ARE YOU THINKING SUPER BOWL?

 

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I know it’s kind of sacrilegious to look ahead to the championship game when the tournament hasn’t even started yet, but hey, I’m not playing, and I think that fans of this year’s Bears are beginning to have that Nagy  feeling the team might be able to compete for a Super Bowl.

So many things have to go right for a lower seed team to win the big game and they usually don’t. Only two number 3 seeds since the NFL went to a six team playoff format ever made it to the Super Bowl, the 2006 Colts who won in Super Bowl XLI and the 2003 Panthers who lost in Super Bowl XXXVIII. The Colts beat the Bears 29-17 and Panthers lost to the Patriots 32-29.

This Bear season has been one of exceeding expectations. While many of the so called experts had the Bears 7-9, 8-8, 9-7 and not making the playoffs most everyone had them winning more games under the gutty Matt Nagy than last year’s boring John Fox and showing some kind of guile and promise.

Then Khalil Mack came, like almost from the sky and a city started to wonder. Then that first Sunday night game of the season came against the Packers. Then that first half.

It reminded me a lot of my drinking days. The kind of misconception and false euphoria you get. Sometimes I could crawl inside the bottle and not even catch the whiff of a buzz, and other days just one drink and I was on the wings of love.

After that first half sip of the season against the Packers I was on the wings of love. I thought the team was at least going to be competitive and at best going to have a shot at making the playoffs. Was it real or just a buzz?

The playoffs have a tendency to do what statisticians call reverting back to mean. Meaning if the regular season was something like a fluke, the better teams in the playoffs will find a way to cull the worser teams out.

What does that have to do with the Bears? Well, they’ve only played three teams with winning records for the whole year and they’re 2-1. The loss coming to the Patriots and the wins coming against Rams and Vikings, and all three games at home.

That’s probably why this week’s game against the Vikings at Minnesota has them as five point dogs. A game on the road against a playoff caliber team will probably be a similar forecast should they get that far.

But what about the fact that everyone in the NFL on any given Sunday can be not only good playing at home but maybe even great. The numbers always show that most teams do better at home. It’s something impressive I think to go into anyone else’s home and win.

What is it about this team that might be the kind of team that is able to go on the road and win?

Well for one, they’ve exceeded all realistic expectations of a first year coach and have him looking and sounding a lot like a Coach of the Year. Two, they have taken the ball away 36 times, 9 times more than the next team and are easily the best in football at it. Three, they’ve given up an average of 18.2 points a game, the best in the NFC and the second best to the Baltimore Ravens who average 17.5.

 I decided to look back at history to see teams that won the super bowl with 11-5 and 12-4 records and how they stack up against this team.

 

11-5 TEAMS THAT WON THE SUPER BOWL THAT REMIND ME OF THE BEARS

 

2001 NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

They beat the Rams 20-17 in Super Bowl XXXVI on a last second field goal by Adam Vinatieri. They didn’t dominate anybody in the playoffs. They just played great defense and won. Kurt Warner and the Rams and the Greatest Show On Turf never got on track. Tom Brady got his chance and never looked back. The beginning of a dynasty. I think the Bears are easily as good as this team except for the kicker, the quarterback and the coach. Ok it’s a stretch, but a dynasty has to start somewhere.

2005 PITTSBURGH STEELERS

They beat the Seahawks and Mike Holmgren 21-10 in Super Bowl XL after some really bad officiating that went against Seattle. On “A Football Life”  Holmgren admitted he asked an official if the game was too big for him, and said it was one of the biggest mistakes he ever made in his career. Just goes to show you even fantastic minds do really stupid things, and all it takes is a couple of bad calls and you could be holding up that trophy. That Steelers team had a great defense and gave up 16 points a game in the regular season and reminds me a lot of this year’s Bears for that reason.

 

12-4 TEAMS THAT WON THE SUPER BOWL THAT REMIND ME OF THE BEARS

 

1993 DALLAS COWBOYS

Those Jimmy Johnson teams were great and the team that beat the Buffalo Bills badly 30-13 in their second meeting in Super Bowl XXVIII was definitely better than the Bears. They had home field advantage and never looked back. They beat Green Bay and San Francisco in the playoffs who were undeniably good and were improving with each game. This Cowboys team was ranked 2nd in the league in scoring and 2nd in the league in points allowed. They gave up an average of 14.3 points per game. Even as great a defense as this Bear team is they’re not that good, are they?

