over 25 times. He played pretty well last week, but was terrible on third down. The Bears should minimize his exposure, even against the Saints poor pass defense. The Saints were only 22nd in the league on pass defense, and a miserable 32nd defending opponents' top receivers. But the Bears' top wide out is the mediocre Muhsin Muhammad, who caught only 51% of the passes thrown his way this year. No, the key for the Bears when they have the ball will be to stick the ball in the capable arms of Jones and Benson as often as possible.

A run heavy attack will have the added benefit of minimizing the chances of Brees connecting with Colston for a big play. I'm guessing the game plan works. The Bears run the ball, "stay on schedule" offensively, control the clock, and avoid the big play largely by limiting New Orleans' opportunities. The Bears advance to the Super Bowl 20-17. Now, I'm going to go throw up.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Tale of Two Faces

I flipped the Sun-Times over this morning, and was struck like Shaun Alexander on 4th and 1. On one side of my paper stood Barack Obama. On the other, Rex Grossman. Oh, how their worlds are about to collide. Don't worry, I'll explain.

Once upon a time, I was a "real" sports reporter for a short time. I got bored. Also, I was covering the Yankees a lot and John Wetteland scared the crap out of me. Anyway, when I decided sports reporting wasn't for me, I moved on to politics. I covered politics for a number of years, and it struck me that they were pretty much the same field. The only major difference is that politicians are better at thinking up consistently interesting things to say. Both elections and the legislative process are essentially sporting events. They qualify at least as much as pool or poker.

Anyway, within these parallel universes being a team's quarterback or a party's presidential candidate are essentially parallels. It's a bit of a stretch, but bear with me. Each is his team's leader, it's public face. And each comes under whithering attack, not only from opposing teams/parties, but also from his own team's fans.

Today, Obama is what Grossman was before the season. He's young (though older than Kennedy was when he became president), largely unknown, but highly promising. As I looked at Grossman, weighed down by criticism and expectation, and read Grossman's lament about the pressure and scrutiny directed at him, I felt a pang of sympathy for Obama.

Obama looks bouyant on his cover. He's ready to stand astride the free world as it's leader. I'm a big Obama fan, with much less reservation than I support Grossman. But if Obama emerges on the other end of this presidential campaign victorious, he will nevertheless be worn and weathered by the process he's about to go through.

The political punditry may be the one group capable of grinding up a man of character even more than sports wags. And let's be honest, the stakes for Obama and his "fans" are much higher than Grossman. Although, for one week at least I care more about Grossman's fate than Obama's.

Anyway, I know this is something of a stretch, but we're in the middle of a long tense week of Bears' anticipation, and I can't stomach spending any more of it deciding whether we saw good or bad Rex last Sunday. Besides, like I said, the comparison struck me when I looked at the front and back pages of my paper this morning. So, as Obama looks at his picture this morning, and contemplates a glorious future in the White House, I hope he also flips the paper over and contemplates Rex's roller coaster ride. Each must brace himself because their defining moments are upon them, and I'll sincerely be rooting for each to emerge forged into something greater, rather than beaten into submission.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

That's The Chicago Way, And That's How You Get Capone!

I'm not sure what's happening to my hometown. Once the rafters shook at Chicago Stadium when Jordan was introduced, or Wayne Mesmer sand the national anthem. Once Bears fans believed bad weather and Soldier Field posed too great an obstacle for even the mightiest foes. Today? Feh.

At the United Center on Saturday, as the Bulls laid waste to the Memphis Grizzlies, I watched in horror as the fans did the wave. THE WAVE!!! Come on, people. Have some dignity. The thing actually made three circuits of the building before 18,000 people noticed that a basketball game was taking place. Then, on Monday, as the Bulls ran the mighty San Antonio Spurs into submission, the fans reserved their loudest cheers for the water truck and donut races. As the buzzer sounded on a 99-87 win, fans booed because Ben Gordon's final bucket was a two, not a three, and thus failed to procure a free hamburger for the apparently starving masses in attendance. Most egregiously, 6,000 paying Bears fans failed to show up at Soldier Field Sunday for the Bears play-off game with the Seahawks.

