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Bears in Five

The Best Team in Football
by Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon & Friends

Step into a world. A world where the Chicago Bears can put up 30+ points while practically pitching a shut-out. Step into a world where Bears running backs can put up 160 yards and score twice, while Bears quarterbacks put up 200 and score twice. Step into a world where back-up defensive ends are dropping QBs like the Fridge drops a salad; step into a world where the Bears force five turnovers while giving up only one, in garbage time. That world, my friends, scares me. It haunts me, like those Ghost Houses in Super Mario World for Super Nintendo, with those big ghosts that cover their eyes and those weird penguin-looking things. Also, thwomps. Sorry. Just a little giddy. The Chicago Bears — the Chicago Bears — are the best team in football. And not by a little. Not "arguably." The hometown boys are dominating the most popular league in America.

Not bad.

One: Firepower
The Chicago Bears offense is... potent? No. There must be a much stronger way to describe a team that has scored more than 30 points the past two weeks. How about stultifying. They tend to have that effect on opposing defenses. Rex and the boys had the Buffalo Bills running around senseless on Sunday afternoon and there really doesn't appear to be any slowing down. Bernard Berrian solidified his status as the league's best big play threat during the game. Cedric Benson scored his first NFL touchdown. And then his second. Thomas Jones ran for over 100 yards for the first time this season. Everything seems to be working on all cylinders right now, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. This was only the fifth game. They're going to get better. Kind of scary, no?

Two: You Think Your Schedule is Tougher than Ours? PUT A JERSEY ON!
The talk around the league is that the schedule is easy for our Bears. Based on winning percentages of opponents going into the season, this is true. But when a team is wreaking the kind of havoc that the Bears are, that kind of talk should be thrown out the window. The average margin of victory is slightly over 24 points a game. This team would be beating even the toughest of opponents right now. The rest of the league is jealous. Which brings us to our next topic...

Three: Power Rankings
Many media outlets rank professional teams as a way to determine just who the best team actually is. After this week's game the Bears should be ranked number one in every single publication. If they aren't, Bears in Five will hear about it. And then we might have a problem. So Professional Football Writers of America, you've been warned. But there really is no possible way that this team couldn't be ranked number one.

Four: MANDERSON
Mark Anderson is still good at football. He leads all rookies in the NFL with 5-1/2 sacks to date. As well as a forced fumble and fumble recovery. Huge value from a fifth round pick. Jerry Angelo, you are a genius my friend. Jerry Angelo is the executive of the decade, to date. Seriously. His drafts and off-season moves, with the occasional blunder, have been downright visionary.

Five: Humidity vs. Dry Heat — Discuss
The Bears play the Arizona Cardinals next week in Arizona. The Bears will be 6-0 after they play the Arizona Cardinals next week in Arizona. We're not sure why they decided to make this a Monday Night game — even though people expected a resurgent Cardinals team this year, they had to know that even a somewhat improved Bears squad would stomp them a la Moby and Obie.

Fire in Five

What on Earth was That?
by Steve Gillies

OK, so the loss to New York last week seems to be more than just a little blip, as the Fire followed that up by getting blown out 4-1 by the league-worst Columbus Crew. Should we be getting worried or, now we've won the Cup and we're in the playoffs, is it just that no one cares?

One: Worst Defeat of the Season to the Worst Team in the League
At 4-1, that was the worst defeat the Fire have suffered this season. It's pretty hard to stomach a loss like that coming from a last place team with no playoff chance that was closing in on setting a record for least goals scored in a season before they knocked a couple past us. The funny thing is, for the most part we were in complete control of the game during the first half, except for two instances of very sleepy defending that put us down 2-1 at halftime. I know I've said before that I wanted to see the Fire play more attacking, adventurous soccer, but in the second half the Fire played suicidal soccer, sending almost the entire team forward, with nobody bothering to try to get back and defend once they lost the ball. Virtually every turnover in the second half led to the three or four Crew players running at two stranded Fire. It seems as though, in the same way the Fire has been too quick to pack things in and just try to defend a one-goal lead when they get ahead, getting behind by a goal led to them being way too quick to hit the panic button and throw numbers forward recklessly when they had plenty of time to equalize by just playing their usual game.

Two: If You're Going to Fall Apart Like That, I Guess That Was Perfect Time
The silver lining in that debacle is that the game had absolutely no consequence whatsoever (which might explain why nobody in the Fire midfield felt any need to work once they lost the ball in the second half). We're playing the New England Revolution in the first round of the playoffs and the only thing left to settle is whether we do so as the second seed or the third. And really, despite what you might read in press releases about the "race for second place really heating up," nobody cares.

