Friday, July 27, 2012

Offensive Line Competition on Bears

I saw a post on ESPN by Kevin Seifert that suggests that J'Marcus Webb is the probable starter at offensive left tackle over Chris Williams. Others have said the spot is wide open between Webb and Williams.

Coaches will want to see how these players have developed physically over the off season and maybe a lot would have to do with how they have improved themselves in that category. Both Webb and Williams are young men coming into their own. Offensive tackle is a very difficult position that requires a lot of quick lateral movement and you are often facing key pass rushers from the other team. The left tackle is the premium offensive line position that is charged with protecting the quarterback's blindspot. Williams was a first round pick, but has been hobbled by some injuries early in his career and last year sustained a serious wrist injury. The Bears have moved tackles and guards around to manage injuries and improve position play. As the young talent develops, hopefully the players will be placed in their most natural positions.

The thinking on Webb and Williams runs in different directions. Williams being a number one draft pick suggests that he would have all the tools for the position. Teams hate to see any draft pick fail, but a number one pick that does not pan out is forever on critics' list of bad moves. But both players are very close in speed and strength. Webb was a 7th round pick, but he's had his critics who believe his play was not NFL caliber. Yet, you have to wonder if there wasn't something else at work last year when things fell apart for the offensive line. Of course, a change in play calling to speed up plays and reduce the strain on the offensive line might help fight off the injury bug and make protection more manageable this year. The Bears should be a more potent running team and they have more receiving weapons this year as well. Tice has suggested that the talent on offense is stronger and the line will have to do its part to see that the team can exploit it's muscle. Let's hope it's a year where the offensive line is described in superlatives rather than in discouraging terms--that should work well for both Webb and Williams. I think there will be a spot for both of them. Good teams need depth to become great ones. Copyright 2012 Sporting Chance Press, Inc.

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Patrick McCaskey's Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout and other fine sports books. Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout is a personal chronicle of Chicago Bears Senior Director Patrick McCaskey that looks back at decades of spiritual enrichment and life lessons from athletes, coaches, religious and everyday people. McCaskey recalls the stories of those who strived to make the cut on and off the field—plus people who left comfortable lives to serve the under-served in extraordinary ways. Order online.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Now's the Time for Schools and Libraries to Start Planning for Winter Olympic Speakers: Consider Author and Figure Skater Nicolette House




We are heading into the London Summer Olympics, but it's not too early to start thinking about the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. The 2014 Games will be hosted in Sochi in the Russian Federation. It will be the fist time the Winter Games have been hosted by Russia. The Soviet Union hosted the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.

The host city Sochi has a population of 400,000 people and is situated in Krasnodar, which is the third largest region in Russia. We all know how time flies and skating fans will be watching the various competitions for the next two years that lead up to the Olympic competition.

Now is a good time to book ice dancer, figure skating instructor and Sporting Chance Press author, Nicolette House for a presentation. Nothing helps energize and inspire students more than a positive role model making a personal appearance. In Nicolette's program, young readers get many strong positive messages. Students get a first-hand glimpse of what it takes for a young athlete to compete at a very high level. Nicolette talks about the importance of discipline in practice, the need to respect authority and communicate with Mom and Dad, and the necessity of a healthy diet to be at one's best. Nicolette also talks about how she came to write her book: Maddie Takes the Ice, a compelling figure skating story for ages 8-12 that is an America's Battle of the Books selection and has received high marks from many reviewers and educators.

Nicolette's presentation is suited for elementary and middle/junior high school audiences and parents. It is a fun "show and tell" program that offers an up close and personal look at a positive role model for students. Nicolette is a figure skater and coach. Her mother, Ilona House is a former professional skater who coached Nicolette and has coached in Chicago and the northwest suburban area for many years.

Nicolette House is a four-time U.S Figure Skating gold medalist. Skating since the age of three, she went on to compete in European, World, and international ice dance competitions with her skating partner Aidas Reklys. Along with her Aidas, the author recently created After Dark and Military Time skating shows featuring several top international skaters. Ms. House is a recent graduate of DePaul University.

Like her presentation, her book Maddie Takes the Ice keeps readers attention with plenty of drama and social interaction--life lessons included. More on Maddie Takes the Ice. Maddie has her own web site.

If you are interested in having Nicolette speak at your school or library, please contact her at nhouse@icetalentinc.com.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Shea McClellin and Speculation

I am no expert on professional football. As a sports publisher, I have authors who are the experts. But I do look at different sports developments as a fan and try to make sense of them.

Stories on the NFL draft are always intriguing because fans like to see who is out there. They like to have some idea of which players their team may draft and they also like to test their own ability to forecast the future. But if you have been around the block a few times, you have to know that the guys who get paid to select draft picks are a lot smarter than the guys who get paid to write about the draft picks.

