THINKING FOR YOURSELF

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“Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?”

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

 

When you look at what the Bears could be and what they are, it’s a lot like the student who shows all kinds of promise but still keeps getting C pluses.

I know because that once was me. I always went to class. I took notes. I did homework. I talked in class. I read the book/poem only once, and when I got my paper back it was always just a little above average. 

I’d look at papers of students with jealousy at their A’s and A minuses. I was easily as bright as them and wanted to be that good but I wasn’t. Eventually I turned it around but it wasn’t easy, and it definitely wasn’t handed to me or done for me. So what changed?

Well, the first thing I think was I tried to have an original idea about the subject. To think outside the box. A lot of teachers don’t want you to simply regurgitate what is being talked about in class. They want you to think for yourself. I think NFL coaches might feel the same way.

I started to read through the material more than once. Sometimes I had to read through it several times before something would then come to me. It might’ve come from another piece the author wrote. It might come from a hint of something else. A perception, a feeling, a shape, a smell.

It helps also to have a sense of history, too. History about the subject and the author. History about where in time and place it’s happening. A knowledge of history maybe repeating itself. Often subjects that are  tangentially related can also help tremendously. Like if I’m writing a paper about free verse I might bring up the subject of jazz, as an example. I might write my whole paper about it.

I began to turn it around when I began to interpret the story or poem for myself, and develop arguments that sought to assertively prove and disprove my theories. It helps to know your weaknesses too, on the football field and in English class.

I also began to turn it around when I wanted to say something I didn’t think anybody else would want to say. Call it that thing that makes you special. Makes you stick out. Something extra. Something that almost shocks the reader’s sense and sensibilities. Something to wrestle with. Something to discover. 

I think the same might hold true for these Bears.

If the NFL is a poem, and I think it most certainly and emphatically is, then what about it is inspiring you to perform at your best and/or at your worst. In essence, how do you perceive the game you play, and what is your take on how you fit in?

One thing that sticks out to me about this team that isn’t true for other Bear teams for many years now is that they seem comfortable in the hurry up and get points back quickly when they do. When the QB doesn’t have to spend those extra mili-seconds deciding. When it’s quick and easy. 

I remember John Madden being asked why a team that hasn’t been able to move the ball at all, once they get into a hurry up all of the sudden are able to march down the field and score. It happens almost in every game, all the time. Why is that?

His answer was very telling to me, he essentially said he didn’t know. John Madden. Didn’t know. All NFL. All Madden. All everything. Professor Emeritus of the NFL. Didn’t know. 

But then he would also give several ideas before, during and after the game that would answer the question he said he didn’t know.

I don’t remember him saying these points, per se, but I do think I learned them from him, as much as from my own watching of the games.

One—-An offense that is challenging the field vertically makes the defense play tentative and back on its heels. Conversely, a defense that pressures the QB makes an offense play back on its heels as well.

Two—The offense always has the advantage because only they know where they are going and thus can fool the defenders into thinking they’re going to one place when they’re really going to another.

Three—-An offense can pick on the weaker defenders that aren’t as good and exploit the defense. The offense can do this forever until the defense discovers how to solve this problem.

Four—A team that is marching down the field makes the defense tired and forced to play substitutes.

Five—-It’s an easier game of pitch and catch when the quarterback just makes his reads and hits the open guy, or dumps it off or throws it away when nobody is open. 

Six—It’s an easier and more relaxed game for the QB when he isn’t being hit by defenders all the time. 

Seven—-Football is a game of momentum. When you use it more to your advantage you have a better chance at winning.

I get the feeling that Matt Nagy might start going to the hurry up more often. Scoring is always a great way to lift the team up.

My read on the Patriots game was that Mitchell Trubisky in addition to being inaccurate was also forcing a lot of throws. Maybe he needs to play a more gut and feel game as opposed to a mind and read game. Maybe he needs to think less about the game to be more in it.

That’s how I see it. I see them like the student that’s trying to figure out why they’re not doing better. 