2002 TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

Brad Johnson was no Hall of Fame QB but he played great that year and had a defense that was outstanding. Only three players on the defense that year made it to the Pro Bowl, Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, and Derrick Brooks, but it was filled with studs and Dexter Jackson won the Super Bowl MVP. They caused turnovers and scored points when they did, and against the Oakland Raiders it was a route 48-21 in Super Bowl XXXVII. The game was never close. We’ll see how good Jon Gruden can make the Raiders. I wouldn’t bet against him. In the playoffs they gave up 16 points in the Divisional and Championship game combined and in the regular season only gave up 12.3 points a game. The Bears have four Pro Bowl starters on this year’s defense and of course are a turnover causing machine.

2006 INDIANAPOLIS COLTS 

Have to mention the team that beat Lovie’s best Bear team 29-17 in  Super Bowl XLI. Many Bear fans I know still remember fondly that Devin Hester return for a touchdown to start the game. Peyton Manning was probably in his prime and coach Tony Dungy had a lot of good teams over the years and when he got his shot he was really ready for the big game. Even after going down 14-6 the team rallied quickly and by the 4th quarter the Bears seemed like they were already beat. Something about that Colts team I remember, that defense was ranked 23rd in the regular season in points allowed, but in the playoffs, they beat the Chiefs in the Wild Card round 23-8, and the Ravens in the Divisional round 15-6. Dungy was always known for his great defensive mind. Bear defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, also known for his defensive mind, seems for sure to get his head coaching chance after this year.

2010 GREEN BAY PACKERS AND 2007, 2011 NEW YORK GIANTS

There’s three other teams I think are worth mentioning here. The 2010 Packers that won super bowl XLV was the team that beat the Bears in the playoffs 21-14, and as a number six seed they won all their playoff games on the road, and their defense was on fire the last two games of the season and into the playoffs. Bear fans will remember Lovie not resting his starters in the final game against these Packers and lost 10-3. What does it have to do with this year’s Bears? Well this year’s Bears have won 8 of their last 9. A win this week against Minnesota makes it 9 of their last 10 going into the playoffs, and also the defense has been playing its best football. That Packer team gave up only 15 points a game in the regular season. The only huge difference of course is that team could do it on the road. Will this year’s Bears have a chance to do the same?

The other teams I remember were the New York Giants beating the Patriots twice. The XLII game was 17-14 and the XLVI game was 21-17. Neither team managed to win more than 10 games in a season. Nothing amazing on the stat sheet about those Eli Manning/Tom Coughlin teams, but they did beat Bill Belichick twice and that is maybe one of the greatest NFL accomplishments in the history of the league, and 5 of the 6 games they won in the playoffs combined came on the road.

It just gets me thinking that if the Bears can ever get comfortable playing on the road, no easy feat, but if they can, they might just hit a bunch of teams squarely in the mouth the way those Giant and Packer teams did.

Good tackling and blocking, limit the number of mental miscues, don’t turn the ball over, score touchdowns in the red zone, don’t get rattled by the big game, pressure the QB——there’s a number of other things too that have to go right I grant you—-but remember this—-nobody this year has blown this team out. They’ve been in every single game. It’s harder to do in the playoffs that’s for sure but nothing in the numbers is telling me they’re going to lay a zero in the playoffs.

Something too about Matt Nagy is also telling me that he’s learning quickly as he goes. Most every Super Bowl winning coach has a name I remember well. Can Matt Nagy add his name to that list?

 

THAT LUCKY OLD SUN

 

IMG_0928.jpgTHAT LUCKY OLD SUN

Up in the mornin’, out on the job

Work like the devil for my pay

But that lucky old sun got nothin’ to do

But roll around heaven all day

with music by Beasley Smith and words by Haven Gillespie.

 

Apologies for missing the past couple of weeks and not getting this out sooner, but I wanted to get it right.

