It’s a sunny weekend afternoon in Chicagoland, and in a suburban backyard a group of small children are dancing under a maypole festooned with navy blue and burnt orange ribbons. Smoke rises from a dueling pair of Weber kettles on the patio, where Dave Duerson and Tom Thayer are tending to spicy Italian sausage and juicy No Name Steaks, Duerson singing the praises of his links, while Thayer insists he beats his meat. In the shade of a towering oak in a corner of the yard Ricky Watts and Rashaan Salaam are kicking back, their hair a bit more sparse and salt-and-pepper these days, passing a brown paper bag and a funny-looking cigarette, playing the dozens while Keith Jennings sits alongside polishing off the remains of a bucket of Old Reliable. In the distance they can hear the sound of a motorcycle growing louder, until it builds into the familiar, deafening roar of a vintage Harley Fat Boy. That could only be one person: Steve McMichael, the lovable “Uncle Mongo,?pulling up for an afternoon of reverie with his faithful sidekick Pepe perched in the studded leather touring bag on the back.
The children under the maypole run away laughing and screaming as they always do when Uncle Mongo comes around, bellowing his customary, “Who wants to play some tetherball??in his inimitable Texas drawl. With that he cuts the ribbons off the top of the maypole and spikes a swivel attached to a chain in their place, an official Pete Rozelle autograph NFL football on the other end, and starts banging the ball around the pole. Doug Atkins, still breaking in the helmet he used to wear running around the Rensselaer cornfields, puts down his iced tumbler of George Dickel, his Tennessee beverage of choice this day, and ambles out of his lawn chair willing to oblige, saying, “I’ll give ya a game,?and the two ex-linemen begin beating the ball back and forth like it was made of a packer quarterback’s head.
Just then the sliding glass doors to the patio deck open and The Miser emerges, resplendent in his ubiquitous Panama hat, Bermuda shorts, custom orange and blue Top-Siders and matching Cole Haan patched argyle hosiery.
And as usual he’s pushing mom, wearing her Bears cap and oversized white-rimmed Versace sunglasses, smiling, as she always seems to be, apparently thrilled to be hosting, but nobody can be quite sure. It’s just another weekend at Ginny’s, and The Miser and his coworker siblings are doing all they can to show their gratitude for mom’s longevity.
But not all is fun and frivolity at the ancestral home. In a dark corner of the musty basement, under the wooden stairs where a young Miser used to stash his leftover Sugar Jets for those days when the neighborhood kids took his lunch money, sit a pensive Jerry Angelo and Lovie Smith, brows furrowed, pondering the upcoming Bears season. Jerry knows his early round drafting for the Bears has pretty much been a failure, so in an ‘all-in?move he decided to forego two first round picks and more in exchange for the franchise quarterback that hasn’t worn a Bears uniform in generations.
For his part Lovie wonders how things could have gone so horribly wrong on the defensive side of the ball, his alleged area of expertise, ever since he unceremoniously ran off Ron Rivera following a pair of top 5 defensive finishes and the Bears?Super Bowl XLI appearance. We all know what happened next. After watching Bob Babich turn his prized D into a perennially mediocre bottom third unit, Smith was forced to take back all responsibility for designing the defense from his former roomie while letting him keep the coordinator title, kind of like the dad who waits for junior to fall asleep and then builds the Pinewood Derby car but lets him place the entry on the track and say “mine.?
And so Angelo and Smith sit morosely under those steps, searching for answers, trying to figure out how they’re going to return the Bears to the glory days of a few short years ago. They know that they finally have a quarterback on the roster who can deliver the football anywhere on the field, but will Jerry’s theory that quarterbacks make receivers hold true? Lovie wanted Rod Marinelli to join his staff when he was originally hired and finally got his wish, but can the shaman of defensive line coaches resurrect a unit that has all but disappeared since the Super Bowl charge of ?6? And if he does, will it even matter who plays where in a secondary that remains up for grabs at almost every position? To find out, read . . .