One last thing. I also found that going to see the teacher about the very problem I was having was a really good idea. Particularly if you came to the teacher and showed them you were thinking about the subject and presented them with your thoughts, rather than just asking for the answer and wanting the better grade. Often they were not like they were in class. The good ones were appreciative of your concern. They tried to work with and help you generate new ideas or think in fresher ways about old ones. They really wanted you to succeed.

Maybe the key to the Bears isn’t in any of the film or stats or lessons being taught from the coaches. Maybe the keys are found elsewhere. Maybe the keys can be found with individual perspective.

SO HOW GOOD ARE YOU, REALLY?

 

 

 

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I know the Bears game against Miami is lingering a lot like that pepper you don’t see hiding in the huge realm of the pot, and before you know it you’re Homer Simpson out in the desert talking to coyotes that sound a awful lot like Johnny Cash. 

I know 4-1 feels a lot bigger than 3-2, and 5-1 is a mountain compared to 3-3, but they are where they are. The beauty of a spirit quest is that it doesn’t matter what your record is, and it can start at any time.

I mean they could be 5-0 easy. Nobody has really dominated them. Not for 60 minutes. Not even for 30. But now New England comes in with all their bluster and the ridiculousness of their last 18 years and how good they’ve been and how good they still are. We’ll see right away where this Bear team stacks up.

The Patriots have that effect on teams. They make all the great teams look ordinary and the ordinary teams look bad. The last time they came to Chicago it was snowing and beautiful and cold and they beat a Bears team that made the Conference Championship by 29 points. That year was the last year the Bears were in the playoffs. 2010.

Something feels different about this Chicago team, though. Something tells me Matt Nagy isn’t going to sit on the ball and hope a 53 yard field wins the game for him. Something tells me he knows that against the Patriots you have to keep scoring. 

I’ve heard many people equate Tom Brady to Micheal Jordan and that seems fair. Even when Jordan and Co weren’t playing well they were always within reach, and Bill Belichick does what Phil Jackson always did, he keeps attacking even when it might look like they have a comfortable lead. They keep bringing it no matter what.

The Patriots are such a great test for this team right now. It’s the kind of game you dream about playing when you were a kid. If you wanna win the whole thing, you gotta pay the man and beat the best. 

No doubt Khalil Mack needs a big game. So does Trubisky. No excuses. No turnovers in the other team’s end zone. No giving up the big plays at the end of the game. No mental mistakes. 

If they can pressure Brady and if their offense can keep scoring, why can’t they win? Make the old G.O.A.T. wish he was back in the barn with the horses talking about how he left the game at the just the right time.

I always thought that football more than all the other games hinges on being able to harness the right kind of emotions to your advantage. Bravery, fearlessness, an edgy attitude, enthusiasm on the positive side, and apprehension, grief, frustration, misplaced anger on the negative side.

Brady is only about the positive. I can’t remember the last time I saw him frustrated. It doesn’t mean that it can’t happen, though. Even when he’s losing he’s always real cool. What an amazing, amazing talent. He’s so galaxies ahead of everybody else. What a privilege to go up against him. 

Remember what Lombardi said, “if you got any spunk in you at all you’re going to try to be the best at your job whatever it is.”

So how good are you, really?

Bears 28—Patriots 27

WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS TO BE SELF EVIDENT

 

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On Saturday, December 23, 1972 I saw a miracle with my dad. He was 29 and I was five. It was on TV. Almost Christmas. It would be called “The Immaculate Reception”. One of my most favorite memories was also one of my earliest memories.

My dad was screaming all up and down the family room that the Lord was on the job. Urging me with all the frenzy of a mad man to keep watching the reruns of the play closely, and as I did, though I was five, I thought I understood what all the was screaming about. 

That we couldn’t quite see if Franco Harris actually did catch that ball or lifted it like a purse from the ground, not only made the mystique grow in real time but also makes it grow all these years later too. There’s also the liberating feeling of being a five year old son allowed to jump up and down crazy with your dad.

You might say after that I was ruined. Like a musky fisherman who catches the fish of a thousand casts on their first outing. Maybe from that I came to believe the Lord should be on the job all the time. Why shouldn’t a five year old boy grow up to expect miracles?