My dad was evicted out of his home shortly after the housing market collapsed in 2008 and with his savings completely ravaged and with nowhere to stay for the winter of 2010 he stayed with me at my apartment in Milwaukee.

I remember the year well because the Bears were playing great playoff caliber football. Julius Peppers was on that team with Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs and that defense was really good. 

He would never have asked me if he could stay at my place. Ever. He would’ve just probably died. He wasn’t afraid of dying. Often he would say to me, “don’t ever get old.” Or he also liked to say, “you drink and then you die.”

He was like an old buffalo that was about to get picked off from the herd. You didn’t tell him where to go, but instead showed him the direction and hoped he went there.

There was also something fitting about him coming to stay at my place. It made me feel good to help. Like I was fulfilling some kind of ancient biblical and I’m not even biblical father/son pact. 

He had no real income except a social security check but he did have a summer home that he would never sell and owned outright. It was only for summers but he could stretch it and make it work for three seasons. He also knew workers that would give him discounts because he was in clear need of help and had a kind of charm that people could love. Also the place really needed help.

I was helping him too. Giving him what I could and making sure he had supplies and a car in case of an emergency, even though he could barely walk. 

The Bears were playing everybody tough the second half of the year, with the sole exception of New England who they got destroyed by at home 36-7 in the snow and cold.

I saw the game with my dad at my apartment and will never forget him turning to me and saying, “they’re a very mediocre team.”

My dad was a pretty severe alcoholic, there was no talking him out of drinking. There was no interventions, though we tried. No showing him another way. No shaming him with the truth. He was unshamable.

He was divorced after 25 years or so of being married and turned into a bottles by the bed kind of drunk. Although he was always a huge drinker. 

I tried my hardest to help and nobody would’ve blamed me if I would’ve just left him to his own devices. There is a destruction of self that happens with old age drinkers. It has no mercy and comes for everyone no matter how well they manage it.

He had lost his driver’s license a long while back because of driving under the influence and he never completed the court requirements. That’s when I knew things were going downhill fast.

There’s some who will help a hard luck story but most don’t. I did. And for that whole winter we watched a relevant Bear team in December, two home playoff games in January, and Bull games and Blackhawk games after that.

The Bear games were kind of a godsend and they always have been to me, and when they’re good it’s amazing what they can do to help a broken heart.

I really liked having him over, too. I could give back to him the way he gave to me. Instead of him buying the chip and dip and burgers and dogs and chinese and pizza and ribs——it was me.

And I could make sure we only had cokes. The whole 5-6 months he stayed with me I think we might have had 20 beers between us. Something about the holidays makes it hard for me to not drink at least a little. So we had a few beers at Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter. 

But he wasn’t able to cook for himself, clean for himself, carry any bags of groceries for himself. He had bone on bone arthritis in both knees and still wouldn’t go see a doctor. Hated the doctor. Hated the whole idea of doctors and hospitals and operations. No teeth, no money, barely walking, no driver’s license, it was bad.

Soon he would be in a nursing home and it was a great relief when he was but also a great sadness to see him in his final and most weak and helpless state.

I would make sure they would get the Bear games on the TV in his nursing home room. I also would make sure he had the best movie collection any nursing home resident in the history of United States nursing homes would ever have.

I would also send him bbq and augratin potatoes from Carson’s Ribs. Because he lost all his teeth, they would kind grind everything together for him. He loved those cheesy potatoes.

I would go see him regularly, Bring him milkshakes and burgers, too. He had a weakness for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Anything that he wanted I would get. I wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore but I still would. 

I even brought in an old and dear college friend when they said he didn’t have much longer to live. When his friend arrived and realized that they were allowing us to drink whisky in the nursing home he said, “this changes everything.”

For those of you wondering how a nursing home could let a severe alcoholic anywhere near a bottle, it’s because he was already so far gone at that point and in hospice care, and in hospice care whatever the patient wants the patient gets. 

His face kind of pruned when he tasted the whisky after years of not having any. He wasn’t really drinking it either, but kind of lost in its aroma.

