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Wednesday, November 14

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Bears in Five

Raiding California
by the Bearscast.com Hosts

One: Rextacular Return
Well who would've thought it? Seven weeks after many Bears fans believed Rex had taken his final snap as a Bears quarterback, he comes in and goes "2006" on us. His fourth quarter bomb to Bernard Berrian (who seems to have finally realized he's in a contract year) has at least delayed the discussion of the 2008 draft for at least another week. The back-up version of Rex appeared to be a more confident one and avoided many of the mistakes we had become accustomed to, outside of the fumbled snap. Perhaps playing with nothing to lose is just what he needed. Hell, at one point Rex even managed to avoid a sack and scramble for positive yards. Now we will launch headlong into a week full of "Is Rex Back?" discussion, but at least it's that and not another week discussing a loss.

Two: Superman Grounded
They were going to kick to him. They were actually going to kick to him. How insulting! All-world returner Devin Hester, our own personal Superman, was insulted that Lane Kiffin and these upstart Oakland Raiders were actually going to kick to him. But as it turned out maybe Mr. Kiffin wasn't completely out of his mind. Outside of one 62-yard punt return that was called back for holding on Brendon Ayanbadejo, Hester was held in check, losing yards more often than gaining them. It was a classic case of trying to do too much as he twisted and turned looking for big yardage and often running into a tackle for a loss. Thankfully the Bears didn't need his heroics against the Raiders and hopefully Oakland's success will make more Bears opponents overconfident.

Three: Welcome Back Defense
The Bears seemingly found at least one thing over their bye week: their defense. They blitzed more, Alex Brown got a lot more playing time, and rookie Trumaine McBride stepped in more than adequately for Nathan Vasher with four tackles and two passes defended. That in addition to Adewale Ogunleye using Cornell Green as his own personal turnstile on his way to three sacks had the Bears finally producing the kind of pressure that enables them to be a dominant force. While the Oakland Raiders are not exactly an offensive juggernaut, they were one of the top rushing offenses in the NFL and the Bears held them under 200 total yards. Perhaps most important were the three turnovers forced. Being +3 in the turnover department would sure make any second half playoff run a lot easier for the Bears. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come.

Four: Offensive O-Line
The stink made it all the way back here to Chicago from Oakland. It's getting so bad not even Old Spice could cover it up. This week without aging and injured Ruben Brown, something I thought could've been addition via subtraction, the line continued to be unable to block almost anyone. This time it not only resulted in a sub-par performance by Cedric Benson, but also got starting quarterback Brian Griese hurt. If we are to call out any one unit as most responsible for the Bears struggles this season, this would be the group. Constant pressure has led to 16 interceptionss and a running game that cannot get on track (3.0 yards per attempt). Their underperformance combined with the ineptitude of Ron Turner has blessed Bears fans with the 24th ranked offense, and now we are left to rely on the return of Rex Grossman to change things... anyone else see a problem here?

Five: Plenty of Questions Remain
Do we have a long term answer at quarterback? Can Cedric Benson average more than 3 yards a carry? Will our defense start causing turnovers? Can our offensive line block anyone? Does any of it even matter at 4-5? There is a long list of questions to be answered in the final seven games of the season. Not the least of which is how long can the Bears hang in the playoff race.

While the Bears victory over the Raiders didn't go far in answering any of those questions at least it provides a glimmer of hope. After all in a season where seemingly everything that can go wrong has, can we really ask for much more? I'll take one more week of football that matters; then again I'm a Notre Dame fan...

Pucks in Five

Clipping the Red Wings
by Jeremy Piniak

One: A Perfect Storm
A Blackhawks home game on TV in high definition. The archrival Red Wings in town. A packed crowd of 19,045 in attendance. All the settings were in place for the Hawks to make an impact on the local airwaves, and the team responded to the near-capacity crowd and the dawning of a new age with a spirited performance on the ice and a 3-2 win. Heralded rookies and future faces of the franchise Jonathon Toews and Patrick Kane each netted goals and showed the crowd watching in the United Center and at home that they will be forces to be reckoned with for years to come. While there is no information on ratings yet, management has to be pleased with the broadcast of a game that had the buzz of excitement in the arena and the media, and that culminated in a tough victory led by the team's stars. A script couldn't have done more to show that Chicago Blackhawks hockey is on track to restore the roar and return to relevance in the Chicago sporting scene.

