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Monday, July 22

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Bears in Five

Bye for Now
by the Bearscast.com Hosts

One: Unbearable
The Bears' well-noted struggles the first half of this season all played a part in Sunday's thrashing by the newly vaunted Lions. And make no mistake, it was a thrashing, despite the 16-7 outcome and the Bears' sad attempt at a comeback in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Brian Griese, the heavens didn't open for a second week in a row. Or if they did open, they closed a second before the stud of last week released one of his four INTs, three of which ended abruptly drives in the end zone. Most disappointed Bear: Robbie Gould. Happiest non-Bear: Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry, who greatly buffeted his hopes to be appointed Head Coach to the War on Terror after season's end.

Two: The Second Dimension
Taking away the run from the Bears has been a cinch so far this season for just about everyone, to the extent that the opposition does the bulk of its homework on Griese/Grossman/Next Week's QB and the Bears passing game. The Bears' secret plot to pass the ball constantly when down by a touchdown apparently has been leaked. But not to Cedric Benson. Hey Benz, what do you think about reaching down to catch a ball? Oh wait, you held out so you wouldn't have to. My bad. Is cutting back, ala your sworn enemy/predecessor, in your contract? Let us know.

Twenty carries compared to 40 pass attempts is something that should be seen only in Fighting Illini box scores from three years ago, not as the results from Sunday's noon swoon. Can we call up everyone from Triple-A and try to effectively run the ball in two weeks? Let us know.

Three: Beatable
The worst thing about a 3-5 record is that it can't disguise what the Bears have been trying to cover up since the kickoff in the season opener — that they're ridiculously beatable this season. Every player on the Bears' side of the ball except for Devin Hester seems a little slower, a little worse at defending, a little more afraid of getting hit, and yes, a little more injured than last year. But it isn't Urlacher's arthritic back that's to blame. He's but one man. It's not Tommie Harris's leg. That's but one leg. It's not Mike Brown's insta-injury in the first game of the year. It's but one insta-injury. It's not Grossman's best NBA referee imitation before Griese INTered the arena. It's something else that makes the Bears beatable this season. They simply lack what I'm going to term "good juice." It's too bad that the fridge is full of stuff with a 2002 expiration date instead.

Four: Favre Night Football
Did you catch MNF last night? I watched with a die-hard Broncos fan and found myself incessantly apologizing that the ENTIRE THIRD QUARTER consisted of an extended, incredibly annoying interview of Brett Favre's wife, Deanna. The whole song and dance lacked good juice. Instead approximately two Broncos drives were devoid of any analysis and barely any play-by-play. Mike Tirico instead held up a book and said the word "awareness" so many times that making an irony joke would be in and of itself ironic and cliché. Or would it? IRONY! Denver Fans, please thank Elway that you don't have to deal with this cheesy coverage twice a year, or even once per week if Fah-Al-Vruh doesn't revert to pre-family death performance levels.

Five: Bye-ing Time
Luckily the Bears and their fans have an extra week to dwell on the horrid start (and Favre's 80-whatever yard pass to win Monday night's game), but the brass lining is that at least we'll come out on the other side facing a (currently) 2-5 Raiders team that has had its own share of excruciating losses so far this year. If Tommie Harris can somehow heal between now and then, the Bears might be able to force Dante Culpepper to do something stupid. If they don't, let's hope Benson averages more yards per carry than the number of Bears turnovers. If he does, we'll be 4-5!

Pucks in Five

Cracking the Ice
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Back to Reality
After starting the season 5-3, including two wins against Western Conference leading Detroit, the Blackhawks fell back to Earth the past week, going 0-3 to drop the team back below .500. For a franchise trying to return to respectability, there are bound to be stumbles along the way. And in the way things tend to sort out, after winning some games as big underdogs, two of the losses were to Atlanta and Columbus, teams the Hawks should beat on their home ice if they want to make positive strides over the season.

While it's early to start talking about must-win games, the Blackhawks need to continue their winning ways if they hope to be in playoff contention in the spring, if recent trends hold true. Last season, seven of the top eight teams in the Western Conference on Nov. 1 made the postseason. Entering Wednesday's game, the team is 10th in the conference, surrounded by San Jose, Anaheim and Vancouver, all teams expected to make the postseason. Last season's playoff push died around this time, as the team went through an eight-game losing streak after Martin Havlat was injured. With a three-game streak currently ongoing, the team needs to level out and put some points on the board if it hopes to stay in the chase.

Two: A Streak to Start a Career
Lost in the amazement of rookie Jonathon Toews' goal against Colorado last week is the fact that Toews has netted a point in all nine games he has played in. It's rare for a 19-year-old rookie to enter the NHL and be productive right away, as there is a large adjustment to the speed of the game and size of the players, so what Toews has accomplished, along with fellow NHL rookie Patrick Kane, is pretty remarkable. The rookie record for consecutive point scoring streak is 20, set last year by Colorado winger Paul Statsny. However, Statsny set the record in February and March after he had time to acclimate. Toews still has a ways to go to approach that record, but with his current streak, Toews has served notice he'll be a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Think about it. If he's competing this way at 19, imagine how he'll be as he gets a few more years of experience.

