Que Sarah, Sarah

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Tales From The Wind Bowl


After Sunday's 35-7 trouncing of the Packers, Love Smith declared the 23rd of December, 2007 the beginning of "the unofficial 2008 season." Technically, the game meant nothing for the Bears (except perhaps a lower draft pick) but Chicago played with a pride and respect for their fans that cannot be measured in numbers or stats. I was one of many Soldier Field patrons who braved the minus 18 windchill and 30-mile-an-hour wind gusts to witness a classic Bears performance. Frozen beer in hand, my cheers caught and smothered by the wind before they could reach the field, I watched as all three phases of the team outplayed a listless, passionless Packer squad. Bears fans everywhere appreciated the heart the team showed Sunday, but none more so than those who were so busy high-fiving and dancing in the stands they barely felt a chill on the coldest, windiest day of the year.

I flew into town from Los Angeles late Saturday night, pleasantly surprised by the balmy weather that greeted me. According to Weather.com the temperature dropped from 50 degrees at 3am that night to 17 degrees by 4am–a change of 33 degrees in just one hour. It was almost as if the weather gods were readying things for a hungry Bears team, ready to pounce. When I rolled out of bed at 8am to start layering up for tailgating, the weather was listed as "feeling like" -1 degree. As the temperature continued to drop and the wind began to pick up, my Super Bowl date winner, Alan, and I met up with his friends to tailgate. We certainly didn't get better weather than Miami, but we hoped for at least a better result. Cups, chips, chairs and anything else not weighted down flew about the parking lot and sometime cinefiles shouted American Beauty quotes at the plastic bags making circles in the sky. After downing enough beer to create a "liquid blanket," we shoved hand warmers into our shoes, gloves and pockets and set off for the stadium. We sat down next to and in front of a few Green Bay fans, so I immediately got to work staking our claim on the section. I began by badgering a 10 year old in a Favre jersey (no shame), then fed the clueless Packer fans next to me inaccurate facts such as "you guys have the 1 rushing offense in the league." At one point I had even convinced them that Brett Favre was on the field, even though the Packers were on defense. Chicago may not have been favored to win on the field, but I was determined to win the battle in the stands.

Thankfully, it wasn't long before the Bears gave the thousands of freezing fans huddled in Soldier Field a reason to cheer. After a slow-moving opening drive that took nearly the entire 1st quarter and ended in a Robbie Gould field goal, the Packers offense and their legendary gunslinger took the field. Ineffective and clumsy, Green Bay recovered their own fumble on third down and were forced to punt. Jon Ryan's kick was blocked by Darrell McClover and recovered by Brendan Ayanbadejo at the Packer 7. That marked the first time in 12 years that a Packer punt was blocked, and momentum seemed to be on the Bears' side. Another Gould field goal midway through the 2nd gave the Bears a 6-0 lead and Chicago fans hugged and cheered their way to warmth. Then, as I kindly informed the Cheeseheads next to me that Ryan Grant was a great young player and all they'd have left to cheer for when Favre retires, he broke through the line for a 66 yard touchdown. The stadium (particularly those who'd heard my commentary) let out a collective groan and suddenly fingers and toes started aching again. The game would be a long, cold one if the Bears got behind.

Late in the 2nd quarter Chicago's special teams struck again, pressuring Ryan into shanking the ball of the side of his foot for a measly 9 yard punt. On the ensuing Chicago drive, the little big man Garrett Wolfe broke out for a 33 yard run to set up an 8-yard Adrian Peterson touchdown. The Bears were only up 13-7 at the break, but something about the intensity and tenacity of Chicago's play created an undeniable buzz of optimism in the stands. After calling out a drunken Packer fan trying to cut 20 people in the line for the bathroom I received a round of applause from the shivering mass of lady Bears backers. Truly, the team and its fans were firing on all cylinders.

The 2nd half of the game featured more classic Chicago ball. Alex Brown picked off Favre's first pass of the half to set up a Captain Neckbeard-to-Desmond Clark touchdown. Orton followed that up with a rare 2-pt conversion to a stretching Greg Olsen in the corner of the end zone. (On several other occasions Sunday the Bears went for it on 4th down, proving that Ron Turner can flash some onions–even if only in meaningless games). Moments later, Peanut executed the "corner roll" play that worked against the Broncos to perfection once again, deflecting a Ryan punt to a waiting Corey Graham for the 7 yard score. 28-7 Bears and they say, like the Grinch's heart, the fans' frozen smiles grew three sizes that play. Early in the 4th, Pro Bowl snub Brian Urlacher added to the rout with an 85 yard pick-six, the first of his career. Favre completed the picture, lying helpless on the frozen grass of Soldier Field, watching 54 cruise into the end zone. The future Hall-of-Fame QB said after the game, "I've been playing 17 years and those were the worst conditions I've ever played in." Just as the "Frozen Tundra" was outdone by the "Windy City" so too were the Packers outdone by the Bears.