My dad was a very excitable guy. He wasn’t afraid to show great joy and jubilation but he also had some deep pockets of hell in his heart. He had massive highs and lows from his personality. One minute he was up here and the next minute he was down there. It was a great blast and a great burden to know him and to have him as my dad. He passed away over two years ago. But like the angels say, there ain’t no use in complainin’.

One thing I knew was that we were watching something special. Witnessing something special, no matter how cold it was outside or how small the black and white TV was inside.

My dad was a husband and family man first and after he married my wonderful and beautiful mom I was born soon after. While many were following a counter-culture in the 60’s or being drafted into the Vietnam war, he was following the roads that a responsible man takes to provide for his family. “It’s what people did,” he would always say years later.

Watching sports was a way to see miracles. We always had the big games on. He loved Al Davis, the man responsible for merging the AFL and the NFL together. He was also a John Madden guy. The Oakland Raiders were the model of everything right about football. 

Chuck Noll and the Steelers were also of course enormous. Any coach as I would later find out—because I was and still am trying to be a writer like my dad—who quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson as he retires from the NFL has a giant place in heaven all reserved for himself.

Don Shula and the Dolphins were giants. Hank Stram and the Chiefs were giants. Tom Landry and the Cowboys were giants. George Allen and the Redskins were giants. Bud Grant and the Vikings were skol giants. 

Later my dad as an old man would encourage me to read, “When Pride Still Mattered” by David Maraniss, because with all these football giants there’s also the God of all of them put together, Vince Lombardi of the Green Bay Packers, and even if you never read a word about him, you still seem to know why he’s such a big deal. We hold these truths to be self-evident.

The Bears were kind of a giant joke. All the good teams were playing a sophisticated game. The Bears were playing a simple one. Roger Staubach knew how to run the shotgun. Fred Biletnikoff knew how to run deep pass plays and get open. The Bears knew how to run Walter Payton three times and punt.

But hey, Walter knew how to hit a guy in the face with a forearm shiver and then lift opposing lineman up with one hand after they tackled him. He was a punishing runner but also a classy act. He endured like the seasons and helped Bear fans endure the seasons. The nickname “Sweetness,” was the cherry on top. No surprise they ended up naming the man of the year trophy after him. Yeah, he was a miracle, too, for sure.

I saw other miracles on TV in the 70s. We watched tennis in our house because my mom would not be outdone and I saw a woman, Billy Jean King tell a man, Bobby Riggs she was better than him and beat him in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. We saw Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova play like giants, and of course Borg, Connors, and McEnroe too.

I saw Kenny Stabler with my dad throw a pass blind and falling down into a Dolphin “sea of hands” only to have it find his surrounded teammate Clarence Davis for a touchdown at the end of the playoff game to win. Again I heard his, the Lord is on the job” cry. I saw all by myself the “hail mary” from Staubach to Drew Pearson to beat the Vikings in cold Bloomington in the playoffs. I also saw Stabler throw another pass to Dave Casper against the Colts in the playoffs in the “Ghost to the Post.” 

When Earl Campbell was taken by the Houston Oilers with the first pick in ‘78, it was like Rome running through the destiny of the smaller world, as defenders made futile attempts at grabbing him only to be left holding a fistful of shredded jersey. He was like a bomb exploding, sending his crown into the chest of weaker men. But in his bigness he was also gentle like Santa Claus. So soft spoken and kind. A great symbol of why the people in Texas have that reputation of buying you beers and going out of their way to help strangers.

Another thing about Campbell. My dad knew him. This made my dad a giant too, although he was one already. He shared a plate of nachos with the 34 inched thighed running back while working on an advertising project. I never asked him later about what they talked about and my dad never said. Sometimes the best thing to do when you’re with someone great like that is to just be quiet with them. Appreciate the silence.

Yes I was privileged to see all these miracles and it helped me add another element to my game, to believe that I too could do something great and pull out a victory with my last second chance. Nothing, not even all the most wonderful things a person might earn or share or feel or know, has a greater chance at making the world a better place more than a young heart believing.

PIGS IN A BLANKET FOR GAME DAY

 

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With the off week its a good time to practice fundamentals and get back to the basics. Most Chicago Bear fans I think it’s safe to say know the importance of good food to go with the game. 