Sports Writers Versus Sports Managers. The fact is that if a sports writer says something stupid it's probably not going to resurface over and over again. On the other hand, if someone makes a bad draft pick, that choice is going to take the field and play before the cameras. A good or bad draft decision is revisited when pundits examine the strengths and weaknesses of player personnel and how it got that way.

Many sports fans know that Babe Ruth was dealt to the Yankees by Boston. But few people other than some odd sports scholar can talk about a poor sports story of the era. There were people who thought Babe Ruth should have kept pitching. In sports writing, a lot of stupid things are written one day and forgotten the next. Fans can contribute to the mountain of discourse via blogs and comments.

Who Has the Inside Scoop? There is so much those outside a team's inner circle don't know. Owners, managers and coaches are not going to let sportswriters in on everything. When a team selects a first round draft pick, how the coaches and managers respond to questions about that selection may have a real impact on any player in the same position. Once a first round selection is made, sports reporters are all over the story and write about the pick from every angle. Team Management may want to be diplomatic and help manage the fears of an existing player, particularly if he has played very well the previous season. There are always going to be doubts about a player's contribution for the next season, but the coach or manager who expresses those doubts to the press may be sorry about its impact on the veteran player. On the other hand, in some cases the player may need a fire lit under him to get up to speed and be at his best.

Bear Top Draft Pick. First, let me just say that you've got to love Sheamus McClellin's story although in its outline it's not uncommon. Basically, a very young mother bears a child when she is practically a child herself. Very strong grandparents provide a good solid upbringing insisting on hard work and discipline. McClellin takes nothing for granted and wants nothing that is not earned. He loves his grandparents and wants to help them. He is a small town kid from the west.

McClellin is 6'3" tall and weighs in at about 260 lbs. He has Urlacher-in-his-prime speed. He loves to mix it up and those who watched his performance in the NFL combine, state that he is mobile and agile. It would appear that he has the goods to help improve the Bears pass rush and he is slotted as another defensive end although he is undersized for that position. Some think he may one day play linebacker. But the prototype end and linebacker are very much in flux today as teams use different defensive schemes that require different physical attributes.

Pass Rushing Stars Shine Today. On all NFL defenses today, there is a super premium paid for pass-rushers. Pass rushers are now determined to make the biggest impact on defense because they disrupt the passing game. If the quarterback is rushed, life is not so hard on the rest of the defense--the backs are not challenged so often with longer pass patterns and longer more complex offensive plays are impossible to carryout when the QB is on his butt.

Julius Peppers (1st round-2nd pick overall)was a free agent the Bears picked up from Carolina and he has been everything a Bears fan could want in a pass rusher. But the Bears would love to have more of a bookend defensive end threat with another premium pass rusher. They are looking for someone to be as effective as Mark Anderson was early in his career for the Bears. They would also like to have a three defensive ends rotation that can keep the heat on the opposing team and conserve the strength of their aging superstar Peppers.

Israel Idonije (undrafted--he played college ball in Canada) has showed great talent over the course of his career and at times he was unstoppable. Bear coaches and fans may be thinking that with so much extra effort being used to block Peppers, whoever plays the other side ought to have a lot of sacks. The Bears like Corey Wooten (4th round), but he has been bitten by injuries in his short career. Chauncy Davis (4th round) is a 29-year old who provided the Bears with some veteran skills and talents. Thaddeus Gibson(4th round) is a young player who will have to win a spot in camp this year. The Bears will not beat teams with their defense if Peppers is not leading a superb pass rush. Shea McClellin tossed into this mix of defensive ends should help either improve the current performance level or backup teammates if trouble brews. Teams always have to be transitioning from today's talented players to tomorrow's. But part of the trick is to make that happen in a healthy way.

Linebackers Forever. Transition in the Bears' linebacker core is another potential problem. Just as Peppers and Idonije are over 30 years old, so are linebackers Brian Urlacher (34 years old) and Lance Briggs (31 years old). No one is looking for Urlacher or Briggs to hang up their cleats any time soon. Nick Roach has been very steady and Bear coaches have praised Roach as someone who can play inside or outside. The Bears picked up a young(24 years old) talent-proven linebacker in Geno Hayes from Tampa Bay--they would not have had to do that if they were confident in the backup talent that they had. It could not have helped the young linebackers on the team to have lost so much of the preseason last year due to the labor impasse.

Dom DeCicco is someone the Bears seem to like as a middle linebacker and his play on special teams gives him an edge in keeping a roster spot. Like Urlacher, he was not a linebacker in college, rather he played defensive back and can cover well on passes. He is 6'4", but perhaps a little light for the middle position.

Of course, few Bear fans are anxious to see the Bears replacing talents like Urlacher and Peppers. These two players are considered to be freaks of nature even in professional football. Fans have always marveled at Urlacher's combination of speed and strength that has allowed him to cover on pretty much any play an offense can throw his way. Peppers amazes fans with his ability to take punishment and spin past two or three blockers at time to pressure a quarterback from every conceivable angle and position on the field. Replacing these players is a little like replacing Walter Payton, it is something that might just never happen, but you take your shot.