After the game Alan and I got to go down to the Bears' friends and family room to warm up a bit while the players showered and dressed. In the attached bathroom one of the player's wives/mistresses/sisters/friends who had obviously watched most or all of the game inside, remarked "Wow, I can sure tell you were outside for the whole game." I looked in a mirror for the first time since 9am and was shocked to discover that my face, frozen and windburn, looked like a cross between a plate of prosciutto and a skinned deer; the sign of a true fan. While a lot of the players rushed out the back to catch flights home for Christmas, I did get a chance to meet and talk with Ayanbadejo, Wale Ogunleye and Adam Archuleta. I also waved at Greg Olsen, Robbie Gould, John Tait, Danieal Manning, Lovie and a few others. I was amazed to find that I was as tall as or taller than a lot of the players walking by–but I was not at all amazed to find they were much, much stronger. And after Sunday's game, the team itself seems stronger. Olin Kreutz said of the win: "What does it do for us? I don't know, but it seemed to help the Packers last year." While a true Chicagoan never wants to emulate a Cheesehead, Bears fans do hope the team can turn things around the way the Packers did after winning their season finale last year. Until the 2008 season begins, fans can be content to appreciate the early Christmas gift the Bears gave them–a Packers sweep in The Wind Bowl.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Not Ready for Prime Time Players


In 1975, Saturday Night Live's original cast, the "Not Ready For Prime Time Players," were relatively unknown comedians, expected to play a secondary role to the host and musical guests. As the show progressed, however, the troupe of actors took focus and turned their back-up role into a starring one. For the past two seasons, the Bears' outstanding defense has taken the spotlight, leaving an inconsistent offense hiding in the wings. Anyone with a pulse could see the lopsided nature of the team, but the 2005 and 2006 squads kept criticism of the offense at bay by posting regular season records of 11-5 and 13-3, respectively. With a few personnel changes but the core of the team intact, this year's Bears were expected to follow that same "defense first, offense whenever we can get it" philosophy all the way to Glendale. Unfortunately, the Bears defense is far from first in the league in any category and "whenever we can get it" has turned out to be almost never. This season, the Bears offense has consistently been pushed into the spotlight with the game on the line, and, unlike the original SNL troupe, they've been revealed as a pack of truly not ready for prime-time players.

Monday night against the Vikings, the Bears defense showed flashes of its former brilliance: Urlacher at his best, covering the whole field; Vasher finally back in uniform, forcing turnovers and grabbing picks; even the new guy, Matt Toeaina, putting the hurt on Adrian Peterson. Despite a solid game on defense, the Bears still lost, managing just one touchdown and one field goal—both the result of interceptions. The team had several more opportunities to capitalize on the defense's spectacular effort, but, as Roseanne Roseannadana would say, "It's always something." This team has failed because it hasn't put together enough complete games. Monday night while the defense and special teams coverage excelled, the oft-penalized offense looked confused, flustered and out-of-sync. You can chalk it up to an inability to adjust to yet another quarterback, but the bigger issue is this: There's talent on this offense, but no playmakers. Until the Bears address their needs on offense, the defense is going to be the Chevy Chase of the team, while the offense sulks in the corner Garret Morris-style.

Cedric Benson and Adrian Peterson should both be 2 backs behind a guy like Chester Taylor, Julius Jones or Michael Turner (all in the last year of their contracts). No matter who the Bears get to run the ball, they won't have any success unless they get some playmakers on the offensive line—namely, a stud OT. Chicago's skilled wide receivers and tight ends are going to waste in a system that can't use the run to set up pass plays. Berrian has the wheels to be a good speed receiver/deep threat but the Bears still need a true star-quality possession receiver. Of course, the biggest playmaker on a football field is the quarterback, and all three of the Bears "starting" QBs should be backups—or, in the case of Captain Neckbeard, out of the league entirely, hawking "Super Bass-o-Matic '76s". Sure, Orton didn't have much of a chance to succeed Monday, coming off a two year hiatus, but he also doesn't have the physical skills to lead an NFL team. Grossman's got the arm, but he's too injury-prone and takes himself (and the team) out of the game with his mental mistakes. And Griese is just, well, old. He's a solid back-up who did some good things for the Bears this season but he's not the future of this franchise.