Two: Ruling the Red Wings
Detroit has been a thorn in the side of the Blackhawks for years, as their rise to division dominance coincided with Chicago's freefall the past decade. While the Hawks would always seem to play Detroit tough in years past, the Red Wings would usually earn the victory, including a 7-0-1 record last year, which included a few blowouts. Detroit is still an elite team, as their 13-3-1 record and top seed in the conference attest, but the Blackhawks have had their number so far this year, winning all three games, one in a shootout. In fact, this marks the first time in seven years the Blackhawks have taken three straight games from the Wings. With a fourth game in Detroit Thursday, a victory would ensure the Hawks of at least a split of the season series against their biggest rival. More importantly, for a young team like the Blackhawks, owning a series against an elite divisional rival has to be a huge boost in confidence that things in Chicago are changing.

Three: On the Road Again
After winning three of their last four in the United Center, the Blackhawks leave town as the circus returns for its annual visit. In previous years, the "circus trip" has often been a stumbling block, as the West Coast trip would see Chicago battling some of the premier conference teams, while still trying to develop consistency in an early stretch of the season. Last season saw the team go 1-3-1, culminating with the firing of coach Trent Yawney. This year, the Blackhawks are looking more poised and confident game in and game out, always giving themselves a chance to win. And in a twist to the normal schedule, the first three games the team finds itself staying close to home to take on Columbus, Nashville and Detroit, before an abbreviated trip through Western Canada to battle Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver Thanksgiving week. With all three Canadian teams struggling early on, the Hawks can hope for a relatively easy circus trip this year.

Four: Needs More Organ
While Rocky Wirtz's short tenure has already led to many positive changes around the organization, there is one recent change that is not sitting well with some fans. Frank Pellico's been manning the organ for the Hawks since 1991, but has recently had his role reduced as part of the game-time entertainment. While the United Center organ pales in comparison to the monstrous pipe organ from Chicago Stadium, Frank's between period and pre-game performances have always entertained and added to the atmosphere. Piping in modern music has its place and can get the crowd fired up, but hearing the organ interspersed within the context of the game is part of old-time hockey. There needs to be a middle ground between keeping with tradition and modernizing the game for young fans.

Five: Wolves Keep on Winning
The Ws keep adding up for the Wolves, as they won all four away games last week, including three games in three nights. Chicago has yet to lose in regulation this season, setting a team record by going 11-0-1. They escaped Rochester with a shootout victory Sunday after Steve Martins tied the game with 59 seconds left. Leading the attack last week was Alexandre Giroux, Jason Krog, Steve Martins and a familiar face in Brett Sterling. Sterling made the NHL's Atlanta Thrashers out of training camp, but was returned to the Wolves Monday. Last year's AHL Rookie of the Year picked up where he left off, scoring two goals each Friday and Saturday. The Wolves wrap up their season-high seven-game road trip against the Iowa Stars Friday, before returning home for the first time in three weeks to host back-to-back games against Houston and San Antonio on the weekend. The Wolves have started stronger than many would have imagined, but with only a four-point divisional lead, have to keep their hot streak going if they hope to add some breathing room to the race.

Bulls in Five

Up & Down
by Dan & Patrick O'Neil

One: A Win
So let's review the last week for our erratic professional basketball team: Lose another half-hearted game to the Clippers. Impress everyone while beating long-time Eastern Conference foes, the Detroit Pistons on Thursday. Get embarrassed by the Toronto Raptors on Saturday. One and five on the season. The Bulls are in the middle of a four-day period with no games as they travel to the West Coast to start their annual circus trip.

Two: Where's Wallace?
The big question emerging this week is all about Big Ben. The Bulls center, the big acquisition of last year, is making $15 million to put up some meager numbers and sit on the bench for most of the fourth quarter. Could be an ankle injury, could be a "guaranteed contract-itis."

Three: Noah Shuts Up
Do you remember the Cracked Magazine Shut-Ups feature, wherein one person complains about something, and it seems like they should really be listened to, and then in the second panel, someone says, "Shut Up," and we see that, in fact, that person should shut up? Well, that happened to Bulls first round draft pick Joakim Noah this week. After he played his first regular-season professional basketball game, he basically came out and said the Bulls weren't trying hard enough (otherwise known as "the truth"). When Coach Scott Skiles (10 years as a Tough Guy player, holds the record for assists in a game) heard that, he said, "If I had just played my first pro game, I'd probably keep my mouth shut, to be honest with you." To his credit, the quaking Noah did ("I don't want to say anything. There's no... um, there's not... I don't have a problem with Coach Skiles, OK? If he feels that way, I'll shut up.")

