Friday, December 16, 2011

Bears-Rams: Let's Try A Run, Nagurski

Final Four is trademarked, so I can’t use it in this context. I can’t even think it in this context. In fact, I had to pay $275 just to mention it in my lead. Hey, NCAA: You take PayPal, right?

Okay, $275 poorer I press on. The four remaining teams in our all-time playdown are the Colts, Packers, Bears, and Rams. Disappointed that the Cowboys and 49ers didn’t make it? Tell them to get better players. Disappointed that the Cardinals didn’t make it? Just be thankful that that D-Line of Don Brumm, Chuck Walker, Eric Swann and Leo Sugar made it out of the first round. Baby steps. And no more Kevin Kolb experiments.

If the here-and-now suggests the Colts, Bears and Rams are all-time nothings (I can hear the shouts now: “You’d rather have Dan Orlovsky over Kevin Kolb? And you call yourself an expert?”, to which I reply, using my best expert tone, “Braaaaaaaaaap!!!”) don’t get your Victoria’s Secrets in a wad. It’s the norm for at least one of the four to stink at any given time. There has only been one year when all four teams have been truly bad (1982), no years when are four have been really good, and lots of years when three of the four have been really bad (1953, 1973, and 1974) or really good (2002, 2003, 2010, and most of the '60s). It’s more a matter of how good they are when they’re really good than how bad they are when they’ve been really bad. The Chad Hutchinson years are a mulligan, in other words.

The thing that distinguishes these four teams is in fact just how good they’ve been when they’ve been good. I hesitate like Colin Firth to use the word “dynasty” to apply to professional football. In my opinion there were only three true dynasties in sports: the Canadiens, the Yankees, and the Celtics. Every other proto-dynasty was just an extended period of goodness. In fact, if we were doing this exercise in any other professional sport the fix would be in – not because the fix was actually in in the sense of pretend Mafiosos rigging the pretend results so that all the pretend betting in pretend Las Vegas would tilt their way, but because the top teams were that much better for that much longer over so many more decades. You really think the all-time St. Louis Baseball Cardinals could take down the all-time New York Baseball Yankees? Albert Pujols could be swinging the hammer of Thor and Bob Gibson could be throwing sub-atomic particles at the speed of light and the Yankees would still prevail in five.

The sketchy initial impressions of our four all-time teams are that the Bears and Rams are the “defensive” teams of the foursome and the Packers and Colts are the “offensive” teams. Of course, the initial impressions are wrong, and also of course, the two defensive teams play each other.

The Rams resemble a defensive team the same way that Newt Gingrich resembles the Dalai Lama. They’ll have three Hall of Fame quarterbacks once Kurt Warner makes it in, they’ll have four HOF wide receivers once Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt make it, they have three HOF running backs, and they throw in a couple of HOF linemen just for giggles. They actually have more offensive firepower than any of the four, but they have Deacon Jones, who holds the trademark on the quarterback sack (whoops – there goes another $75. Hey, Deacon: You take PayPal, right?) and Merlin Olsen, arguably the third-greatest athlete (after Lou Brock and Ferdinand the Bull) to while away his toast-'n'-jelly days schlepping flowers.

Actually, the most fascinating thing about the Rams-Bears matchup is how archetypical it is. How many games have been characterized as a clash between a running team that plays tough defense and a wide-open passing team that plays swinging-gate D? Well, this is that game, and on Mt. Olympus. Instead of Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson versus Tim Tebow and Von Miller, this game offers Walter Payton and Dick Butkus against Norm van Brocklin and Deacon Jones. The only way this game could be more souped-up is if they were throwing around lightning bolts instead of The Duke.

As so often happens with games like these, what each team does well lines up with the other team’s weaknesses. The Rams don’t need to run, and pass defense (including a pass rush) is the Bears’ sole weakness. The Rams get after the quarterback like no one else but are lacking ‘50s-style run stuffers in the line – pity, because the Bears come right after their opponents with a battalion of ill-tempered linemen and a fleet of big-boned running backs.