Three: Problem Areas
While the rookies are combining with Tuomo Ruutu to be the team's best line, many of the veterans the Blackhawks acquired to shore up their scoring depth have been struggling to put the puck in the net. Sergei Samsonov was expected to earn first line minutes; instead, he's only collected two assists and is a minus six, and was a healthy scratch for Saturday's game. Samsonov is a tantalizing player who has shifty speed and a wicked wrist shot, but has also been dogged by criticism of selfish and lazy play. Samsonov has taken 24 shots and shown some exciting moves, so it's not for lack of effort, but the team really needs some contribution from the maligned winger.

Likewise, Yanic Perrault has netted an assist and is minus four, though his face-off skill has been an asset to a team that struggled to control the puck a year ago. Kevyn Adams has been a great presence on the ice and as a mentor for the youngsters, but has only one assist as well. The returning Hawks players are also putting up goose eggs. Both Martin Lapointe and Rene Bourque have yet to tally a single point. Lapointe is a grinding fourth liner who isn't expecting to score much, but Bourque is a highly-touted prospect entering his third year. Bourque had a promising rookie campaign with 16 goals and 34 points, but suffered through an injury-plagued sophomore slump. At this point in his career, he needs to step up and reach his potential, or the Blackhawks need to stop expecting great things. I'm not ready to write Bourque off just yet, but he's shown very little this season and a shakeup may be needed soon.

Four: Wolves' Winning Ways
The Wolves opened their season with six straight victories, the best start in franchise history, until an overtime loss Sunday against Milwaukee ended the streak. The team has still earned a point in every game, and at 6-0-1 is one of two teams yet to lose in regulation. Despite the hot start, Chicago is still only tied for first in the division, as the same Admirals who defeated them Sunday have matched the Wolves' pace with a 6-1-1 start of their own. The game in Milwaukee was the beginning of a seven-game road trip, and with the Admirals running neck and neck, the Wolves can't afford to stumble away from Allstate Arena. Last season's edition of the Wolves set a team record for road victories with 27, and the team would be ecstatic to equal that mark in 2007-8.

Five: Anderson to Atlanta?
As the Wolves have opened their season in smashing fashion, their NHL affiliate the Atlanta Thrashers stumbled out of the gate, going 0-6, costing coach Bob Hartley his job. The team has won three of their last five with GM Doug Waddell serving as interim coach for the franchise, but Waddell is undertaking a search for a new head coach. Rumored to be on the shortlist is Wolves coach John Anderson. Anderson's beginning his 11th season as coach of the Wolves, and has led them to three championships in his tenure. Anderson is a proven winner in the minor leagues, setting the Wolves' record for wins and leading the team to the playoffs every season but one. Anderson has never been a coach at the NHL level in any capacity, but his familiarity and talent in developing many of the Thrashers' players would go a long way to credibility in the locker room and make up for any perceived lack of experience. There is no timetable on Waddell's search, but Anderson would be greatly missed were he to move down South.

Bulls in Five

Your Chicago Bulls
by Patrick and Dan O'Neil

One: Adjust Your Dial
The Bulls announced on Monday that they've agreed to a five-year radio broadcast agreement with ESPN 1000, WMVP. This is a welcome switch back to the station that handled most of the broadcasting during its 1990s championships runs. It also has the advantage of being an actual sports station. They're also on the AM band, like most other sports radio outlets, which should cut down on dial confusion for casual fans. Bonus: the Bulls now won't have to share radio real estate with Steve Dahl and the sordid assortment of divorce lawyers, financial advisors and other businesses that rented air time from 105.9 FM, which is set to make a format change.

Two: Cue Gary Glitter
The starting lineup for your Chicago Bulls is not yet set for Wednesday's season opener, and Head Coach Scott Skiles is being cagey. Three slots are pretty stable — Kirk Heinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon ‐ but injuries to Ben Wallace and Joe Smith are complicating matters. Skiles has thrown lots of different starting lineups throughout the preseason. First home game is Friday vs. Philadelphia — maybe we'll see if they've updated their "running of the Bulls" scoreboard graphics for the fresh season.

Three: Kobe?
All talk about starting lineups could be tossed in the air if the Bulls pull the trigger on a trade for Kobe Bryant. The rumors and speculation have been up and down for months, and the noise has been turned up again lately. Apparently the Lakers want much too much. Bryant would have to approve any trade, and wouldn't be likely to go to a team that was decimated by his own arrival. Laker's coach Phil Jackson isn't impressed with Kobe's trade theatrics, saying, "Obviously he hasn't thrown his heart and soul into performing on the floor." No word on whether the City of Chicago would look to add yet another Sister City by convincing Kobe, Japan to go along with Osaka. For all you domainers out there, kobechicago.com is available. Look for an up or down on a trade by the end of November.