My Dad always had something really tasty going on for game day, and I’d like to share some of what he did. I’d also like to share some of the other possibilities out there for ideas for columns in the future.

Food, football, fun. Maybe you have a person in the house that isn’t as crazy a fan as you. Maybe they don’t want to be left out. Maybe they can help make the food. It ain’t rocket science.

It’s always a good idea to make the game a whole family and friend experience if you can.

First, every game has to have chip and dip. It’s as essential as water is to wine. If it’s just you, plastic bowls are fine, but if you’ve got a group watching the game with you it’s better to invest in some good quality bowls. Every special lady friend I’ve ever known has noticed the difference.

In Wisconsin, where I live we have a Breakstone’s Sour Cream, 16 ounces that covers six people but I always get two. Breakstone’s is the most expensive and clearly the best.

Then get an onion soup mix. I like the dry Lipton Onion Soup Mix or the Mrs. Grass version of that and one packet for each 16 ounces of sour cream is how it breaks down. 

As far as the kind of chips to use it really depends on taste. I like a chip that can hold up to the dip and Ruffles is my favorite. One bag with a group of six should do it, but I always buy two. Tortilla chips are also good.

After the chip and dip is set up you need a kind of main course to make the fans go ooh and aah, and what my dad would do is make what he called “Dad’s Dogs.” 

Hillshire Farms Little Smokies Cocktail Dogs are what they’re called here in Wisconsin, and one 16 ounce package for six people does the trick. Get a pound of your favorite cheese. I love em all but Cheddar, Colby and Havarti are my faves. Get a sweet onion and an 8 ounce can of Pillsbury Crescent Rolls. 

Heat the oven to 375°F. Unroll the can of dough and separate into 16 triangles. Cut each triangle lengthwise into 3 narrow triangles. Place sausage on shortest side of each triangle and roll it with a little chunk of cheese and chopped onion. Bake 12 to 15 minutes or until golden brown.

Serve with your favorite beverage. Even though many people I know love a beer and a bloody on Sunday, I’ve grown fond of Cherry Coca Cola Zero. 

My Dad would always try to plan it out so the dogs came out right at kickoff time, a tricky plan and he didn’t always do it right on time and could be seen running from kitchen to family room like the madman he was until he just bought a little tv for the kitchen, and then he was, as he liked to say, “high in hog heaven.”

Other ideas for future food columns include——other finger foods, pizza, brats, burgers, cheese and sausage platters, smoked salmon from Alaska to name a few. 

Bon Appetit and Bear down!

SUCCESS AND CONFIDENCE

 

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You could argue that Matt Nagy had the perfect game plan called for the Bucs.

You could argue the Bucs defense has been awful all year.

You could argue the Bears defense is looking like one of the best in the league and Khalil Mack is on his way to an MVP season.

Or the favorite I’m sure—-you could argue that Mitchell Trubisky when given enough time and is decisive enough might have the makings of being a star. 

6 TD passes? A Bear QB?

Whatever they did to simplify things I think also should get mention here too. Whatever works keep doing it until they stop you. It doesn’t have to be a complicated game. They have fast guys. Somebody’s usually open.

If you give enough time to a good NFL QB he should be able to march down the field.

I always remember what the late great Buddy Ryan said about pressuring the QB. He said essentially, “we’re not going to just let sit back there and pick us apart.”

Does it take elite level QB play to win the super bowl? Does it take big numbers on offense and defense? Those are great subject to discuss another time.

What the Bears did to the Bucs is what good teams do. They dominate by scoring a lot of points and playing great defense.

If you’re like me at the end of the year, if the Bears have a chance at making the playoffs, when you’re eating your breakfast in December you can’t get enough Bear stuff to read. I love looking at the Points For versus Points Against differential and how for the better teams the difference is larger and they’re usually in first place. They also have lots of sacks, turnovers, and touchdowns. They get home field advantage. You get the point.

One last thing to mention is Tarik Cohen. In this column you’ve heard me mention him every week. Well he finally got the chance to be featured and the little guy played like I thought he would—-like he was one of the best on the field. He’s a matchup nightmare and he could be very, very good maybe even great.