I think the faltering enthusiasm, optimism, and sports IQ of Chicago sports fans is directly attributable to a toxic soup of sports columnists and sports talk radio. Chicago fans have always been irrationally upbeat about their sports fans. "Wait 'til next year," wasn't a cynical catch phrase for Cubs fans, it was an honest belief. In 1988, we were shocked when the 49ers, and the greatest pass-catch duo ever, actually managed to put points on the board despite the combined presence of the Monsters of the Midway and some genuine Bear weather.

In the last two days, I've listened to every voice on the radio tell me that: (A) the Bears aren't that good; (B) the Bears were lucky to win Sunday against an inferior opponent; (C) the Saints are an unstoppable force; and (D) the Bears are going to get rolled this coming weekend absent a miracle. One pundit declared that the Bears will be at a disadvantage at every single position on the field this weekend. Another said that he would take the Saints' defense over the Bears' defense at this point. If I'm contemplating spending money on tickets, or time in the elements, to support this team, why would I when all I'm hearing is that the Bears will leave me disappointed and heartbroken. For that I can sit at home, or better yet, head to a sports bar where I can have a few beers with my buddies while the game plays in the background.

The worst thing about it is that it's garbage. For once some honest optimism is warranted. The Bears now stand with the door to the Super Bowl, and even a Super Bowl win, thrown wide open. The Ravens, Chargers and Eagles -- three teams who had clear advantages against the Bears -- are all gone. Remaining are deeply flawed Saints and Colts teams, and Patriots team that the Bears played tough in Foxboro despite an appearance by Evil Rex. Even more importantly, this Bears team is actually really good.

There will be plenty of time to analyze this game between now and Sunday, but let's dispel a couple of myths. First, the Bears will have match-ups they can take advantage of. The Bears led the NFL in adjusted line yards on runs between the guards at 4.8 yards a run. That's 4.8 yards on every run up the middle, discounting any long runs that are more attributable to the running back's break away ability. The Bears are the league's best inside running team. The Saints were only middle of the pack stopping inside runs. This is just one match up the Bears can take advantage of.

In fact, the Saints D is pretty mediocre all around. It's certainly not on a par with the Bears' D, which is the second myth I've heard on the radio this week. Even weighted for late season performances to the point where the first four weeks of the season are basically ignored, the Bears were the second best defense in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders' DVOA metric. They were 2nd against the pass and 5th against the runs. The Saints, on the other hand rank 17th in weighted defensive DVOA. Their 22nd against the pass and 20th against the run. For all the talk about their defense coming on towards the end of the year, weighting for late season performance, the Saints are an average defense.

Which brings us to the biggest myth of all. The talking heads in town are building the Saints up into an unstoppable steam roller. They were 10-6, people. Win-loss is not the best predictor of future performance, but weighted DVOA is an excellent predictor. The Saints finished the regular season 8th in weighted DVOA. That would be four spots behind the Bears. The Saints' offense was 5th, their defense 19th, and their special teams 14th. Some juggernaut.

I'm not saying the Bears will beat the Saints. But they certainly can. I'll analyze the match-ups more later in the week, but my first reaction is that the Bears should be slightly favored. And yet the local media is covering this as if the mongol hordes are descending to destroy our hapless band of plucky villagers. With such pessimism, and lunacy, on the airwaves, is it any wonder that Chicagoans have become more cynical, less interested, and less intelligent about our teams?

Friday, January 12, 2007

Bears v. Seahawks 2: This Time It's Personal in 3D

Back on October 1 the Bears crushed the Seahawks as Rex Grossman completed 17 of 31 pass attempts for 232, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Those were heady days. Since then Rex's season has resembled a ride at Great America, and Bears fans have started popping open bottles of Pepto instead of Old Style while watching the games. Don't get me wrong, I love me some Great America, but a nice, steady performance from Rex would be a wonderful thing this weekend.