Most of these games go off-script. Rodgers runs a mess of pitch sweeps to Ryan Grant and Tim Tebow dazzles (okay, not really dazzles, but doesn’t suck) with flag pattern after flag pattern to Eric Decker, and the whole sloppy mess causes fantasy-football players everywhere to throw handfuls of nacho-cheese Doritos at their big-screens.

This game doesn't. The Bears run, the Rams pass, the Bears block, the Rams shoot the gaps, the Bears control the line of scrimmage, the Rams go vertical, both teams get really dirty, and one team goes home.

That team is the … well, not so fast. It’s still the pregame show.

The only way we’re going to make any headway here is to send James Brown in search of more Doritos, and while he’s gone, look more closely at the areas of discord – the Rams against the run and the Bears against the pass.

The Rams have had a top-two defense six years (1947, 1966-67, 1970, and 1974-75). The Bears have had a top-two defense nine seasons since 1942 (1942, 1948, 1963, 1965, 1985-86, 1988, 2001, and 2005), which should tell you something right there.

In the six years where the Rams had one of the league’s top defenses, they were (going from earliest to most recent) first, third, second, fourth, first, and second against the run, and second overall every year except 2004.

The Bears were first, second, first, second, first, first, first, first, and second overall and third, second, second, ninth, third, first, 25th, 29th, and fifth against the pass.

The best Rams defenses (where most of the Hall of Famers are) are better against the run than the best Bears defenses are against the pass.

The way to beat the Bears, in other words, is to pass against them. The way to beat the Rams is not necessarily to run against them.

So does any of this matter?

Not much, because the Bears also have the greatest kick returners in history. I absolutely hate – I mean, Black-Eyed Peas levels of hate -- to have a game like this come down to special teams, because that would mean Kevin Harlan is right (“Big games like these ALWAYS come down to special teams!!”), but kick-returning is a huge plus for the Bears.

Gale Sayers didn’t get into the Hall of Fame on the strength of his 4,956 rushing yards alone. He got there on the strength of 4,956 rushing yards plus a kickoff-return yardage average that’s still the best in NFL history, a kickoff-return TD number that’s still top-three, and an all-purpose-yards-per-game number that isn’t tracked as an official statistic but which is large enough to make Mark Cuban want to buy it and move it to Dallas.

The reason Devin Hester is serious Canton material isn’t because he’s a pretty good third receiver. He’s Rust Belt-bound because when you kick the ball to him … you don’t want to kick the ball to him. Ever, under any circumstances. And that’s why he’s HOFesque.

The other reason why kick returns matter is because Deacon Jones, inventor of the quarterback sack (damn – another $75 out of my pocket) doesn’t play on kick returns.

Okay. So the Rams kick off to a split-back tandem of Sayers and Hester, and … hold on. Just think about that for a second. The Rams kick off, and if they kick it long it’s going to The Greatest Kick Returner In Football History, numbers 1 and 1a. Of course they’re going to run the kickoff back a long way. There is not a number out there that would suggest otherwise.

So the Rams kick off and Hester runs it out to the Rams’ 43. A mess of runs and an incomplete pass take it down to the 21, where Kevin Butler kicks a field goal. 3-0 Bears.

The Bears kick off to the Rams and Ollie Matson, no mean returner hisownself, flies it out to the Rams’ 40. Two runs and three passes take the ball down to the Bears’ 37, where the drive bogs down. Max Zendejas comes in to kick a field goal, but Doug Atkins blocks it with his island-size paw. Fortunately there’s no Devin Hester to return the blocked kick, and the Bears go three-and-out.

The Rams are set up nicely at their 39, and a series of quick slants and sideline routes take the ball down to the Bears’ 29. A screen to Marshall Faulk seemed like a good idea at this point, but Dick Butkus strips him clean and Bill George recovers. Faulk stumbles off the field holding his forearm by the hair, like it’s a Cabbage Patch Kid, and another drive goes a-glimmering.

The Bears pound it up the middle for about 17 yards, and that’s about it for the first quarter. The Rams lead in the excitement category 17-3, but excitement only matters in Battle of the Network Stars football, and then only when they hand the ball to Loni Anderson.