9/13 @ phlegm bay ? In what can only be described as a fashion show turned on its head, local taverns are hosting beefcake nights where women are shown safe and effective ways to use Krazy Glue to get and keep their man. Demonstrations at tonier joints come complete with a fluffer. W 1-0
9/20 STEELERS ? A well-rested Big Ben gets a good night’s sleep after figuring out how to work the sound system in his suite on his own and making sure the magic fingers don’t come with a pulse. Opening up at home against the defending world champions provides a good measuring stick. L 1-1
9/27 @ Seattle ? Matt Hasselbeck spends the afternoon on the turf with OL starters LT Walter Jones and C Chris Spencer out. Jay Cutler helps DL set their starting blocks by throwing for over 300 yards and three TDs vs. porous Seahawks?secondary, earning his first Player of the Week honor as a Bear. W 2-1
10/4 LIONS ? After telling Lions fans it’s probably time to find a replacement for Bobby Layne, who knew neophyte head coach Jim Schwartz was talking about Layne’s ability as a place kicker? Wouldn’t have needed one today as Lions rookie QB Matt Stafford, the latest replacement at Layne’s other position, gets a rude introduction to Soldier Field by a mauling Bears?defensive line. W 3-1
10/11 BYE ? Chicago baseball teams have tee times.
10/18 @ Atlanta ? Note to Lovie: when your team has just gained a late lead and the opposition is out of timeouts, you 1) kick the ball deep and let your vaunted kick coverage team run down and tackle the return man, 2) defend the sideline so the other guys can’t stop the clock, and 3) keep the other guys out of field goal range. The Bears make the playoffs last year if they do any one of the three. W 4-1
10/25 @ Cincinnati ? Coming off a 4-11-1 season, Cedric Benson is considered the key to the Bengals offense after he threw down a pair of 100-yard games to end 2008. I’d say so, but only because Thomas Jones won’t be around to protect Carson Palmer on passing downs. W 5-1
11/1 BROWNS ? When a head coach has two starting quarterbacks he really doesn’t have any. Which means Eric Mangini doesn’t have any, as it’s midway through Cleveland’s season and he’s still undecided on who gets beat up first. Anderson? Quinn? Won’t matter today. W 6-1
11/8 CARDINALS ? With Kurt Warner due to repeat the slide into oblivion he made late in his Rams? career and a defense that allowed a league-high 36 touchdown passes in 2008, I guess the Cardinals are who we thought they were. That isn’t the team from last year’s Super Bowl. W 7-1
11/12 @ San Francisco ? Outside of division contests this is the one 49ers coach Mike Singletary pointed toward when the schedule came out. A classic trap game. Lovie better have his team ready. W 8-1
11/22 EAGLES ? Chicago’s Anti-Cruelty Society protests the Eagles?use of the wildcat offense, preferring they call it feral cat, while a PETA commando raid on the Eagles hotel attempts a Trap-Neuter-Return procedure on Philadelphia specialist Michael Vick. W 9-1
11/29 @ Minnesota ? Day 362 of the pending Williams Wall suspension comes and goes and the only recent development is the judge in the local case passing away of old age. L 9-2
12/6 RAMS ? Somebody in the NFL’s scheduling office obviously has a sense of humor, as St. Louis becomes the first of two dome teams to visit Soldier Field in December. W 10-2
12/13 packers ? Our northern neighbors come down to the big city a day early, hoping to get in some Christmas shopping, but are disappointed to discover the department store Santas around here look a lot like themselves and aren’t the bigger variety found at the Farm and Fleet. Our guys are only too happy to send them home with a festive holiday broom as the Bears don division champion caps. W 11-2
12/20 @ Baltimore ? Quick: the battle of Pro Bowl linebackers today features? Lance Briggs and Terrell Suggs. A defensive struggle that will come down to a special teams? play. L 11-3
12/28 VIKINGS ? On what amounts to his third (fourth?) final game in Chicago, The Washed Up Veteran Quarterback returns to a frigid Chicago Lakefront and once again proves his best days are behind him. Will he weep? Will he wave? Will he please come back again next year? W 12-3
1/3 @ Detroit ? Marinelli proves you can go home again, or at least back to where you laid the biggest turd in NFL history. Bears lock up home field for NFC playoffs with a rout of the hapless pride. W 13-3
Vegas has the over/under for Bears wins at nine. One of us is wrong. Wager accordingly.