At the end of the year, the Bears were ranked 23rd in the league in passing efficiency (as judged by Football Outsiders' DVOA statistic). It seems hard to believe it wasn't lower. But Grossman had seven outstanding games this year, and another four that were good enough. His five bad games stand out because they were awful, and the Bears went 2-3 in those games. If Grossman is just "good enough," then the Bears are in good shape. But he can lose the game for the team. When it was all said and done, Grossman ranked 31st in the league in total contribution among quarterbacks (as measured by Football Outsiders' DPAR statistic). He completed only 55% of his pass attempts, but collected more than 3000 yards and 23 touchdowns. His big problem was a barrage of turnovers in those five bad games. In all he threw 20 picks, and lost five fumbles.

The Seahawks aren't very good in pass defense, so it doesn't make sense to shut Rex down completely. Rex will look to his top target, Muhsin Muhammad, plenty. The Seahawks struggle against #1 wide outs, and Muhammad is a good, big target. But the Seahawks struggle even more against tight ends. They rank 26th in the league defending the tight end, and the Bears have a good one. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner has had an up and down year, but he can't afford to miss this opportunity this week. Desmond Clark had one of the better years of any tight end in football. He caught 56% of the 80 passes thrown his way, for 626 yards and six touchdowns. Rex seems most comfortable when he is using Clark a lot, so the big man should see the ball early and often.

Of course, the Seahawks aren't very good defending the run either, and that is the heart of the Bears' attack. The Bears featured a top-10 rushing attack this year, combining the skills of Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. There should be plenty of carries for each back this weekend. Jones ranked 11th in DPAR and 19th in DVOA among running backs this season. He ran for more than 1200 yards on 296 runs. He scored six touchdowns and fumbled only once. Benson ranked 18th in DPAR and 10th in DVOA this season. In other words, he had fewer opportunities than Jones, but did more per carry. He ran for 647 yards on 157 carries, also scored six touchdowns, and did not fumble. Adjusted line yards (ALY) measures a teams success gaining yards near the line of scrimmage. It's sort of yards per carry, but discounting all the yards picked up down field by break away running backs. The Bears led the league in ALY on runs between the guards at 4.80. That's nearly five yards every time the Bears run the ball up the gut. The Seahawks were middle of the pack defending against these kinds of runs. Note #2 to Ron Turner: Benson, straight ahead, may be the Bears' best play this weekend.

The Seahawks actually had a considerably worse offensive season than the Bears. Not only did they finish well behind the Bears running the ball, they actually managed to finish behind the Bears passing. Matt Hasselbeck was barely better than Rex Grossman this season. He completed 57% of his pass attempts for 2,220 yards, 18 touchdowns, and 15 picks. The Bears do a great job of taking away a team's various weapons in the passing game. Their one weakness is in stopping an opponents #1 wide receiver. While the Bears rank in the top-5 against other wide outs, tight ends and running backs, they are only 21st against lead receivers. Fortunately, the Seahawks are kind of without one now. The team's best receiver, D.J. Hackett, is listed as questionable. So is their second best receiver, Darrell Jackson. The Seahawks are banged up at exactly the position they need to excel in order to take advantage of the Bears defense.

The most obvious difference between now and October 1st is that the Seahawks have Shaun Alexander (who, a friend recently pointed out, looks like the lost Barber brother). Alexander missed the first meeting with a flat tire. But he hasn't been running all that well on the spare anyway. Alexander finished 47th among NFL running backs in both DPAR and DVOA. He ran for 900 yards on 252 carries, scored seven touchdowns and fumbled five times. Seattle wasn't particularly effective running anywhere, but they had their most success on the 14% of running plays classified as sweeps to the left side. This was the most vulnerable area of the Bears run defense, as well, though the team still finished in the middle of the pack. There is some truth to the notion that a team should run at the speedy Lance Briggs, but he holds up well enough at the point of attack that it's not a glaring weakness.