Three: Except, If You're Going to Fall Apart Like That, That Was Totally the Worst Time
But here's the thing that killed me about that game: it drew close to 20,000 people. Being the last game of the regular season, the Fire put out tons of comped tickets. So there was a huge crowd on hand that included a lot of people that don't usually see the Fire play. It reminded me of the Club America game where a second-string team was playing, or last year's double header with the Mexico-Poland game, where the Fire had the opportunity to expose the team to a whole new group of fans and totally tanked. Even more painful were the season-ending celebratory fireworks after the game (a lot of people had left before the final whistle) and embarrassed-looking Fire coming back out of the locker room to do a lap applauding the fans to thank them for the support over the season. It was pretty awkward.

Four: Maybe They Actually Threw the Game
There is a silly theory going around explaining why the Fire played so horribly. The playoffs being arranged the way they are; it's entirely possible that the Fire actually wants the third seed rather than the second. Third seed gets to play at home first, the logic being that if the two game series is tied, the second seed has the "home field advantage" by playing the overtime in their stadium. There is a school of thought saying that it's more of an advantage to get off to a good start. Really, I don't think it matters enough either way, so bothering to throw a game over something like that is as likely as some of veteran players got together and decided to give away a bunch of goals and make Matt Pickens look bad in order to get Zach Thornton back in goal for the playoffs (which of course, didn't happen). I really think it was just a case of players not being motivated to do all the little bits of hard work that keep you competitive in games. Sure it doesn't matter now, but the team better get their edge back before they play a very good New England team (that's knocked them out of the playoffs three out of the last four years).

Five: Rolfe and Herron: Is It Really a Partnership That Works?
As opposed to the loss to New York where some players were rested after the US Open Cup Final, this week Sarachan clearly played what he thinks of as his best team. There isn't much to argue with about the lineup he put out there, the guys just didn't play. The one thing I'm not too sure about, though, is Chris Rolfe and Andy Herron as a striking partnership. I think taken as individuals they're definitely the two best players we have in that position, but I haven't seen enough of them working together and complementing each other the way Jaqua and Rolfe did last year, or Chad Barrett and Andy Herron did at times this season. Injuries and suspensions have kept them from playing together too often this season, but they need to develop some chemistry pretty fast if we're going to do anything in the playoffs. Of course, if the Fire defends the way they did on Saturday night, it won't matter how well our strikers play, we'll be going home early.

Pucks in Five

.500's a Start, Except So Was Last Year
by Jeremy Piniak

Following an impressive come from behind victory over the Predators to open the season, the Blackhawks opened the home campaign with 50 minutes of poor play bookended by 5 minutes of effort, falling to Columbus. Last year the team followed a disappointing home loss to Columbus by losing eight of their last 11 to finish out October. Thankfully, I don't see the same thing happening this year, despite the team's haphazard performance, because there are only 10 games left this October. At least we have the league's leading scorer!

One: Defensive Deficiencies
Entering the season, the biggest question mark surround the Blackhawks was their retooled offense. The young defensive corps was expected to continue the growth it showed last year, while gaining experience with full seasons from captain Adrian Aucoin and Jassen Cullimore. After two games, the offense has shown it can put up points on a somewhat consistent level, but the blue-liners have turned in some absolutely awful games, and the team has continued its ill-timed penalties. Rookie Lasse Kukkonen has been the surprising stalwart so far, providing a solid presence and throwing his body around. Brent Seabrook is +3, but has looked lost on the ice at times. And those are the pluses, as Jim Vandemeer, Duncan Keith and Aucoin have all struggled with positioning and giveaways.

As for Cullimore, where to begin? He's a dinosaur of the old NHL who has no place on this team, or even in the league. His -3 after two games is a disturbing start for a player who finished last year -24 in only 54 games. More alarming are his five penalties, two of which the Bluejackets capitalized on Saturday, shifting the tide in their 5-4 win. A veteran defenseman like Cullimore should be experienced enough to keep out of the box, but when the players around you are faster and more talented; you resort to clutching and grabbing. Unfortunately, since the Hawks opted to carry six defenseman, there's nobody available to replace Cullimore, and cutting his ice time only forces another struggling D-man to take up the slack.

If the Bears' swarming defense is the Monsters of the Midway, does that make the Blackhawks feeble D the Mice of Madison Street?

