A Giddiness Reigns in the Bears Camp

 

Every time a major league player flips a baseball into the stands in response to a fan’s request, it is a reminder of the strike that shortened the 1994 season and wiped out that year’s entire postseason.

Were you angry? Many baseball fans were, never mind the issues. They saw the players’ decision to walk off the job, and the owners’ willingness to let them go, as an exercise in mutual greed rather than a legitimate labor dispute.  A pox on both their houses was a common refrain, and such fan-friendly gestures as tossing balls into the stands and a more accommodating attitude toward autograph seekers didn’t quell the resentment. Attendance was down at most ballparks long after the strike was settled in March 1995.

There is some validity to the claim that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa “saved baseball” with their epic home run race in 1998, even if their slugging spree did more harm than good in the long run. A host of imitators wanted in on the action — and the acclaim — and were not above a little chemical enhancement to make it happen. Home run records became almost meaningless and the game’s statistical underpinning was corrupted, but nearly everyone in baseball looked the other way because the turnstiles were once again humming.

After all, to quote the old Nike commercial, chicks dig the long ball.

This year it was the ’s turn to experience labor strife, but the lockout that threatened the 2011 season was settled last month, with the only known casualty an inconsequential exhibition game in Canton, Ohio. A grateful nation breathed a sigh of relief.

Any grumbling about mutual greed is indiscernible. In fact, if you followed ESPN’s fawning coverage, Commissioner Roger Goodell and union boss DeMaurice Smith should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. Jerry Jones and his fellow owners are not ruthless businessmen but benevolent sportsmen who had the fans’ best interests at heart all along.

The nettlesome issue of player safety is still out there, and the death of the great John Mackey, who suffered from dementia that some said was caused by football injuries, is another reminder that post-retirement benefits are shamefully sparse for the men most responsible for the NFL’s remarkable popularity. Oh, well. The games will go on as scheduled, and the gamblers, the fantasy-league players and the couch potatoes will settle in for another six months of irresistible ritual.

Lockout? You mean that N.B.A. thing?

Nowhere is the King Football phenomenon more prevalent than here in Chicago, where the Bears’ long-established market dominance has been embellished in a sadly uninspiring baseball season, current South Side rumblings notwithstanding. It’s still August, and Mike Martz’s describing himself as “giddy” over Jay Cutler’s footwork produced two days’ worth of stories. Isn’t it time to play some games?

Then again, there’s probably some news value in “giddy” and “Mike Martz” being used in the same sentence, sort of like “psychedelic” and “Dick Cheney.”

Martz’s mad-scientist approach to offense makes him a compelling figure in this cast of Bears characters, most of whom take their lead from their laconic head man, Lovie Smith. Calls for Smith’s departure, on the eve of his seventh season, were in the air at this time last year, only to vanish during an unlikely run to the N.F.C. championship game. And they’re unlikely to resurface this year, even though a repeat performance seems more unlikely.

Entering his eighth season, Smith is now the third-longest-tenured coach in Bears history. One appearance and a near-miss have given rise to a grudging realization that maybe he knows what he’s doing.

Smith signed off on the Jay Cutler acquisition, which was quite the splurge for a historically frugal organization and a leap of faith for a coach who made his bones on the defensive side of the ball. But a franchise quarterback is a rare and valuable commodity in the N.F.L. Cutler isn’t there yet, and whether he gets there could be determined by forces beyond his control, like better offensive line play and the presence of a go-to receiver.

The names in front of Cutler aren’t entirely new, but their positions are, and that’s a good thing — he was at risk every time he dropped back to pass behind sieve-like protection last season.

Despite recent raves about Devin Hester, Dallas import Roy Williams gets first crack at most-favored-receiver status. He caught 82 passes and averaged 16 yards per catch in a Martz-run offense at Detroit in 2006.

Fellow Cowboys expatriate Marion Barber is an intriguing pickup as a hard-running complement to Matt Forte. No one doubts Barber’s toughness, but at 28, and with 1,200 N.F.L. touches behind him, he’s approaching the threshold where the pounding takes a toll.

Defense remains the strength of the team, even if the Peppers-Urlacher-Briggs core group is a year older.

Skepticism stems from a widespread belief that the Bears were more lucky than good last season — they were freakishly healthy, and they ran into a succession of quarterbacks who looked bad enough to have started for them in the Abe Gibron days.

It’s entirely possible they could be a better team this year and not do as well in a tougher division.

That would be so Bears. Regardless, the city will be watching.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org

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