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Monday, July 22

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Bears in Five

Misery and Rebuilding
by the Bearscast.com Hosts

One: Ugly Football
When I think about it that's the only real way to describe what transpired Thursday night. From injuries to both starting quarterbacks, to non-existent running games, to terrible Brian Griese interceptions, to not being able to stop Todd Collins with the game on the line, it was all just ugly! In a lot of ways I think it was the worst game we played all year, and a definitively sign that this is a defeated team. Throw in another slew of injuries and I am beginning to wonder how we will even field a team to finish out the year. From the Super Bowl to 5-8 in less than a year, and with Kyle Orton slated to start the final three games it might actually get worse. This is unbelievable! I swear if I were an emo Bears fan I'd probably slit my wrists somewhere around the third Orton INT against the Vikings.

Two: Neckbeard All The Way
Hide the women, the children, anyone who remembers what a good Bears QB looks like — and of course the Jack Daniels — Kyle Orton is back. With absolutely nothing to play for over the final three games, and Rex Grossman done for the year with a knee sprain, Lovie has decided to turn to the man with the facial hair that looks like it was glued on. I wonder whether Bears fans would be more encouraged about Orton's ascension to QB1 if he looked like less of a pot-smoking college drop-out. I look forward to hearing plenty about how the Bears went 10-5 under his guidance his rookie year (and nothing about completing only 51.6 percent of his passes or his 59.7 QB rating). In all fairness, there was plenty of press about his improved play in training camp and that observers thought he might take the back-up job from Griese. It is possible that Orton will open our eyes and show us that our franchise QB was sitting there on the bench all along, looking like a homeless man. In reality his play will probably decide whether the Bears feel comfortable with him as the back-up next year freeing them to trade or cut Griese this off-season. These final three games may be only for the die-hard fans... with extremely strong stomachs.

Three: Todd Collins? Todd FREAKING Collins?
You're kidding me right? Todd Collins — who had not thrown a TD in five years or started since '97 — did not drive down the field against our defense in the fourth quarter and throw a TD pass that iced the game. Good Lord! I swear watching that I expected the theme song from the Twilight Zone to kick in at any moment. If there is ever a moment in Bears history that I will "accidentally" forget to tell my children about, this one immediately made the Top Five (right up there with drafting Curtis Enis, the Moses Moreno Era, how the '85 Bears only won one Super Bowl, and anything to do with Dave Wannstedt.) I mean, when the guy came in the game, the only thing I could do was make fun of Mark Brunnel for somehow being stuck behind this guy on the depth chart. Two hundred twenty-four yards and two TDs later and all I can think is we might have had a better chance if Jason Campbell had stayed in the game. I thought losing to Jon Kitna twice was a pretty low point, but this is the kind of loss you never really should be allowed to live down.

Four: 2008 Draft Strategy
Well, Thursday's game certainly assured us of one thing — it's time to stop thinking about convoluted playoff scenarios and instead plot out draft strategies for April. The needs for this team are pretty obvious: a couple of offensive linemen who can block, a couple of defensive backs who can tackle, some depth on the defensive line, a legitimate compliment to Cedric Benson, and a starting quarterback. Not all of these holes can be plugged on draft day '08. The most pressing need is offensive line, and that should be what is addressed in the first round. Jerry Angelo has neglected this unit for far too long and a left tackle of the future — allowing John Tait to slide back over to the right side — would be a good place to start.

My feelings from there are mixed. I'd like the opportunity to pick up a running back like Steve Slaton or Rashard Mendenhall — both Juniors who are likely to declare — in the second round because they'd be excellent compliments to Benson. The only way I pass on that is if this team was unable to find a veteran safety (anyone but Adam Archuleta or anyone related to him, please!) and needed a safety who could actually tackle in the second round. From there this team should look for more help on the offensive line and I pray they don't even consider drafting a quarterback. I know the odds say Angelo should get it right just based on luck at some point, but I just don't trust him to evaluate anyone who is going to play offense.

Five: Check the Mirror
Rex Grossman — It's sad to see your season end with another injury, but this may be a blessing in disguise. Chicago can hold nothing good for you now. Go, be free, give Miami or Atlanta a call, they are going to be desperate.

Devin Hester — I know you are the best returner in football. I know you are our best offensive weapon. But you seriously need to spend 10 hours a day this offseason with the playbook and your fellow wide receivers.

Lovie Smith — I know you aren't going to lose your job after signing that big contract last season, but I think you need to think hard about who you keep around you to make sure we don't see another season like this for a while. Now that we've tasted the Super Bowl again, beating the Packers simply will not be enough.