I would write a letter to the nursing home after he died which got read to the entire staff. I know it worries a lot of people who know their parents are probably going to need major help some day and how they’re going to manage can be a great big burden. Everyone knows what a complicated burden health care is, especially in this country.

Despite the fact that the state of Wisconsin has some nasty politics, there’s so many people who go out of their way to help you, especially when it’s about health care. Many people regardless of party affiliation realize that everyone needs to be covered.

It was a big burden for me and he was a big burden for me. But in my family we weren’t allowed to complain too much about our problems, or look for that shoulder to cry on. Everybody was too busy telling everybody else to get out of the way.

But there was a few things we could come together on, and watching the Bears was one of them. The great teams of the 80’s was like understanding Shakespeare for the first time. Or beholding the Grand Canyon. Or being lucky enough to see the moon and stars in the Milky Way at night.

You think that’s maybe a little over the top? It wasn’t for my family. In my family we yelled and screamed and ate and drank. Those playoff losses to Washington and San Francisco hurt. Not as much as real hurt, but they definitely hurt.

When I thought of my dad watching the Bears at my place I thought of how much fun we had watching games together during the 70’s and 80’s.

We also saw a lot of games in the 90’s and 2000’s, and we saw a lot of games in Wisconsin, too.

Watching and rooting for the Bears in Wisconsin is a lot like being a fugitive from the law. There are many of us Harrison Fords hiding in plain sight. Fighting to prove our innocence in the great land of green and gold. Smiling when a Packers loss means the Bears gain.

But the Packers have so thoroughly dominated the Bears over the past 25 years, even my dad had to say they were by far the better team and organization. 

He also liked to say Brett Favre would pump fake more in one game, than Bear quarterbacks did in the whole history of the franchise. 

He loved Aaron Rodgers and Clay Matthews in that 2010 season, too. He would root for the Packers in the Super Bowl when they played against the Steelers and won.

As crazy my dad got with all his drinking and problems, when the game was on he could turn into this kind of analytical mechanism that saw the game clearly and dispassionately.

I know he would like this Bears year a lot. The fact they got Khalil Mack would’ve made him over the top happy to see they had the balls to get such an outstanding player. The defense this year too is definitely championship worthy and he would’ve known why they’re so good.

And Nagy? Can we say the offense finally has some subtlety and guile?

And Trubisky? Well, there’s still a lot to prove, but the early indications are promising.

It’s really hard to be a Bears fan my dad would explain to me. Take a look someday at all the unmemorable Chicago Bear draft picks over the years https://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/chi/draft.htm

With so many bad teams over the years, it makes the good years like this one really stick out that much more.

To hear my Packer fans complain about their team this year, because they’re not doing as well as they usually do, reminds of that woman with a big and juicy Virginia ham under her arm crying because she doesn’t have any bread. (Got the joke from The Sopranos)

But to know the Bears have a chance of winning the Super Bowl this year has put a little extra curdle in my call, a little squall in my scream. Maybe it’s contagious. Maybe it’s reaching all those dead relative Bear fans, the millions upon millions of them who finally have something better to do than simply roll around in heaven all day. 

THE CHEESE STANDS ALONE

 

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When I can’t no more I go to poetry. When I hurt so badly I go to poetry. When there’s something so inexplicable in my life I go to poetry. It helps me in ways I’m never able to say but always seem to try. It’s the way I pepper my life.

If you find a quote or two in this column a little surprising all I ask is your indulgence.

It was the ’85 Bears season my freshman year and I was going to this small liberal arts college in Wisconsin that had a number of bars in its town, just like most of the towns in this wonderful state. It just so happened the most popular bar was also a bar owned by a Bears fan. Ah fate! Just my luck.

My thinking was that Bear fans would be there and I would root with them all the way to a Super Bowl victory.

Wrong.

Well, right. The Bears of course won, but where were my Bear fans?

I actually found more Packer fans there, not watching the Packers but rooting against the Bears.

Ugh.

That to me said a lot to me about Wisconsin’s feisty relationship with its brother of a state next door. FIB’s I heard a lot in school, and when I completely moved to Wisconsin after college, the distaste for this bordering state was definitely breathing and ruminating in its population.

