Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Monsters Have Returned To The Midway

Look out all you NFC playoff contenders because the Chicago Bears are for real.

In what has to be the biggest surprise of the 2005 National Football League season – the Bears sit atop the NFC North with a 7-3 record.

Despite having a rookie at quarterback (Kyle Orton) and an Arizona Cardinals castoff at tailback (Thomas Jones), Da Bears are currently the number two seed in the conference after a huge 13-3 victory over the Carolina Panthers last Sunday.

Chicago head coach Lovie Smith has built this team into a contender in two short years by following a simple principle – a solid defense with a powerful running game equals a winning franchise.

There’s no flash or sparkle with the Bears. They won’t be confused with the Indianapolis Colts or the St. Louis Rams anytime soon.

What Chicago does is not pretty, but effective. They’re blue-collar – how could a team in the windy city not be? They hit hard, run hard, block hard and work hard. Lovie has instilled a hard-nosed attitude not seen since the time of Iron Mike Ditka.

The entire Smith philosophy is in every nerve and fiber of the Bears defense. His goal was to bring back the glory days when guys named Dick Butkus, Bill George and Mike Singletary roamed the field.

It’s worked. The Monsters of the Midway have returned.

Numbers don’t lie and the numbers say that Chicago has the best defense in the NFL. The Bears are ranked first in total defense (263.5 a game), first in scoring defense (11.0), second in interceptions (16) and fourth in sacks (31). They’re second against the pass (160.9) and seventh against the rush (91.2).

How dominant are these midway monsters?

The Bears have given up 20 or more points only twice this season and six times they’ve limited teams to less than 10 points.

All the ingredients are in place for this to be a special defense – a pass rushing force at defensive end (Adewale Ogunleye), a run-stuffing tackle (Tommie Harris) and arguably the best middle linebacker in the game (Brian Urlacher).

And if that wasn't enough, the secondary is playing at a very high level. Corners Nathan Vasher and Charles Tillman and strong safety Mike Brown have combined for 12 interceptions.

The offense scores just enough to win and Orton will only get better as he adjusts to the NFL. He’s confident, talented and protects the football – the key to success for any rookie QB.

He does have a nice target in Muhsin Muhammad (44-523-3), but not much else after that. Justin Gage and Bernard Berrian haven’t risen to the occasion to become a legitimate number two receiver. Mark Bradley could be the answer, but an injury sidelined him. Tight end Desmond Clark shows promise, but is inconsistent.

The running game is a much different story.

Chicago has a solid offensive line filled with veteran, all-pro caliber performers. Center Olin Kreutz, guards Ruben Brown and Terrence Metcalf and tackles John Tait and Fred Miller are the strength of the offense. That is if they’re not trying to break each other’s jaws.

Their performances have paid dividends for Jones – who has rushed for 840 yards and six touchdowns, despite missing one game and part of a second due to injury.

The running game suffered a blow recently when Cedric Benson was lost for the season with a knee injury. After holding out for most of training camp, Benson was starting to find his way and would have been a nice asset down the stretch.

But the Bears may have found an answer in third tailback Adrian Peterson. The veteran backup has looked solid in the last two games replacing Benson in the rotation.

Chicago is a ball-control, possession offense. They grind on you with the run and when the opportunity presents itself – the long ball comes into play.

It’s a formula that’s been very successful in the recent past.

The last five Super Bowl champions (Ravens, Buccaneers and Patriots) had the same style of play – dominating defense coupled with an offense that featured the rush.

None of the previous winners had a great passing attack – but they all had one thing in common – each team on their Super Bowl trek led the league in scoring defense. Sound like a team we know?

Despite history being against them, (no rookie QB has ever taken a team to the big dance), the Bears defensive prowess and the lack of a dominant power in the NFC, makes them a serious contender.

With the Eagles, Rams and Falcons falling apart, the door is open in the conference. Seattle has the best record in the NFC (8-2), but struggled to beat San Francisco last week. By no means are they a lock.

The NFC East and South will be a battle until the very end and that leaves the Bears in perfect position to claim a first-round bye.