The Entire Defense — You gave up a game-winning touchdown drive to a QB who hadn't thrown more than 12 passes in a season since 1997. Enough said.

Kyle Orton — First and foremost, shave. Second order of business is just let it all hang out. Play with some moxie and some confidence so the rest of us have something to cheer about these last few games, and maybe something nice to look forward to in the future.

Pucks in Five

Sliding on Ice
by Jeremy Piniak

One: Sliding Down the Standings
December has brought icy cold to Chicago, and the Blackhawks are feeling the effects, currently mired in their own cold snap of a season-high four game losing streak, the last three at home. In an increasingly tight Western Conference race, any skid can have profound effects on the standings, as the Hawks have slid from second to last in the division and to 10th in the conference.

The team hasn't been playing horribly through the stretch, but has been struggling with getting the puck in the net, averaging just two goals a game. The Blackhawks have been out-shooting their opponents, including a season-high 42 attempts against Anaheim Friday. Unfortunately, the Hawks have faced some of the top goalies in the league in Vancouver's Roberto Luongo, Anaheim's Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Calgary's Miikka Kiprusoff, and each net minder has answered the call to earn his team a victory. Hawks goalie Nicolai Khabibulin hasn't played horribly, but has been outdueled and the victim of a few unlucky deflections.

It's vital that the Hawks don't let the losing streak affect their effort and confidence, and a welcome tonic arrives at the United Center tomorrow in the form of the LA Kings. Los Angeles is the worst team in the Western Conference, and while it's too early to call the game a must-win, the Hawks need to break their current slump and get back into the win column. The Hawks also travel to Patrick Kane's hometown of Buffalo to take on a struggling Sabres Saturday, before they battle the equally mediocre Florida Panthers Sunday.

Two: Pick a Line, Keep a Line
Part of the problem has been the constant juggling of lines by head coach Denis Savard. Not only has Savard rolled out different lines in every game, he's taken to switching lines constantly within the game as well. This isn't necessarily a problem; if a combination is looking awful, it's best to make a correction within the game. However, when Savard's switching lines within the first 5 minutes of the game, as he did Sunday against Calgary, clearly the initial starting lines were an egregious error. Couple that with the fact some of his line choices have been somewhat baffling, to say the least, and it's clear that Savvy's mad chef impersonation is hurting the team's confidence. Friday against Anaheim, Savard finally gave into temptation and placed winger Martin Havlat with rookies Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane, the team's three most talented players. However, within the same game, Savard moved Havlat onto a line with Martin Lapointe and Colin Fraser, two grinding forwards and a complete 180 from the initial line. The same thing happened on Sunday, and Savard's tinkering never lets the team develop a flow. There have been combinations that have clicked, only to be broken apart after one rough game, and if the Hawks are going to become consistent, it needs to stop and let players become accustomed to their linemates' tendencies.

Three: Press Box Problems
One of the other questionable moves Savard has made has been the sporadic playing time of veterans Sergei Samsonov and Yannic Perrault. While the Blackhawks have been struggling to score and Savvy has been shuffling lines like a deck of cards, these two proven commodities have been riding the pine in favor of unproven youngsters like Adam Burish and Dave Bolland, who have yet to tickle the twine this season. Samsonov has had 70 point seasons as a member of the Bruins, but has struggled since leaving Boston in 2005. Sergei was the spare part the team acquired in dumping the underperforming Jassen Cullimore over the off-season, and after struggling in the first 10 games of the year, he's missed half of the next 20 games, usually as a healthy scratch. However, when he's been on the ice, he's shown he still has his quick hands and deft skating (sometimes to the detriment of the play), but has averaged only just over 13 minutes of ice time. For a team that needs goal scorers, Samsonov should be given a real chance to play significant minutes and develop chemistry on a single line.

Perrault had an All-Star season for Phoenix last year after contemplating signing with the Hawks, and while his offensive skills have diminished, the 36-year-old is leading the NHL in face-off percentage and has three goals and three assists this season. Perrault has not been superb defensively, and his size makes him a tough start against more physical teams, but his playmaking could help shore up the third and fourth line and provide a more balanced threat. The team's offense has clearly taken a hit with the absence of Jason Williams, but it's time to give the veterans a chance to do what they were brought here for: provide some leadership and scoring experience in the midst of a tough season.

