Looking Back on 2011 and Its Missteps in Chicago’s Sports Teams

Happy New Year? For sure. Has to be. And it’s not as if 2012, from a sports persepctive, has a tough act to follow. The best thing about 2011 is that it’s over.

’s departure for Miami is one reason to be grumpy. Buehrle, the cheerful, ultraprofessional left-hander, was one of my favorite Chicago athletes. He was almost a perfect fit with the White Sox too, but his departure reminds us that nothing is forever in sports.

What is sad is that Buehrle’s last Chicago season will be remembered as a dispiriting failure by a team that was built to win, but was instead sidetracked by petty squabbling between manager Ozzie Guillen and the front office. General manager Kenny Williams survived, and it looks as if the team he assembled will get another chance.

We will know soon enough if the former skipper was the problem. Buehrle obviously did not think so.

It would be foolish and wrong to lay all the blame for the Cubs’ 2011 failings on the deposed manager, Mike Quade, but general manager Jim Hendry’s belief that Quade, an earnest, well-meaning baseball lifer, was a good fit for the job probably doomed Hendry with the Ricketts family, the owners.

Only those who wanted Ryne Sandberg to manage the Cubs objected to Quade’s hiring. I had misgivings the first time I heard him mention Cassie and realized Quade was referring to shortstop Starlin Castro and not the second Mrs. Joe Montana.

Big league managers don’t talk like that.

Hendry is a good man, and his nine-year tenure as general manager had its moments. But in going big-time to replace him — Theo Epstein? the Cubs? — Tom Ricketts made an undeniably shrewd move. He restored hope. It’s the currency of the sports culture in Chicago.

And it disappeared at Soldier Field about three series into Caleb Hanie’s second start as Jay Cutler’s replacement as the Bears quarterback.  

With Cutler, the Bears had the sharp look of a playoff team. Without him — and without Matt Forte, Johnny Knox and a couple of starting offensive linemen — they’re almost unwatchable.

Now the blame game is under way in earnest: Jerry Angelo, Mike Martz and Lovie Smith must pay for this failing, preferably in that order. In the court of talk-radio opinion, a wholesale housecleaning is mandatory, one year after the Bears played for the N.F.C. championship.  

Upon further review, they probably weren’t as good as they looked last season, when remarkably good health and some lucky scheduling breaks eased their way, or as bad as they’ve looked in the last month, as Cutler’s absence underscored his stature as a franchise quarterback.

Hanie? Uh, no. The reaction is rather personal among those of us who believed he had enough talent and moxie to salvage a playoff appearance; sports scribes don’t like to admit it when they’re wrong. But it happens.

At the 1986 Final Four in Dallas- — Louisville over Duke in the title game — I remember feeling bad for as the jubilant Cardinals cut down the nets.

I had quietly been pulling for Krzyzewski as a fellow Chicago guy, and he had groomed this Johnny Dawkins-Mark Alarie-Jay Bilas group for big things since they were freshmen.

Now the three would be moving on, and I wondered if Krzyzewski had missed his one shot at glory, given Duke’s lofty academic standards and the relentlessly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Four national championships, 11 Final Fours and an Olympic gold medal later, Coach K is the undisputed king of college basketball, at least. In November, as he was about to surpass Bob Knight’s record for career victories, ESPN’s fawning coverage would have you believe he cured cancer at halftime of the 2010 Carolina game and brokered Middle East peace during a TV timeout.

He is coaching basketball. There are high school guys who do that and also teach history, sweep out the gym and wash uniforms. And they don’t make $4 million a year.

Myth-making in sports is as old as the games themselves, but the practice seemed to reach new heights (or depths) in 2011, with alarming consequences. It is fair to ask if some of what Jerry Sandusky is supposed to have done could have been prevented if preserving the Legend of Joe Pa hadn’t been such an unquestioned imperative at Penn State.

Derrick Rose is 62 years younger than Joe Paterno, but his canonization process has begun. Rose, the ’ fourth-year point guard is a great basketball player and a great story, a product of Chicago’s downtrodden Englewood neighborhood, imbued with the will and the drive to escape the mean streets that have claimed too many other promising young men.

He is also a decent, grounded guy whose humility and gratitude came through at a recent news conference announcing a five-year, $94 million contract extension that should provide nicely for generations of Roses.

But that’s not enough. We want Rose to transform Englewood, eradicate poverty, unemployment and gangs, turn it into a model community of Derrick Rose-caliber citizens.

That’s a lot to ask of a 23-year-old who spent one year in college.

Rose is a kid, a kid who happens to be an amazing basketball player, to the delight of his hometown. A good kid, too. Let’s say that’s enough for 2012. He’ll get the rest of it.


Bears Beat Vikings 17-13 Despite Allen’s Rush

In the end, the Bears had a feel-good-yet-painful victory to stop their five-game losing streak. Allen and the Vikings were left with another near-miss.

Charles Tillman’s interception return in the second quarter gave the Bears the lead for good on Sunday, and they held on to beat the Vikings 17-13 despite Allen getting 3½ of Minnesota’s seven sacks and a late injury to Brian Urlacher, the soul of Chicago’s defense.

“This was one of the most fun games I’ve played in,” Allen said.

Allen finished the season with 22 sacks, just behind Michael Strahan’s mark of 22½ for the New York Giants in 2001.

The Vikings held the Bears to a season-low 209 total yards and forced three turnovers but still managed to lose, a fitting finish to this forgettable season.