Two: Yawney Wakes Up, Smells the Losing
Following Saturday's home opener debacle against Columbus, Coach Trent Yawney held little back at the press conference, taking his team to task for their undisciplined play and defensive lapses while peppering his answers with profanities. It's refreshing to see him hold the team accountable for their poor play and lashing out at the losing culture that has permeated Chicago hockey, saying he was "sick and tired, it's been going on here too long." Yawney also turned Sunday's practice into an intense skating session, and scheduled a video session for Monday's day off in an effort to get the team back on track for Thursday's home game against Nashville.

He also took veiled aim at the veterans in the locker room, saying the leaders on the team have to create a winning attitude. Maybe his emotion after the game was clouding his commentary, but if there's such a question of attitude and leadership on a team two games into a season, doesn't that reflect back upon your coaching staff and management? After the Sunday morning skate, veterans and coach had a closed door meeting, hopefully to clear the air and present a united front. Yawney has a reputation as a good teacher from his five years in Norfolk with the Hawks young players, and I think he's a good coach. But this year's team has been rebuilt extensively and requires Yawns to motivate and strategize more than teach and impart knowledge. At this point, it remains to be seen how well he can do that, but he's taking the necessary steps to get the team righted.

Three: Havlat the Hero
Two games do not make a season, but after last week, the Blackhawks acquisition of Martin Havlat is paying big dividends. Marty is leading the league with six points in his pair of games, and has been a catalyst for the Hawks offense. Thursday's four-point game included a breakaway goal and a breathtaking assist on Martin Lapointe's power play goal, weaving in between two Predators and heading toward the net, then drawing the opposite defenders to him before feathering a backhand to a wide-open Lapointe. Saturday Havlat knocked a puck out of mid-air into the net, bringing the Blackhawks to within one goal, and added an assist on Jeff Hamilton's power-play goal. Havlat's sniper skills are fresh to a Blackhawks team that hasn't had a scorer of this magnitude since Tony Amonte, and the crowd Saturday had a perceptible buzz every time Marty carried the zone with the puck. After being part of the high-octane offense in Ottawa the last few years, Havlat was brought to Chicago to be the star, as his $6 million a year contract reflects. So far he's lived up to the billing, unlike some other high-profile signings for the Hawks.

Four: Which Brings Us To...
The Blackhawks other $6 million dollar man ($6.75 million, to be exact), Nikolai Khabibulin. The Blackhawks premier free-agent signing of a year ago was less than stellar in his initial campaign. For the team to compete this year, Khabibulin needs to play up to his potential and earn his salary, the highest in the league for any goalie. Though the Hawks are currently 1-1, Habby has given up a disturbing 11 goals, and is second from the bottom of the league in goals against average, with a 5.68. Though the numbers may not reflect it, Khabibulin had a number of strong saves in both games after the defense left him hung out to dry, and has generally looked a little more comfortable in the net. That said, his inability to control rebounds has led to a number of goals on second-chance shots, and he still gets clearly shaken after giving up a goal. Regardless of the defensive lapses, these numbers have to improve for the team to have a chance to succeed.

Five: Brathwaite Brings his "B" game to the Wolves
The Wolves were busy setting their roster and beginning their regular season last Saturday night with a 5-0 win over Peoria. Before the game, the team learned they were acquiring the services of veteran NHL goaltender Fred Brathwaite, as the Thrashers assigned him to their minor-league affiliate. Braithwaite has been a constant on NHL rosters since 1993, playing for four different teams and posting an 81-99-37 overall record. He played in Russia during the lockout year, and opted to stay there last year as well, but was signed by Atlanta for insurance after their starter Kari Lehtonen and numerous backups fought injuries all of last year. Lehtonen is the future of the Thrashers, and the team has a number of young prospects in the system, including Wolves goalie Michael Garnett. Brathwaite will be valuable to the Wolves as both a mentor and a solid goalie in the short term. In the long term, the injury bug bites goalies all the time, and who knows which NHL teams will be looking for a fill-in with Brathwaite's considerable experience.

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Comments

Andrew / October 10, 2006 10:12 AM

"Jerry Angelo, you are a genius my friend. Jerry Angelo is the executive of the decade, to date. Seriously."

I came across a site that disagrees, although they've been relatively quiet since the season started.

Kevin / October 10, 2006 2:33 PM

How did the Bears get such a creampuff schedule after a first place finish? Miami? Arizona? The only tough 4 game stretch of the year is only because they play the Jets in New York. We'll see how good they are after New England mops the field with Rex Grossman's head.

 

About the Author(s)

Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends are not really friends but rather fierce competitors on the fantasy gridiron. They meet weekly to embarass each other with random football trivia at the Noble Street League HQ. This is where they write their column. Craig knows where every professional athlete went to college, and in some cases the names of their roommates. Creepy. Send comments to bears@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's 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

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 and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

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