There’s a tendency to ask, “Now what??when you bitch and moan long enough and are finally given what you want. And so it goes with Jay Cutler, the quarterback most Bears fans have waited for all their lives.
I keep thinking this has to be a dream. Or maybe it’s that old karma train pulling into Denver, owner Pat Bowlen feeling he had to pay penance for the Broncos being enablers in John Elway’s tantrum at the beginning of his career. Either way, who cares? For two first round picks of dubious value in Jerry Angelo’s hands, a third and Kyle Orton, the last in a long line of Bears quarterbacks who had mastered the “throw the ball to the guy on the ground?pass, Jerry finally got the guy who can allow the Bears to forget about staffing the most important position on the field for the next decade.
It looks like the “Now what??contingent has shifted their focus to questioning Cutler’s maturity. We read about his exit from Denver and his alleged interaction with teammates, but what I’d like to see is a season of football in the rear view mirror before we make a judgment. Let’s give this guy the benefit of the doubt. I find it refreshing when I hear Cutler speak his mind. It’s far more interesting than listening to Lovie drone on through his coach-speak press conferences, hearing “Rex/Kyle/Chad/Brian is our quarterback,?telling us Tommie Harris is expected to practice while he’s standing on the sideline in shorts, everything said in that monotone response that’s about as colorful as week-old snow. I think Cutler calling a guy out for failing to go get an underthrown pass, as he did Devin Hester after the Bills exhibition, could qualify as a way to keep everybody accountable, to make them hunger to get better rather than that rah-rah, pat on the rump, ‘it’s ok, we’ll get ‘em next time?ipecac Bears fans are used to being fed. Could we be seeing leadership? It’s been so long, how would we know? I don’t care who Cutler throws under the bus now as long as he gets everyone on the same page, and that page is the roster listing in the Super Bowl XLIV program.
Definitely another place the hand wringers are looking is the wide receiver corp, where the Bears plan to compete with their star return man, a guy who couldn’t catch a balloon with a peach basket, and four other wannabes who have yet to have a pass thrown their way in a Bears uniform (three of whom have yet to catch a ball in the NFL). But I’m not worried, because this is one place where I think Jerry has the right idea. Like he said, quarterbacks make the receiver, not the other way around. Just look at Donald Driver, who caught only 89 passes during his three years in college and followed that up with just three receptions his rookie season. Earl Bennett averaged 78 catches during his three years at Vanderbilt, and although he didn’t get on the board last year something tells me he’ll total more than the 37 grabs Driver had in his first three NFL seasons in just this year alone.
Further, Driver was a track speedster in college who developed into a game breaker in the pros. Think Johnny Knox. Devin Hester finally has a quarterback who can overthrow him on a dead run. Devin Aromashodu is a big target who can run and catch but couldn’t get past Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison in Indianapolis. Not bad company. Rashied Davis has made himself into a special teams demon who hopefully will lose the oven mitts now that he knows the ball will be there. Enrique’s distant cousin is this year’s Earl Bennett.
We know what the running back and tight ends can do, with Matt Forte coming off the best rookie season in Bears history, Greg Olsen poised for a Pro Bowl run and Desmond Clark a starter on many other teams, but sometimes I wonder if Lovie’s handling of Forte is going to turn into a Bears?version of Dusty Baker handling Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, especially now that Kevin Jones is gone. Not that Lovie showed any inclination to spell Forte last year, with Jones active but still recovering from ACL surgery (34 carries, 109 yards) and Garrett Wolfe running like a dog on a six-foot leash (15-69, including 38 yards on a fake punt). Having Cutler will surely open up more running lanes for Wolfe and Adrian the Lesser (20-100 in ?8), but it’s up to the coaching staff to use them and give Forte an occasional break.