But the schedule for Chicago is not a cakewalk. The Bears have four of their final six games on the road - Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and Minnesota - along with the Falcons and Packers at home.

If the Bears can clinch home field it could be sorrowful times for the rest of the NFC. Who wants to have to travel to Chicago for a playoff game in January?

It’s been a special season for the Bears and it may keep getting better and better.

The Monsters of the Midway are back – and the rest of the NFC is starting to take notice.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

UCLA Quarterback Needs Some Love

Can someone, anyone send a little love Drew Olson’s way? He sure does need it.

The UCLA quarterback has put up amazing numbers in 2005 but gets zero publicity outside the West Coast.

USC stalwarts Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush, Texas QB Vince Young, and Notre Dame signal caller Brady Quinn are getting all the Heisman hype. There’s nothing wrong with that. They’re all talented, gifted athletes and deserve the attention lavished on them.

But to ignore Olson with a severely cold shoulder does an injustice to the whole process of picking a Heisman winner. Everyone that’s stood out must be considered – not just those hyped up by the major media.

Unfortunately for Olson, it’s that same media that selects the winner. So he’ll get the shaft no matter what he does on the field. The Heisman race is one big popularity contest with the best player not always being picked.

That may be the case this season. Remember, the award is supposed to be given to the individual who’s had the best year. It’s not a career award.

The numbers put up by Olson in 2005 can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

He’s completed 67.7 percent of his passes (218-of-322) for 2,909 yards with 30 touchdowns and only three interceptions. Under his direction, the Bruins are 9-1 and ranked eleventh in the latest AP poll. If not for a horrible defense, UCLA would be unbeaten heading into its rivalry game with the Trojans.

Now compare his stats to the front-runners in the Heisman race.

Olson has thrown for more yards than Young (2,414), more touchdown passes than Leinart (23), Young (22) and Quinn (27), and has a higher completion percentage and QB rating than any of the big three.

Olson has done this on a team that has only one solid receiver (TE Marcedes Lewis) and less talent than USC, Texas or Notre Dame. These schools are traditional powerhouses. UCLA is a solid program – but doesn’t have the prestige or recruiting clout of that trio.

The Bruins are first and foremost a basketball school. Football is a high priority at UCLA of course, but hoops are first. That’s what happens when you win 11 national championships and your football program has only one (1954).

Imagine the numbers Olson could put up if he had the talent surrounding him that Leinart, Bush and Young do? He’s already smashed the Bruin single-season touchdown record and is closing in on the single-season yardage mark. At a USC or Texas – his stats could be monstrous.

His leadership, poise and character have led to five fourth quarter comeback victories by the Bruins. Thanks to a lackluster defense, Olson has faced 21-0, 28-0 and 28-14 deficits. In spite of this, he doesn’t get rattled. He stays calm, stares down the adversity and usually overcomes it.

That cool demeanor saved UCLA against Stanford and was one of the highlights of Olson’s season.

Down 24-3 in the fourth quarter, the Bruins scored 27 points in seven minutes to come away with the 30-27 overtime victory. Olson threw two touchdown passes in the closing moments, including the game winner.

UCLA, 6-6 last year, could be in line for a BCS game with a win over USC on December 3. Easier said then done I know. But it’s possible.

The criticis say he was inconsistent until his senior season. That’s true.

Olson was dazed and confused his first two years, started figuring things out during his junior campaign and blossomed into a big-time Division I quarterback as a senior.

Even though most of the draftniks don’t have him high on the draft boards, it would be a mistake to discount his abilities. In fact, Olson’s career mirrors that of a recent PAC-10 star quarterback.

Carson Palmer was dreadful his first three years at USC, then a stellar senior season, capped off by the Heisman, changed everything. Even so, the talk before the draft was Palmer had only one good year; he’s overrated, blah, blah, blah, blah.

What happened?

He was drafted first overall by Cincinnati, took his lumps early, and now looks to be a certain star the way he’s leading the Bengals this year.

Only time will tell how Olson will do in the NFL. None of us have a crystal ball. But he is – or at least should be – a legitimate candidate for the biggest prize in college football.