Joe Webb relieved Christian Ponder at quarterback for the Vikings (3-13) for the third time in the last month, but the scrambling Webb wasn’t able to keep the Vikings from matching their worst record in franchise history, set first in 1984. The Vikings claimed the third pick in next year’s draft after going 0-6 in the NFC North, the first time in their 51 years they’ve failed to win a division game.

The Bears (8-8) were left to wonder all winter what could’ve been had quarterback Jay Cutler not broken his thumb and running back Matt Forte not sprained his knee. Josh McCown fared far better over the last two weeks than Cutler’s first fill-in, Caleb Hanie, but the Bears still missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.

“I definitely think he can hold his head up. He came here and helped our football team. He gave us a spark,” said coach Lovie Smith.

Smith said Urlacher sprained the medial collateral ligament in his left knee, which bent awkwardly in the end zone while he helped break up a pass in the fourth quarter. Urlacher was able to walk off the field without assistance, but he was in enough pain initially that he briefly covered his face with his hand. Smith acknowledged he’s concerned about Urlacher, but also noted his recuperative history.

“He heals a little bit quicker than most people, so he should be OK,” Smith said.

But will be the Bears be all right next season?

“We’re a good football team and we’re going to try and keep as many of our coaches and players together as possible,” Smith said. “We don’t want to tear this team down and start over or anything like that. This is a good football team, and we’re going to win a lot of games with this core remaining the same.”

Despite having Allen in his face all day, the defensive end blowing by left tackle J’Marcus Webb often until the tight ends started to help, McCown finished 15 for 25 for 160 yards and a second-quarter touchdown to Roy Williams with one interception.

“We’ve had some ups and downs, but to finish the year off and start the year off with a win to push us into this year is something special. I think we will come back next year and win more than eight games. I can promise you that,” Williams said.

Vikings coach Leslie Frazier didn’t make the same promise, but he expressed the same confidence. Frazier hasn’t expressed any concern about his job status, even raving earlier in the week about how supportive team owners have been.

“We’ll have a meeting after the season … but the meeting will be about how not to be 3-13 in 2012,” Frazier said. “We have to be a lot better.”

Ponder went 4 for 10 for 28 yards before aggravating a hip pointer he sustained a month ago. Webb, who rallied the Vikings to victory last week at Washington and brought them within 1 yard of a win at Detroit on Dec. 11, went 17 for 32 for 200 yards. He netted only 2 yards on four rushes.

The Vikings had their share of gaffes familiar to this at-times-woeful season. Most notable was Ponder’s 13th interception, a poorly thrown pass behind Toby Gerhart that bounced off the running back’s hands and into the arms of Tillman for an untouched 22-yard return. That was the third pick six in the last five games against Ponder, the first-round draft pick who took over as the starter for the seventh game of the season.

“It stinks that the season played out the way it did, but I think it’s a building block to improve upon next year,” Ponder said.

Notes: That was Tillman’s fifth career interception return for a TD, the most in Bears history. Mike Brown and Bennie McRae had four each. … Gerhart had 67 yards on 15 rushes for the Vikings before spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee in the third quarter. … The Vikings finished with 50 sacks, the third-most in team history. They had 71 in 1989 and 51 in 1992. … Devin Hester has four career return TDs against the Vikings, but he averaged just 2.0 yards on two punt returns and 11.0 yards on two kickoff returns. … The Bears have won five straight in this series, their longest streak against the Vikings since winning six in a row from 1983-86.

Bears Place Cutler, Forte on IR

The moves on Tuesday were hardly surprising given Chicago’s recent struggles. The Bears (7-8) have lost five straight since Cutler broke his right thumb late in a win over San Diego on Nov. 20, and things took another bad turn two weeks later when Forte sprained the medial collateral ligament in his right knee against Kansas City.

Cutler, who was scheduled to have surgically inserted pins removed Tuesday, threw for 2,319 yards with 13 touchdowns and seven interceptions. Forte finished with 997 yards rushing and 490 receiving.

The Bears elevated defensive tackle Jordan Miller from the practice squad and signed guard Mansfield Wrotto.

Cutler’s injury sent Chicago into a tailspin, knocking out of contention a team that appeared on its way to the playoffs after last year’s run to the NFC title game. The Bears were mathematically eliminated with a loss at Green Bay on Sunday, but they probably weren’t going to make it by the time they arrived at Lambeau Field.

One reason for that was the lack of a reliable backup quarterback.

Chicago put in a waiver claim on Kyle Orton after Cutler went down, but Kansas City had priority and got him. The Bears wound up signing Josh McCown, who was coaching quarterbacks at a North Carolina high school, and passed on going after Donovan McNabb after Minnesota let him go.

Meanwhile, backup Caleb Hanie struggled in a big way and went 0-4 as the starter. McCown got the nod against the Packers and performed better, throwing for 242 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions in his first NFL appearance since 2009, but the Bears saw their playoff hopes vanish in a 35-21 loss.

A healthy Forte might have made a difference, but his season ended when he took a hit to the knee against Kansas City. It didn’t help that backup Marion Barber committed costly mistakes in losses to the Chiefs and Denver the following week.

He had a touchdown catch in a 10-3 loss to Kansas City called off because he lined up illegally, forcing Chicago to settle for a field goal, and things only got worse for him the following week. Barber got pushed out of bounds on a run near the end of regulation, helping give Denver enough time to tie the game. In overtime, his fumble led to the winning field goal.