Four: Still Asses
It's oddly comforting to see that some things don't change — there's a Bush in the White House, an American conflict in Iraq, and the Detroit Pistons are asses. Sun-Times writer Brian Hanley recounts some good bits in the Bulls game vs. Detroit last week ("Diving for victory"). They cleared the way for Hinrich to take a tough bench tumble and intentionally tripped Tyrus Thomas.

Five: Go for the Game, Stay for the Victory
After watching a humbling blowout of the Bulls Saturday night, it was comforting to watch a group of Chicagoans work well together in achieving a common goal. More than 50 people on the floor of the stadium converted the Bulls court to Blackhawk ice. It was better than watching the Bulls glob around the court. Everybody played a part, did it well, and achieved victory — and they get paid a tiny fraction of the Bulls.

Fire in Five

Bicycle Kicked
by Steve Gillies

One: Taylor Twellman, I Hate You
I've never liked Taylor Twellman. That cocky smile. The blonde hair. He's the mean jock from every 1980s movie. He's a bully too, scoring tons of goals against MLS defenses every year, then going painfully quiet when it's time to step it up on the national team level. So, nobody was angrier than me when he scored an absolutely stunning bicycle kick to give the New England Revolution the 1-0 win and knock the Fire out of the playoffs for the fifth time in the last six years. But who's counting — oh yeah, everyone. Really, it was a great goal. If you're going to go out, it's better to go out to a goal like that than falling asleep on a set play or having some flukey shot bounce off somebody's shin.

Two: The Biggest Disappointment
Up until that goal the Fire played very well. They looked aggressive, had most of the possession, and created a couple of good chances. Then Twellman scored in the 40th minute and it completely deflated them. They just didn't worry New England enough during the second half. I don't want to say they showed a lack of heart, because you could certainly see they put forth the effort, and they did manage to create a couple of chances. But they just couldn't put a real spell of pressure together. It was disappointing and uncharacteristic of this team since Osorio took over to go down with that little of a fight.

Three: The Honeymoon For Osorio Is Over
Friday morning, armchair coaches had only one thing to talk about. Fire coach Juan Carlos Osorio decided to bring Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope back into the lineup, moving Chris Rolfe into a midfield role that puts the team's best goal scorer further away from the goal. It's the lineup the Fire had played with before the LA game, back when they were getting ties instead of wins. Needless to say, the move did not pay off. Wanchope looked largely invisible, and the one chance he did get he flicked a header so far off target that he clearly didn't know where the goal was — a sure sign of rust in a striker. It's really unclear why Osorio decided to tinker with a lineup that got results. And it's the first sign of fallibility in a coach who basically saved this season from being a complete catastrophe.

Four: Where Do We Go From Here
In a way, it's good the Fire went out of the playoffs when they did. Although the late season turnaround salvaged an otherwise miserable season, it shouldn't disguise the fact that this team has a long way to go. It needs rebuilding. Strengthening the forward line should be the most obvious change in the offseason, but the Fire need to improve their depth in every part of the field. The center of the midfield will have a big hole in it left by the retiring Chris Armas, and the backline, while playing solid, is one or two injuries away from being a complete mess. Osorio has done a great job at bringing in foreign talent and getting them to gel with the team immediately (Wanchope excepted). With the way MLS roster rules work, he'll have to strengthen the squad by making good draft picks, or trading with other MLS teams. We've yet to see how he can cope with the intricacies of the league in this regard.

A quick note on Matt Pickens. His contract is up, and there are no guarantees that he'll resign. He's been making a ridiculously low amount of money for the past two years, while his back-up goalies have made more than him. Pickens has clearly proven himself and he's young enough that he will only get better. He is part of the core of players that the Fire should be building around. Do what it takes to keep him.

Five: So Long To the Captain
Thursday marked the last game of Fire captain Chris Armas. Characteristically, he went out with little fanfare and no big speeches. He always did his talking on the field. It's all been written before, but it's worth saying again, because he deserves it: Chris Armas has been everything a captain should be, leading by example and nurturing the young players on the team. He'll be sorely missed by not just the Fire, but the league as a whole. I do, however, look forward to seeing his name and number in the Ring of Fire alongside Frank Klopas, Bob Bradley, Lubos Kubik, Peter Nowak and Peter Wilt. There will always be a piece of Armas at that stadium.

Anyway, it has been an interesting year to say the least. I'll be back next week to do a full on post-mortem.

 

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.

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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