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.


Re-Evaluating Tim Tebow as the Chicago Bears Gear Up

Tim Tebow ranks closer to Norris Weese and Pete Liske than to John Elway in the pantheon of quarterbacks, but now is not a good time to be facing that much discussed and improbably successful left-hander, as the Bears must do on Sunday.

A playoff berth that was there for the taking three weeks ago is now an iffy proposition for the embattled Chicago Eleven, thanks to two straight losses to supposedly inferior A.F.C. West opponents and season-threatening injuries to their two best offensive players. A quarterback with 10 N.F.L. starts and a 48.3 career completion percentage would normally present an appealing get-well opportunity, but “Tebow” and “normal” do not travel in the same circles.

In fact, everything about Tebow, a 24-year-old Floridian, seems polarizing, from his unabashed religious proselytizing to his unorthodox approach to playing quarterback. If you crossed a tight end with a fullback and raised him in the God-fearing home of a pious linebacker — a Mike Singletary type — you’d have Tim Tebow.

He won two national championships and one Heisman Trophy while barreling through college, but N.F.L. evaluators were nearly unanimous in their insistence that his reckless, why-pass-when-I-can-run style had no place in the sophisticated pro game. One dissenter, Josh McDaniels, is now known as former Broncos coach Josh McDaniels, partly because he used a first-round draft choice to certify his belief in Tebow’s magic.

McDaniels’s successor is the veteran N.F.L. campaigner John Fox, who decided to have a look for himself after the Broncos stumbled to a 1-4 start with the unremarkable Kyle Orton at quarterback. They’re 6-1 since, with five of the victories achieved via Tebow-crafted comebacks that seemed borrowed from the Chip Hilton youth-fiction series.

Denver is beside itself — the football-crazy city hasn’t had this much fun since Elway delivered a second straight title after the 1998 season. The fans might be a little hyped on Sunday as the Tebows go for a sixth consecutive victory in what began as a lost season, don’t you think?

Have at it, Caleb Hanie.

There is this: The Bears are 4-0 in Mike Vick’s four career starts against them, and it’s Vick, the slippery Falcon-turned-Eagle, who evokes the most frequent Tebow comparisons as a quarterback who’s more dangerous with his feet than his arm. He’s left-handed, too.

Steve Young, also left-handed, also a tough, competitive football player who happened to play quarterback, is a better reference point.

Though he set a boatload of passing records at Brigham Young University, Young had been dismissed as a running back in a quarterback’s body when he joined the 49ers in 1987. Life-threatening stints behind sieve-like offensive lines before he came to San Francisco had caused Young’s instincts for self-preservation to kick in. He threw a nice ball, more accurate and more catchable than Tebow’s, but he was inclined to take off and run at the first sign of trouble.

The 49ers couldn’t have that. Their intricate, timing-based offense required patience and total faith in the premise that someone eventually would get open. With Jerry Rice, Roger Craig and Brent Jones on the field, someone invariably did. Once Young realized it was safer and more productive to use those weapons than to run the ball himself, he became a passing wizard. And his legs remained a reliable asset.

Young, oddly, has been critical of the Tebow phenomenon — not the player himself, but the Broncos’ use of him. The college-style, spread-option offense they are running is “unsustainable” in the N.F.L., Young maintains, and by resorting to it, the Broncos are depriving Tebow of a chance to develop into a legitimate pro quarterback.

A Steve Young, say. He was no Joe Montana, but he was a terrific player, and after succeeding Montana, he gave the 49ers another decade of Hall of Fame-caliber performance at the game’s most important position.

Ask the Bears how important. Without Jay Cutler, they’re a mess.

Unlike Young, Cutler, when he arrived from Denver before the 2009 season, wasn’t faced with following a Canton-bound predecessor — “Bears” and “Hall of Fame quarterback” do not travel in the same circles. But he was under pressure to justify the hefty price the Bears paid for him, and he had begun to do just that during a five-game winning streak that had Bears fans thinking that last year’s trip to the N.F.C. championship game maybe wasn’t so fluky.

Then Cutler broke his thumb trying to make a tackle, setting off a sequence of events reminiscent of a chain-reaction pile-up on the Dan Ryan. Hanie looked lost in an offense that Mike Martz refused to modify in order to exploit Hanie’s mobility and the other things he does well. All-purpose running back Matt Forte went out with an injured knee; against the backdrop of a long-running contract dispute, he must weigh the merits of a quick return.

Talk that Martz is headed elsewhere after the season prompted less-than-vehement denials until Martz spoke out on Wednesday. But if the mad-scientist offensive coordinator really has other options, let him go now. His stubborn reliance on trickery has been an aberration on a tough-guy team that has always preferred muscle to guile on both sides of the ball.

Then install some stuff for Hanie, even if it’s made-up stuff. What’s the harm? Denver is improvising everything with Tebow, and laughing all the way to the playoffs.