I’ve been in this state for almost 35 years watching the majority of Bear games here and you might think it would be a no brainer to find a place where like minded masochists might be able to get away, not bother anybody and try to find something to cheer about with this horribly middling franchise. No.

It makes me think of Emily Dickinson when she says, “there’s a certain Slant of light/ Winter afternoons-/ That oppresses, like the Heft /Of Cathedral Tunes-.

Something about that heavy oppressing force that makes Wisconsin growl in the gristle like a badger to the bear invading its space. 

Wisconsin has so much rugged beauty to it, too. The rivers and lakes are so unbelievably muscled and present with achievement it can make drunk people feel like they own it all, if only for a fleeting, misguided moment. 

To be sure the people from Illinois want to be here and buy the land the state has to offer, and I think a lot of the people in this state have been sick of it for years.

Never mind all the economic boons the state receives from such a cascade of people coming to visit. There’s something proprietary about it. Something about it that says you can own our properties but don’t tread on me.

It also flavors the meat of this rivalry so that even a non partisan vegetarian can come to know that great smell cooking on the grill.

It was all encapsulated in the look of an animal faced freshman four inches taller than me, whose hatred for the Bears reached such a frenzy in that ’85 year he almost kicked the shit out of me for throwing a beer in his face, after I had enough of my ears being victimized all game by his bullshit.

When I was escorted out the back, I lost my place to go, and was subjugated to radios and small dorm room tv’s.

The vitriol behind the hatred is complicated, and in writing this I realize there are points I’m going to miss. Love is a so much better way to live. Hate is, well, just ask Dante about why he wrote “The Divine Comedy.” 

I find even after all these years of living in Wisconsin under the enormously prosperous reign of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers, still the state likes to give Bear fans that extra pimpful nudge.

When you mention you’re a Bears fan they kind of apologize for you and say things like “I understand, ” or “oh I’m sorry.”

I think the dominance with which the Packers have beaten the Bears over the past couple of 25 years have made the Packer fans feel a lot like that cat that keeps playing with its dead prize, to make it more alive. Many try to console me now when the Packers quite routinely pull out the victory in the last minute.

Don’t get me wrong, the state is amazing. It is by far the greatest state of them all, by leaps and bounds the most generous, kindest, funniest people I’ve ever met. 

My dad liked to say about great people, “they’d give you the shirt off they’re back.” 

They never call themselves great, either.

I used to canvass door to door for various causes and the people I talked to whether red, white, black, brown, yellow, blue were genuinely interested in what I had to say. Even if they disagreed they would help me and many would also give a drink of water, a coke, something to eat, invite me in out of the cold.

They do what great people do instinctively. They care.

It was a template I recognized and it gave me the model I used in trying to become a decent man, throwing beers in obnoxious Packer fans faces during the foolishness of my youth notwithstanding.

I also have a confession. It’s taken me a while to work up to it and you might be tempted to think I’m a Benedict Arnold because of it, but I’m also a Packer fan in addition to being an enormous and even bigger Bears fan.

Not a very good Packer fan though, but one all the same. I too can find creeping up from within me a Bear fan rooting against the Packers, especially if it helps the Bears get in first place or make the playoffs. 

But I can also say I’ve been to Lambeau field twice. Great seats 35 yard line, 12 rows up. Great friend. Vince Lombardi statue. Parking in somebody’s front yard. The Lambeau Leap statue! Everybody walking like free people with beers in their hands in the morning. An absolute and unequivocal privilege.

I know it might look like I’m organizing a petition to stop the killing at the Roman Colosseum only to find me buying a ticket and cheering the carnage on in my little secret corner of the world. Maybe I am.

I understand paradox. Whitman teaches, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” 

While the Packers have 4 losses so far, and have got some obvious holes in their defense, I feel they will be the team to beat if the Bears are actually going to make the playoffs this year.

Rodgers makes the cheese stand alone.

It’s always so much healthier to root for a winner than a loser, and maybe that’s why I am at the very least one who always needs to be taking his medication.

Though I mingle and merge among them, I remain a Bear fan in occupied Wisconsin.

 

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.