The offensive line has been retooled with three new starters plus a couple reserves with starting experience, and after watching the preseason the only question I have is whether the Rams let Orlando Pace go because of his contract or declining play. If Pace can hold his ground, the offense will be the least of the Bears worries. It’ll all come down to Lovie’s so-called best free agent signing of the offseason.
That would be Rod Marinelli.
The Bears finally have a quarterback. For the Bears to get back to the playoffs, get back to the Super Bowl, it has to happen on the defensive line. And I think it will.
Marinelli has his work cut out for him given the way the DL has vanished since Tommie Harris was originally hurt back in 2006. It’s been a constant game of musical chairs, wondering if Harris would practice, play or bother to come in for treatment, whether Alex Brown was starting or a reserve, if Israel Idonije was a tackle or an end, and when Mark Anderson and Adewale Ogunleye would begin their contract push; monitoring the police blotter and gun shows for signs of Tank Johnson, the injury report for Dusty Dvoracek, the missing persons report for Darwin Walker; keeping track of Marcus Harrison’s interviewing progress for Surgeon General, and on and on.
Tampa Bay ranked in the top ten in total defense in all but the first (11th) of ten seasons Marinelli spent as their defensive line coach (1996-2005). That’s no coincidence. He had a reputation for getting the most out of his players (double digit sacks every year he coached Simeon Rice for one, who was up and down before he went to the Bucs), those defenses averaging better than 42 sacks a year with over 30 coming from his DL. By contrast, the Bears over the past two seasons have averaged 34 total and only 25 on the line. Eight sacks over an entire season may not sound like much, but at a minimum it means you’re getting more constant pressure on the quarterback, and that increased pressure forces bad throws that can only help a Bears secondary in a constant state of flux.
Cutler will make Marinelli’s job easier by keeping the defensive line fresh. Unlike last year, when the Bears lost the time of possession battle in eleven of their last twelve games, having a quarterback who can complete any pass will force defenses to pick their poison. They can stack the box with an extra safety and let Cutler feast on one-on-one coverage or hope to stop Matt Forte with five or six defenders. Either way, the chains will move more often when the Bears have the ball in 2009.
Cutler will also help that secondary, as they’ll have to learn to cover against a real live NFL quarterback in practice as well as on Sundays. But who’s going to be on the field? Will Zackary Bowman become the next Dusty Dvoracek? Where will Danieal Manning line up? Has Peanut Tillman’s back healed? Can Nathan Vasher regain his form of 2006? Is Al Afalava the second coming of Chris Harris? Do Craig Steltz and Trumaine McBride have Polaroids?
As for Lovie and his new job running the defense, what I’d really like to know is if his precious cover-2 will continue to allow a free inside release to receivers split wide, because every team the Bears played last year had that one figured out and still Bunky Bob stubbornly refused to adapt.
So many questions. Wasn’t it more straightforward, weren’t we all more focused, when all of this took a back seat to whether the quarterback would give us a chance?
My friends, about that there is no longer a question.
Lujack, Blanda, Romanik, Williams, O’Connell, Bratkowski, Brown, Bukich, Wade, Rakestraw, Concannon, Carter, Douglass, Nix, Huarte, Huff, Avellini, Phipps, Evans, McMahon, Fuller, Lisch, Landry, W. Payton, Tomczak, Flutie, Harbaugh, Hohensee, S. Payton, Bradley, Willis, Furrer, Walsh, Kramer, Krieg, Matthews, Stenstrom, Mirer, Moreno, McNown, Miller, Chandler, Burris, Sauter, Stewart, Grossman, Hutchinson, Krenzel, Quinn, Blake, Griese, Orton.
As an aging rocker once said ?now don’t touch the knobs, ‘cause I think we’re gonna have some fun with his one.
The Last Bear Fan
September 08, 2009