Four: Luv for Sale
If you want to bring the excitement of the game to your home, the Luvabulls can cheer you on while you pump another 12-ouncer for the gentle rate of $90 per Luvabull per hour. Maybe they'll even change your channel during halftime. Be the first on your block to "add excitement and glamour to your event" (burp). I'm sure they'll be excited to share tales of their recent trips to Cyprus, the Ukraine and Japan.

Five: Are They Any Good?
Nearly all preseason opinions have the Bulls winning (or coming close to winning) their Division and competing for the Eastern Conference title. Fifty-plus wins, games in May, juicy matchup stories for sportwriters. In other words, a good solid team, just like the last few years. But win? The championship? Not unless there's something other than incremental improvement in the offing. The Baby Bulls are now at least tweens in basketball time, and it's fair to say that the time has come to put up or shut up. Come Wednesday, we'll start to see.

Fire In Five

Great, Another One Goal Lead
by Steve Gillies

One: Not a Typical Playoff Crowd
Every year (except 2004) around this time I get confused. The playoffs start and the games suddenly start to really matter. Yet the crowd always dwindles. There are a few reasons. For one, suddenly the World Series and the NFL are going on. For another, a large number of MLS games are attended by people that aren't all that invested in the league. They show up because they get discounted tickets, a friend has some extra tickets he has to burn through as part of complicated season ticket arrangement, or they're part of some school trip. Maybe they enjoy the game, maybe they don't, but they certainly aren't following the league closely enough to want to go to a game on a cold, rainy Thursday night with four days' notice.

Except they are now. The Fire's Thursday night playoff game against DC United drew a very healthy crowd of 17,000 people. To my mind, that speaks volumes of the interest the team, and a certain star player, have generated this season. We'll see how long it holds out if say, Blanco retires in two years, but to my mind, drawing 17,000 for this game is much more impressive than selling out the Beckham game.

Two: A Typical Playoff Game
Another thing about the playoffs is the soccer changes. Chris Rolfe has stated that the Fire are ready for it since, because of their poor start, every game they've played in for the past seven weeks has been do or die. The big difference now is that it's do or die for all the teams they'll be playing as well. Usually in the playoffs this means an intense, fast-paced, physical brand of soccer where teams work extra-hard and the skilled players are canceled out. It's not usually great for the neutral. Pretty soccer is scarce and chances on goal are a rarity.

Three: Taking Chances
And by now we all know that the Fire haven't been finishing nearly enough of their chances. This week saw Juan Carlos Osorio take direct action on that end, benching Paulo Wanchope and moving Chris Rolfe from the midfield to his more natural role as a front runner. Sharp-eyed readers might note that this is a move I called for last week. It paid off within 14 minutes of the first leg of their two game series with DC United. Confusion in the DC defense allowed a ball to drop between the two center backs. Rolfe pounced on the half-chance and buried a volley into the top right corner that it would be difficult to see Barrett or Wanchope hitting. It's a good thing Rolfe was there because it was one of the few chances either team had all night.

Four: Sitting On A One Goal Lead
So the Fire got the finishing hoodoo out of the way early. But now they travel to DC United on Thursday with the second thing that's been troubling them all season: a one goal lead. The good news is that the Fire were very successful at shutting down DC United's normally potent offense. The bad news is that DC started without both Emilio and Jaime Moreno, who I'm sure will be thrown into the fray from the beginning of this Thursday's game. Also worrying is how effectively DC shut down Blanco, and how frustrated it appeared to make Blanco. Let's hope we don't finally see Blanco's temper boil over this week and he helps the Fire by going in with the attitude of trying to do more than sit on a one goal lead for 90 minutes. It hasn't worked for them in the past.

Five: A Worrying Distraction
Another sign that MLS is slowly joining the rest of the international soccer community when it was reported that Columbian club Cali Cali is trying to poach the Fire's coach. Osorio for his part was quoted as saying nobody's talked to him about it, but sure he'd be interested. OK, notice I said quoted, not stated. It's just a fact that with a coach with a growing international reputation rather than another recycled MLS coach, you occasionally get stories like this. If the Osorio quote is accurate, it's little more than the standard response any coach in the world would give to a question like that. They never close doors on anything. But it's still an unwelcome distraction for the team going into a massive game on Thursday, not to mention what should obviously be a rebuilding phase during the offseason no matter how the playoffs turn out.

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About the Author(s)

Sean Cassidy, Herman Coats and Gabe Dixon are the hosts of Bearscast.com, the best and brightest Bears podcast, part of the Chicago Sportscast Network. Now with perfect pronunciation of "Adewale Ogunleye"...by one of the hosts anyway. Go listen. Send comments to hosts@bearscast.com.

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks fan who, inexplicably, still has hope that Bill Wirtz will once again provide Chicago with a championship hockey team and broadcast home games on TV, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium. Every week he'll bring you five talking points on the state of hockey in Chicago (including, when possible, the minor-league Wolves). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

Patrick O'Neil is a Chicago designer and software developer. His second Bull's championship celebration was marred by a cordon of riot police at North, Milwaukee and Damen. Daniel X. O'Neil is Chicago writer and old skool Bulls fan. See more of him here. Send comments to bulls@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies has been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com.

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