The Bears won't have to touch too much on the defense and special teams side of things. A new strong safety, the re-signing of Lance Briggs, the health of the current starters (and a renewed interest in tackling) is all it'll take to ensure the second coming of 1985's "Black and Blues Brothers." With the acquisition of some playmakers on offense and the return of the Monsters of the Midway, Bears beat writers everywhere won't be writing about next season with two games to go. Yup, while it may feel like it, this season isn't over. Before the Bears can begin to address their future, they have to take care of the present. Next week will be an old-school showdown with the Packers and then the Bears will finish the season off with a chance to play spoiler to the Saints' playoff hopes. Fans can be sure that when Reggie Bush comes strolling into town, hoping to do some more end zone acrobatics, he'll meet a Bears team playing for more than just pride. 'Cause if their soul-singing, fellow Chicagoans have anything to say about it, this pack of "Blues Brothers" will finish on a high note. No one can stop them, they're on a mission from God…

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Love and Football

Originally published on TheSportsBank.net.

For Love of the Game

Sometimes the love of a team can feel just like real love. Overwhelming euphoria prevails during the best of times and crushing sadness seems inescapable during the worst. But no matter how great the pain of a loss may be, sports fans and lovers must allow themselves to try to love again. Sometimes the washing away of painful memories happens in days, sometimes months, and sometimes, in the worst of cases, it can take years. There's a great Erica Jong quote that reads:

"It would pass in time. It always did, unfortunately. The bruise on
the heart which at first feels incredibly tender to the slightest touch
eventually turns all the shades of the rainbow and stops aching. We
forget about it. We even forget we have hearts until the next time. And
then when it happens again we wonder how we ever could have forgotten."

When the Bears lost the Super Bowl last year I could have been "that fan." You know the one. The one the camera guy finds and zooms in on. The most broken, distraught fan in the joint; head in hands, eyes watering. The one that casual fans at home—the kind who attend Super Bowl parties for the bean dip and watch the game for the commercials—see on the screen and laugh at, exclaiming: "She's CRYING???!!" While most of the Colts fans in Dolphins Stadium were high-tailing it out of the rain mere seconds after the game clock wound down to zeroes, I sat and watched Peyton Manning and the rest of the Colts accept their trophy. I was cold, I was wet, and I was miserable, but it didn't feel right to leave, because once I did, it was all truly over. Sometimes even when you know there's nothing left of it, you just can't bear to let go of something you love. It took me 6 months to watch the DVD of the Super Bowl that I had my co-worker make for me. In August, with a new season approaching, I finally watched the game and found a way to say goodbye to that love and that loss so I could start over.

During the moments just following Sunday's stunning collapse to the Giants, I felt, for the first time this season, murmurs of last year's heartache. Of course, this has never been last year's team or last year's love. And yet, while this season on a whole has been a disappointment, through it all, despite it all, there has always been a glimmer of hope to hold onto. Now, with the Bears playoff chances all but gone, that gnawing feeling of loss, of something ending, returns. I suppose I could have seen it coming, could have felt it like those moments during the death of a relationship when you can feel each other slipping away and the distance between you becomes almost palpable. Love never really ends easily though, whether you see the end coming or not.

The problem with football is, you can't win a game if you don't play 60 minutes. The Bears defense, which played a superb three quarters, broke down in the final stanza, giving up a late touchdown that put the Giants ahead. The defense wasn't all to blame, of course. The Giants' last score would have been inconsequential had the Bears capitalized on earlier opportunities, the most notable being a perfectly thrown deep ball dropped by Devin Hester. Grossman's solid numbers would have been outstanding had all his good passes, just like that one, been caught. Woulda, coulda, shoulda. All season, courageous performances and spectacular plays have been offset by mental errors and missed opportunities. The Bears' inability to put together a complete game finally caught up to them in the form of too many losses, plain and simple.

True Bears fans aren't going to love the team any less for its shortcomings this season. As with any love, time will make the pain of disappointment grow duller and the promise of a new love seem possible. Talk of expectations for next season will begin and fans will find a way to start over and let themselves be hopeful again. Who knows? Maybe there are even a few miracles left in this season. Lovie told the press after the game, "We'll continue to play until they tell us we're out of it." And if the Bears are out of it, the rest of the season will be about pride, self-respect and another love, one both fans and players share: love of the game. 'Cause no matter how much it hurts when the team you love loses, or the love you felt fades away, worse still than that hurt is never to have loved at all. To quote Jong again:

"Love is everything it's cracked up to be. That's why people are so
cynical about it. It really is worth fighting for, being brave for,
risking everything for. And the trouble is, if you don't risk anything, you
risk even more."