The Bears are beatable this post season. Even the most deluded Bears' fan must realize this. But the Seahawks aren't the team to do it. Bears 23 - Seahawks 14.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

You Want Fries With That Big Mac?

It's now official, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), who have an inexplicable monopoly on determining immortality for the grand game, have rejected Mark McGwire. He didn't even come close to the 75% of the vote needed for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. Baseball writers may attribute their rejection to some kind of moral statement, but it's really just the embarrassed reaction of a bunch of children. Years ago, baseball's beat reporters failed to ask the obvious questions. The balls were juiced, not the players, right? They were sucked in by the glamour of the home run record chase, and stopped being reporters (if they ever were). Now, embarrassed by revelations of widespread steroid abuse, these same reporters have decided to punish everyone who made them drop their usual shield of cynicism because in their enthusiasm they were made to look foolish. Shortly before Jose Canseco's book was published, Dan Patrick confronted him on the air, and asked why Canseco would want to damage the game that made him rich. So exposing steroid use is damaging the game, but punishing suspected users is protecting it? That makes a lot of sense.

It would be one thing if we knew exactly who used. But we don't. We have no idea who was using. Maybe McGwire was pursuing an unfair advantage, or maybe every other guy he faced was also taking steroids, and it was, in fact, an entirely "level" playing field. I don't agree with the decision of Paul Ladewski to refuse to vote for anyone from the "Steroid Era," but at least there is more consistency to the Daily Southtown (ignoring the north side seven days a week) columnist's reasoning than his colleagues. McGwire doesn't belong because we suspect he was using. But Cal Ripken gets the 4th highest percentage of the vote in history. No one suspected Rafael Palmeiro was using until he was called out. Then he vehemently denied using, and we believed him, before he tested positive. Ripken played day in and day out, no matter how banged up he got. Isn't speedier recovery times one of the benefits of steroid use? Let me be perfectly clear, I'M NOT SUGGESTING RIPKEN USED STEROIDS. But we're idiots if we pretend to know for sure.

Moreover, I don't care. It appears that steroid use is bad for the body over the long haul. I'm actually sympathetic to the argument that if a professional wants to risk his long term health to earn millions today, then we should let him. But if the pros use, then high school kids use. And no matter how much they use, and no matter how much long term damage they'll tolerate, 99% of them will never play college or pro ball. Steroid use for high school athletes is crack for a pipe dream. So, we should control use among pros to protect kids. Great let's do it. But I don't care who used back in the pre-testing past. And, I don't think steroids do one bit of damage to the integrity of the game.

First off, the Hall is full of alcoholics, drug users, and bigots of all stripes, among others. The Hall of Fame voters are supposed to consider "a player's record of achievement, contributions to the teams, the game, their character, longevity, and sportsmanship." As far as character goes, the racists and wife beaters bother me a heck of a lot more than the steroid users. Some argue that these other offenses didn't unfairly affect on-field performance. The problem is that we don't yet know that steroids did either. Again, there is the problem that we don't know whether the pitchers were using too. But we also don't know if it made a lick of difference. We assume it did, but mankind is historically terribly inaccurate in its assumptions (see Earth, Flat). We only know "for sure" about a handful of users, so there isn't enough data to really evaluate the issue. What global data we have, looking at the "Steroid Era" as compared to other periods in baseball history, shows that while more home runs started being hit around 1993, the gap between the big sluggers and the rest of the league actually narrowed. If steroid use was wide spread, it didn't help the big sluggers like McGwire put up record shattering numbers as much as it helped average players look more like the McGwires of the world.