Vince Young or Reggie Bush will win the Heisman Trophy even though Drew Olson has had the most impressive and consistent season.

Now he just needs the love to go with it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Cowher Does Nothing But Win

The jaw protrudes, the spittle fires out his mouth and attaches itself on anyone unfortunate enough to get in the way. Then the sneer comes and a stare that freezes the blood stone cold.

This is the face of a football coach – the face of Bill Cowher.

Behind the well-known features is a man who has done what many thought impossible – create his own legacy despite following a coaching legend.

Cowher became head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1992 – replacing Chuck Noll – who led the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in the 70s.

Names like Bradshaw, Harris, Swann, Stallworth, Greene, Ham, Lambert and Blount dominated the football landscape with Noll at the helm. Championships followed. That was the situation Bill Cowher faced when he took the job.

How has he done these last 14 years? His record speaks for itself.

Cowher has compiled a 145-88-1 overall mark (counting the current season), captured eight division titles, made the playoffs nine times and five times advanced to the AFC Championship game. In 1995, Pittsburgh made its only Super Bowl appearance in the Cowher era (Super Bowl XXX), losing to the Dallas Cowboys 27-17.

Critics and armchair quarterbacks love to bring up the fact that he’s never won the big one – like that somehow lowers his value as a coach. Nonsense.

He wouldn’t have lasted this long on the job if he weren’t a winner. The NFL chews people up and spits them out pretty quickly.

Winning is the key to longevity and winning is what Cowher does consistently. Pittsburgh, notoriously tight with the purse strings – has lost more key players to free agency than just about any team during the last ten years. How does Cowher respond? You guessed it. He keeps racking up more victories.

The fact is coaches, like quarterbacks, are judged by Super Bowl victories. Unfair or not, that’s the way it is. But it doesn’t take away from a great coach if he didn’t win one.

Are Bud Grant, Marv Levy, Chuck Knox and George Allen unsuccessful coaches because they never won a ring? Of course not. Neither is Bill Cowher.

This year – more than any other – proves the type of leader that he truly is.

Halfway through the 2005 season – Pittsburgh has compiled a 7-2 record and sets atop the AFC North standings.

They’ve done it with Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley out for long stretches. Guys named Antwaan Randle-El, Cedrick Wilson and Willie Parker hold key positions in the offense. Charlie Batch and Tommy Maddox have started games at quarterback.

Not exactly world-beaters in the lineup, yet the Steelers keep on winning.

They win because of the man in charge. Cowher’s passion for the game is intense. He hires the best assistants and gives them free reign in a system that’s worked in the league since time began.

I’m talking about good ole smash-mouth football – the not-so secret of their success. That’s the Pittsburgh Steelers in a nutshell.

Forget about how accurate Ben Roethlisberger is or how good his passer rating stacks up with the rest of the league. The Steelers are an in-your-face running team. The Black and Gold want to line up, hit you in the mouth and do it again and again. While chewing up yards and eating away at the clock.

It’s old-school football and Cowher has learned it well. Nothing fancy – just basic power football. The players like the system; they like the guy in charge and play hard for him.

The most important thing that a coach needs to do is develop flexibility. Even though he likes the power running attack, if Roethlisberger is hot or Hines Ward is feeling it – Cowher won’t hesitate to pass all day long. He doesn’t become trapped into one style of play. And that pertains to both his offensive and defensive philosophies.

The Steelers can zone blitz, straight blitz and drop into man, cover 2 or cover 3 if the situation calls for it. It’s a style of coaching that the entire Pittsburgh staff believes in.

Being a flexible coach sounds easy in theory, but its hard to implement in live situations. Many coaches will stick to what they know and refuse to change things up even if that change is beneficial. Just look at the St. Louis Rams as an example.

Mike Martz likes to throw 40-50 times a game, regardless of the score or what the defense is giving him. Running game be damned. No matter that he has Stephen Jackson and Marshall Faulk in the backfield. Defensive coordinator Larry Marmie never met a blitz he liked. And boy do the Rams need to blitz once in awhile. But that’s another column altogether.