Four: HawksFest '08
New Blackhawks President John McDonough has announced plans to take a page out of the Cubs playbook and create a Hawks fan convention for the summer of 2008 to keep interest in the team going after the season has ended. Given the thousands of fans who turned out for Jonathon Toews' and Patrick Kane's autograph signing at Hawkquarters last Saturday, there is a strong allegiance to the franchise from many loyal fans, and I have no doubt the convention would be a successful undertaking. It would be a great way to celebrate the team's history — McDonough has already begun reaching out to former Hawk greats — as well as give fans the first opportunity to meet some of the new acquisitions and picks from the 2008 draft slated to take place in late June.

However, I'd love to see the franchise come up with a more unique gathering than the now-typical meet-and-greet the conventions end up being, as it'll be hard to think about ice hockey in the middle of summer. The Blackhawks' alumni association is a group of former players who raise scholarship money and perform other charitable work throughout Chicagoland, as well as suit up to face other alumni teams. Scheduling a scrimmage between current and former players would allow fans a chance to see heroes and prospects up close and personal in a fun atmosphere. While the focus will be on giving fans access to the players and the chance to celebrate the upcoming season, getting the players involved in providing a unique experience would help foster the tight-knit community that exists in few other major sports. McDonough also mentioned plans to have all games on TV next year, home and away. Showing how exciting the game can be is a surefire way to bring back fans to the United Center, but hardly shocking after the about face on TV broadcast began by Rocky Wirtz this year.

Five: Woeful Wolves
Up the Kennedy in Rosemont, the Chicago Wolves have found December a dreadful month for themselves, as they also have gone winless in the final month of the year. Despite the four-game losing streak, the Wolves have managed to stay tied for the Western Conference lead. A little slump is hardly unexpected, as the Wolves would have been hard-pressed to keep up their white-hot 17-2-1 start. Chicago has given up third-period leads in two of their last three games and was leading Manchester 1-0 before giving up three straight goals on the way to a 7-4 defeat. The Wolves are averaging 3.58 goals per season and have three players in the top 12 in scoring, so unlike the Hawks, lighting the lamp isn't an issue. But continuing a pattern that has emerged throughout the year, the team has lacked a killer instinct to close out games. Earlier in the season the Wolves would falter in the third but hang on for the win, which finally caught up to them this past week. It's not time to panic yet, but the Wolves need to work on not letting their guard down late in games, starting this Thursday against the Rochester Americans, before back to back road games against Peoria and Iowa Friday and Saturday.

Bulls in Five

The Upside
by Dan and Patrick O'Neil

Looking Back
Since our look-in last week, the Bulls have gone 2-1 for the week, beating a weak Bobcats team in Charlotte and the strong Pistons team in the Motor City while losing to best team in the conference, the Boston Celtics, at home. Maybe they're staying at Holiday Inn Express. Good news: they're no longer the worst team in the conference. Bad news: if they keep going like this, they're taking huge steps backwards from last year with essentially the same team. Best thing about the Boston game? It was ice scraper night. Well planned.

Nocioni For Captain
The best thing Coach Skiles could do would be to demote Hinrich and Deng and name Andres Nocioni the team captain. The man is a monster. Who cares if he's not even in the starting lineup? The Argentinian is averaging 15 points and six rebounds a game. More importantly, it's obvious that he cares. That's enough on this team. He's been key to both of the Bulls' victories this week, pulling up huge points and energy when he's in there. Also, the Bulls finally had a comeback that didn't turn into an upchuck. Powered by Nocioni's 10 fourth quarter points and his first double-double (more than 10 points and 10 rebounds) of the year, the Bulls rallied past the Bobcats on Wednesday. Let's see if they can do that against a good team now.

Thomas Sits
Second-year forward Tyrus Thomas was DNP (did not play) the last two games and is obviously in some sort of invisible dog house. During the Mavericks game last Monday, TT was caught out of position and couldn't (or wouldn't) get where he needed to be when told by veterans on the court. Skiles sat him down immediately and he hasn't really gotten up much since. Everyone is talking around the issue, piping out lots of live-and-learn clichés, but there's something up — this guy was a starter two weeks ago.

From the Bird Cage Liners
Brian Hanley had some nice insight on how well the team does with Hinrich riding pine, K.C. Johnson covers the terribleness of Gordon, and Sam Smith accuses the SuperSonics of throwing games.

The Weak Ahead
The Bulls host the aforementioned Sonics on Tuesday (winter gloves night, another practical decision by the promotions team), boogie on down to Indiana for a Wednesday night matchup, then back home for the Knicks on Friday. Looks like another two-out-of-three week to me. Watch out in the Viagra Triangle this weekend — there are no games Saturday or Sunday.

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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, whenever 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.

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