But for now Trubisky steals the show. He looked so calm and at ease, and hit guys in stride with beautiful throws.

No greater teacher guides a young man more than success and confidence.

Whoo whoo! 3-1!

Keep Taking Baby Steps

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I know you want sexy. That you want that 15 to 19 yard pass play in the middle of the field hitting the tight end in stride on a skinny post and marching like the Patriots with a potent offense threatening to score every time you touch the ball.

I know that’s what you want and if you were paying attention after the second Bears touchdown where they marched down the field with short passes and runs you saw Matt Nagy whispering into Mitch Trubisky’s ear before commercial.

That right there is why I feel good about this team. The fact that Nagy knows what it’s like to be QB1 and the fact that Trubisky is humble enough to want to learn is all reason for hope.

Yes Trubisky threw two picks and made some really bad decisions. Yes they might’ve tried to stretch the field a bit too far. Yes they probably need to run a little bit more.

I’d like to see Cohen and Howard get more touches. Cohen particularly. Give him a chance to bust it wide open because the guy has all sorts of talent. 

It would’ve been nice to see the Bears blow that team out. Maybe they’re learning how to do that.

And what about that defense? Six sacks in a game?! It only seems logical to me that all that pressure on the quarterback is going to give those corners a great chance for more picks. Will they step up?

And Mack? My goodness! Yet another great Bear defender in the Bear tradition of great defenses. 

I’m glad they got their night games over with. A night game is more pressure on a young qb than a day game and if he’s already doing this well in prime time, what might he be?

An 83 qb rating while still throwing two picks is impressive. Why can’t he get better?

I know to be December relevant would be a dream. So let us just keep it there for now and in the mean time keep taking baby steps.

Players Need Poets

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I know it hurts. I know it feels awful so you tell yourself it doesn’t matter as much as you think. I know you have to get up and get on with it, but what a bittersweet way to start the season.

I know Matt Nagy really wanted to score a touchdown 3rd and 1 deep in Packer territory at the end of the game to make it a 2 possession game, but why didn’t he run twice with the running game that was showing up late all over that drive. Can you answer me that?

I know Kyle Fuller knows how to catch a ball thrown to him. Well, maybe not that. I know Clay Matthews obvious roughing the passer at the end of the game could’ve have been the olive branch sent from above.

Something about that Bear Packer game on Sunday Night has been falling like an empire for many years now and like the soothsayers of old Bear fans have had to watch everything crumble and be destroyed right before their eyes and still unable to do a damn thing about it.

That queasy feeling from first half to second half was a lot like eating certain kinds of food despite the warning. Is there a spirit of Anthony Bourdain in the great Bear reporting out there to help us understand?

Fate is a lot like this. You see it coming. You’ve been warned it’s coming. You’re told to leave your house because it’s coming.

There’s a feeling that’s a lot like terror that also is a defining characteristic, a knowing that even though it’s coming and you’re trying to do everything you can to stop it——YOU WON’T STOP IT!  Ask Homer. Ask Dante. Ask Shakespeare.

The only huge problem in all of this logic that I grant you has some holes in it like the second half defense is that…

I DON’T BELIEVE IN FATE!

“I believe in effort. Self sacrifice. Belief. I believe you’re supposed to give a hundred and ten percent on every play and relentlessly pursue perfection, and knowing that nothing is perfect I believe in catching excellence. I am not remotely interested in being just good.”

The immortal paraphrased words of Vince Lombardi have been enshrined like great poets into the parts of me that matter.

Even though the pain is real like every football player will tell you, I have to believe that Nagy and CO. will learn from this and get better. 

I would rather root for that to happen than hide in the albeit persuadable excuse that the Bears will never be anything more than mediocre. Just my choice.

I’m a poet and so there’s a lot of other things I believe in too. That I go back to and continue working on just like I believe that the players on that team can continue to work on.

I also believe people can change. Institutions can change. Workers can change. The world can change. I absolutely believe that these players can use this experience to get better.

Also remember the team the Bears played on Sunday was supposed to be really really good. Contending and picked to win the Super Bowl good. While the Bears were picked by nobody. 

I think for a first game they beat expectations hands down. 

Let’s start there.