Maybe steroids helped McGwire hit all those home runs, but maybe they didn't. In fact, the evidence right now (statistical analysis of the impact of steroids, questions about whether all the pitchers were using too, etc) leads me to lean towards the idea that steroids are largely irrelevant in analyzing McGwire's on-field performance. Now, if McGwire were a borderline candidate for the Hall, I could understand denying him the benefit of the doubt because of the steroid issue. He's obviously not though. He averaged 50 home runs and 114 walks per 162 games. His home run total is seventh in history, his slugging percentage is 10th, and his EqA (which measure overall offensive contribution) is eighth. The guys in front of him are: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds (oy), Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols (boy, is he good), Frank Thomas (boy, is he underappreciated), Mickey Mantle and Roger Hornsby. Um, that's good company. All-around hitters like Jeff Bagwell and the Big Hurt were better, but Willie McCovey, another pure slugger who is already in the Hall of Fame, was certainly not as good as McGwire.

McGwire belongs in the Hall of Fame. The only intellectually honest alternative is the route Ladewski chose. The only good news is that McGwire appears to be safely above the 5% cutoff. If a player get less than 5% of votes, then he falls off the ballot for ever. At least, now, there is time for more information to come to light, and for voters to reconsider their decision.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Wild Card Extravaganza

It's wild card weekend, and everyone is getting excited for some playoff football. Unfortunately, I don't expect many close games this weekend. There's no reason for any of you to care about or give credence to my predictions for these games, nevertheless, this is my blog, and I'll maunder if I want to. Maunder, by the way, is a great word. It's like the word "wander," but for when you're talking. See, I'm maundering right now. Anyway . . .

The playoffs kick off with Kansas City at Indianapolis. There is a theory going around that this is the worst possible match-up for the Colts because they can't contain Larry Johnson. The Colts can't contain anyone's running game, and they'll dominate an otherwise deeply flawed Chiefs team. The Colts offense is the second best in recent history, behind only their 2004 vintage. The Chiefs D is below average. The Colts are by far the best passing team in football, led by should-have-been-MVP Peyton Manning. Manning completed 65% of his passes for 4305 yards, 31 touchdowns and only 10 turnovers. And their running game, sixth most efficient in the league, isn't shabby. Joseph Addai collected more than 1000 yards and seven touchdowns on only 226 carries. Sure, the defense is weak, but I say the Colts score early and often, take the Chiefs out of their game, and win going away.

Saturday night sees the Cowboys visit Seattle. How do I put this nicely? Seattle sucks. Everyone keeps saying the Seahawks are dangerous because they were good last year. What does that have to do with anything? They're not good this year. They have only the 27th most efficient offense, and 20th most efficient defense in football. The Cowboys win this one easy, although both teams will put plenty of points on the board because neither team's corners can cover a rocking chair.

Sunday begins with the Jets at the Patriots. The Jets are a nice story. But the defense is overrated because their opponents were a collection of terrible offensive teams. Plus, the Jets play slow on offense, limiting their opponents possessions, and since the Jets are vulnerable to the run, other teams ate clock on offense too. Thus, Jets games have fewer possessions than most, and the defense artificially ranks sixth in fewest points allowed. This strategy does work to give a lesser team a chance to stay close against a superior foe. And the Jets did beat the Pats once this year. But the Pats are flat out better. In fact, they're the most consistent team in football right now across all three phases of the game. Tom Brady may not see the ball a ton in this one, but he'll be effective enough when he does have it to lead his team to an easy victory.

Sunday's late game features the team most likely to forget about the game and beat the crap out of each other. Ladies and gentlemen, your New York Giants. They travel to Philly to face a team that was expected to crumble after Donovan McNabb went down, adding injury to the insult of some terrible early season luck. Some of that bad luck came against the Giants, who beat the Eagles in one of the more preposterous games of the season. It won't happen again. The Eagles now rank first in offensive efficiency and seventh if defensive efficiency in the second half of close games. They'll play well when the game is on the line. But this game may be over fairly early, too. The Giants have been the very definition of an average football team, and the Eagles are much better than that, especially on offense. Look for a huge game for Brian Westbrook, and an easy Philly win.