The Rams get the ball to start the second quarter, and they go right to work. A draw play to Eric Dickerson gets them their first positive rushing yards, and it’s quickly followed by a swing pass to Ollie Matson that nets 14. At this point Norm van Brocklin gets the bright idea to air it out to Crazylegs Hirsch and … it works. Whaddya know. Hirsch takes it 48 yards for a score, and suddenly it’s 7-3 Rams.

Oh, but then they kick it to Gale Sayers. First down Bears at midfield.

The problem with long kick returns, even for a defense as good as the Rams and an offense as woefully one-dimensional as the Bears, is that it asks the offense to do about 37 percent less to achieve the same result. And doing about 37 percent less is what the Bears’ offense is all about.

In the case of this drive, it means one middling 16-yard pass to Mike Ditka, a couple of nice eight-yard runs by Walter Payton, a little swing pass to Gale Sayers, and ultimately a two-yard plunge by Bronko Nagurski that puts the Bears up 10-7, taking us to halftime.

The halftime stats are nothing to write home about, even if you’re just writing home to ask for money. The Bears rush for just short of 70 yards and pass for 35. The Rams rush for 11 and pass for 139, but the fumble and the interception are, in the immortal words of The Philadelphia Story’s Macaulay Connor, a great levelerer.

The Rams get the ball to start the second half and take off down the field like they’ve been shot out of a gun. Unfortunately, it’s my son’s BB gun, and so they wind up about 20 yards short of the target. Max Zendejas knocks it through from 35 and we’re all tied at 10.

All things considered, the Rams would have been better turning over the ball on downs, because Hester takes the kick inside the Rams’ 40. Perhaps buoyed by this, Luckman does the unthinkable and lobs one between the arms of Deacon Jones in the direction of Lake Michigan. Harlon Hill jumps, Ed Meador jumps, and since Hill jumps better than Meador it’s a touchdown. Butler’s extra point makes it 17-10, and you can sense all the water leaking from Merlin Olsen’s Birthday Party Bouquet.

The Rams do their best to respond. Pinned back deep in their territory for the first time all afternoon, the Rams mix draws, screens, sideline patterns, and one sweet seam route to Torry Holt to move inside the Chicago 20 before the roof caves in, courtesy of Joe Stydahar and Dick Butkus. Two QB sacks plus an incompletion force Zendejas to attempt his third field goal. He knocks it through and the Bears’ lead shrinks to 17-13.

Finally the Rams squib a kickoff, forcing the Bears to start inside their 40. A three-and-out is matched by a five-and-out from the Rams, which is matched by another three-and-one, then a six-and-out, then a five-and-out, and before you know it it’s the Rams’ ball on their 27 with less than three minutes on the clock.

Van Brocklin is masterful. He works over the overworked Bears’ secondary with quick passes to fast receivers. The Rams thrust-and-parry down to the five, but then the angles tighten and the passes don’t get through. Zendejas is called on once again and delivers the field goal that brings the Rams within three.

The Bears get the ball with less than two minutes to play and a simple task to accomplish: Get a first down – just one. With the game on the line, Payton rushes for four and then two, bringing up a key third and four. The Rams are out of timeouts; a first down seals the game.

As has happened so many times in their existence, the Bears’ survival will be determined by their ability to run for four yards when they need it. True to character, they hand the ball to Bronko Nagurski and let a line-full of HOFers attend to their business. Nagurski gains five. Luckman takes a knee and Bears fans go home slightly less ornery than when they came.

It’s not a pretty game – again – but once again, it epitomizes Bears football. Payton runs for 87, Nagurski adds 36, and Luckman throws for 121 with no interceptions. Between them Sayers and Hester return nine kicks for 217 yards.

The Rams’ numbers are more impressive by far. Van Brocklin throws for 286, Hirsch has a long TD, Holt and Bruce each catch four, Dickerson and Faulk combine for 117 yards rushing – but those numbers are ultimately irrelevant. Two empty sorties into Chicago territory are fatal in a game this close.

So, yeah, Kevin Harlan, you called it all right. It did come down to special teams. Play the game tomorrow and it might have a different outcome. But today the Bears move on. The Final Four now numbers three.

Drat. I hope the NCAA takes Visa.

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