Cowher is one of the greats this game has ever produced. Never has a coach accomplished so much with so little fanfare. But I happen to think that’s the way Cowher likes it. The glare of the spotlight and press hounds is something he would just as soon avoid. Coaching and winning football games are his bread and butter.

And rest assured, the famous jutted jaw and intense look will be around for many more victories and much greater success. Just watch out for the spit.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

No More Sharpies, Cell Phones and T.O.

My nephew plays high school football and loves it. He runs, catches passes and plays the game with joy and unbridled enthusiasm.

When I watch the smile on his face - the uniform covered in grass stains and mud – I’m transported back to my own youth when my body was a lot lighter, a little more flexible and filled with much more energy than the person banging these keys has now.

Playing football was freedom – an escape from the routine. Growing up, the entire neighborhood would get together every weekend for some backyard football. Believe you me, those games were just as fun as watching my nephew now.

Like every generation before and after, we worshiped our football heroes. Walter Payton, Earl Campbell, Chuck Foreman, Roman Gabriel, Roger Staubach and yes, even Terry Bradshaw (Although a Steeler fan I’m not) were some of ours.

Age has shown me that no one is a saint. But you could look up to the athletes of the past and not be ashamed to do so.

Of course steroids were going around and a few bad apples were in the mix, but for the most part the pros played for the thrill of victory and their love of the game.

There were no holdouts for more money and players didn’t air their dirty laundry all over the media landscape. They didn’t showboat when a touchdown was scored or a tackle made – unless of course you’re Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson. They knew that tackling and scoring was part of the job description. And obviously, they didn’t rent out boats and prostitutes to try and pump up the team – literally and figuratively.

Instead of me, me, me – the football player of the past was about team. Individual goals came second to the goals of the organization. Winning a championship was above personal stats and glory.

And yes I know quite well that I’m romanticizing the past a bit, but just compare the game to what’s going on today.

Players have cell phones hidden in the goal post padding and Sharpies tucked away in their pants just in case they score. After a tackle or sack – some guys gyrate so much you think they’re having a seizure.

It’s a sad fact that in this age of instant gratification, players are more focused on themselves and their own glow than the team, the game and what it’s given them.

The beer commercial about Leon, the pampered athlete, is all too real in this day and age of multi-million dollar contracts and huge endorsement deals. I am all that matters, nothing else.

Which brings us to Terrell Owens – the poster boy for the spoiled, self-centered athlete.

T.O. is a psychiatrist’s wet dream. If any person reading this is a psych major – make your thesis about hyper-narcissism and use Owens as a case subject. I guarantee you’ll pass with flying colors.

He is selfishness personified. T.O. has taken arrogance to new heights of exploration. Owens is never wrong – according to Owens that is.

Fighting with coaches and chastising his quarterback in a public forum – nothing is off limits. Even his so-called apologies are hollow.

Sorry T.O., but getting your agent to read a public apology, while at the same time praising you, is the height of disrespect to your teammates and to the organization that gave you 49 million bucks to play in the City of Brotherly Love. Brotherly love – how ironic is that?

I was truly surprised that Owens didn’t read his apology considering how he loves to hear the sound of his own voice.

The sad fact is we hold some responsibility for the creation of a Terrell Owens and all others cut from the same cloth. At no time has the hero worship of the athlete been as high.

They’re given tons of money, boatloads of press, every creature comfort a heart desires and massive adulation from the fans. That in turn gives them a sense of entitlement.

T.O. is a superb athlete and an excellent football player. It’s too bad that he’s wasting his God-given abilities because his head is too big for the game that treated him so well.

Athletes don’t have a long shelf life. Owens doesn’t realize this or he would make the most of it. No matter how talented you are time catches up. It always does. Struggle is useless. How sad that a great talent will only be remembered for his arrogance and loud mouth.

The only thing that really concerns me is how many other T.O.’s are waiting in the wings? How many coming up will make Owens seem like a choirboy? Young people have a tendency to copy what they see and what they’re looking at now isn’t good.

I love watching my nephew play football. I just hope he doesn’t have a Sharpie hidden in his uniform.