By the way, I've been on the Bears' bandwagon all year. I'm not quite jumping off yet. But this week, for the first time, when I take a careful look, I see a better team in the NFC. So, as we enter the play-offs, I'll unveil my new Super Bowl prediction, and it kills me to say it, but the Bears are no longer part of the equation: Baltimore Ravens over the Philadelphia Eagles 24 to 17.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

It's Going To Be A Long Two Weeks

At some point during the Bears' bowel movement on Sunday night, I turned to some friends and said that the worst part about the way the Bears were playing was all the noise it would induce over the next two weeks. The 16th game of the season is no more useful as a predictor of playoff performance than the rest of the season. It must be analyzed in the context of the team's season long performance to determine how good the team really is. Nor is momentum a real concern. There's just too much time between games for one to carry over to the next. But there's no escaping the headache inducing blather of sports radio and writing that will result from that stink bomb, and for that I curse this team.

Let's start with Jay Mariotti, who is leading a chorus of critics calling for the Bears to replace Rex Grossman with Brian Griese. I don't blame the columnists and commentators for this. I blame Grossman for playing like butt against the Packers. But as I've said all along, the problem with replacing Rex is that Griese isn't very good. The real quarterback controversy is whether the Bears have one at all. Here's what we know: Rex has gotten hot enough for three game stretches to lead a team to a Super Bowl championship. True, he's at least as likely to play like crap and cost the Bears a game against a crappy New York or Seattle team in the Divisional round, but I really don't care if the Bears lose to a crappy Giants team or a mediocre Saints or Eagles team. The only worthwhile destination in the craptacular NFC is the Super Bowl, and Griese ain't leading anyone there.

I've talked before about Griese's mediocrity over his career, which has been on a downward spiral for the past half decade. Sunday night, Griese showed us just what's he capable of. After replacing a putrid Rex, Griese promptly went five for 15 and threw two picks of his own. Grossman was worse than Griese, but what's the point of replacing the eratic, but potentially explosive guy, with the mediocre but consistent guy, if the consistent guy is just as capable of suckage? Plus, all this talk about the quarterbacks is obscuring the fact that the Bears' imploding defense may cost the team the game no matter who's behind center (I'm still hoping that having Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman back on the field together fixes that).

Grossman has now sunk to the depths of NFL starting quarterbacks. Using Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, which measures a quarterback's success on a per play basis, and adjusts for game situation and opposing defenses, Grossman ranks 33rd at -11.2% among qualifying players. That's about as bad as Daunte Culpepper was, worse than Jake Plummer, and a little better than Brad Johnson. None of those guys start anymore. Griese doesn't have enough plays to qualify, but his DVOA is -45.3% in the limited action he's seen this year. Sixty-one quarterbacks attempted at least 10 passes this year. Only three were worse than Griese: Aaron Rodgers (GB), Jamie Martin (NO), and Marques Tuiasosopo (Oak). This is the guy we want leading us?

There was some good news for the Bears. Cedric Benson had the third most productive day of any running back in the league (as measured by Defense-adjusted Points Above Replacement). He collected 109 yards on 13 carries, and 22 more on his lone reception. Everyone is asking why Lovie Smith is coddling Rex, when he would have inserted the back-up weeks ago if this were an under-performing safety we were discussing. They should be asking the same thing about Thomas Jones. It's long past time to give the ball to Benson 25 times a game. And since Adrian Peterson is better picking up the blitz and catching the ball out of the back field, he should probably be the passing down substitute. That leaves Jones with limited duty as a change of pace guy.

Jones is a fine running back. He had a productive season, finishing 11th among running backs in DPAR, or overall production. However, he was 19th among qualifying runners in DVOA, or per play production. Here, it was Benson who ranked among the league's elite at 10th. For the record, Benson was 18th in DPAR as well.

Look, it's a long two weeks between now and the first playoff game. We don't even know who the opponent will be, so there's nothing to talk and write about between now and then but these little in-house "controversies." It's just unfortunate that Rex played so poorly on Sunday, or the next two weeks might not have been so depressing.