Enter Shea McClellin. But what is the long term view of Shea McClellin. Some scouts have said that once McClellin finds a spot on an NFL team, he will remain there for 10 plus years. I suspect that the Bears are comfortable with having McClellin on the squad, seeing his strength increase, his skills honed and evaluating his talent and future abilities--as long as he contributes at the same time! McClellin's first-round value may be in the fact that he can play at end--contribute to the pass rush and alternatively, he might get tossed into the linebacker pool down the road. Perhaps, the defensive coaches will see more Brian Urlacher than Julius Peppers in the young man from Idaho. Of course, it's not all up to McClellin, there are a number of other players who preside ahead of him on the depth chart. All in all, it looks like McClellin will make a very interesting year for Bears fans even more interesting.

Despite the fact that a lot of sports writers complain that the Bears have not given enough thought to a possible replacement for Urlacher and likewise complain that some pass rush assistance is needed for Peppers, the Bears have a new kid on the block who is likely going to help in one of those areas. Of course, regardless of whether McClellin remains at end or gets moved to linebacker, neither Peppers nor Urlacher are likely to lose an sleep over it. But in a couple years...
---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of Patrick McCaskey's Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout and other fine sports books. Sports and Faith: Stories of the Devoted and the Devout is a personal chronicle of Chicago Bears Senior Director Patrick McCaskey that looks back at decades of spiritual enrichment and life lessons from athletes, coaches, religious and everyday people. McCaskey recalls the stories of those who strived to make the cut on and off the field—plus people who left comfortable lives to serve the under-served in extraordinary ways. Order online.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Fred Merkled To Be Honored in Rochester, NY

Sporting Chance Press is the publisher of a wonderful historical baseball book called Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball's Fred Merkle. Merkle was a much maligned player for a base running "error" that he committed toward the end of the 1908 season when his New York Giants were battling the mighty Chicago Cubs for the NL Pennant. Almost daily someone writes a story about a sports error that uses Merkle as a metaphor for stupid play. Those who have studied baseball history know better. Merkle was an intelligent man who had a long productive career and was anything but stupid. In the waning years of his professional career, he played four years of minor league ball for Rochester of the International League. This summer he is being honored by induction into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame.

Merkle Game. In the now-famous Merkle game of September 23, 1908, the umpire, Hank O'Day, decided to enforce a rule that had been essentially ignored up until that important game. He was pressured to make the call by none other than Johnny Evers of the famous Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance "trio of bear cubs." Evers had jawed at O'Day about the rule a few weeks earlier when the Cubs played the Pirates.

On September 23, 1908, 19-year old Fred Merkle was the youngest player on the New York Giants. He was slotted into the lineup in a critical game against the mighty Chicago Cubs in the New York Polo Grounds. In those days the Cubs were not lovable losers--they were bare-fisted winners. The character of the Cubs was exemplified by Frank "Husk" Chance who took more than his share of bad pitches on the noggin and was known to take no guff from his teammates or anyone else. Evers was another face of the Cubs, a skinny boney leathery looking man who was a winner and was not shy about working every angle to put up a "W."

When Merkle came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 1—1 and Moose McCormick on first, he rifled a single to right field easily advancing McCormick to third. Up next, Shortstop slugger Al Bridwell whacked a low liner that scored McCormick for the "win." But as was the custom at the time, Merkle turned from the base path and raced towards the clubhouse rather than tag second. This was especially true in the Polo Grounds where spectators exited right through the field.

Modern fans know that even if a team scores on such a play, the runner should advance to the next base and tag it to avoid a force-out. The score is nullified on the force out. Unfortunately for Fred Merkle, in 1908 this rule had not been enforced, especially when the winning hit traveled to the outfield. September 23 however, was different.


The rule was enforced.
Merkle was called out, and the game was ruled a tie. A protest ensued to no avail and at the end of the season a rubber match was played for the Pennant because the mighty Cubs and feisty Giants had identical records for the season. The Cubs won the rubber match, the Pennant and the World Series. The Cubs had actually played much better ball than the Giants the last few weeks of the season and were certainly the better team, but you wouldn't know that by the stories that you read about the Merkle game.

The scalding from the press that Merkle received at the ripe old age of 19 followed him around his entire career and much of his life after baseball. Towards the end of Fred Merkle's long professional career, he went down to the minors and played for Rochester in the International League. Fred had a good run in Rochester and he stayed there four years until the Yankees bought his services and brought him back up to the big leagues. In his last year with Rochester, Merkle, who was about 15 years older than most of his teammates, whacked 22 home runs and held a .351 batting average. Rochester's fondness for the great Fred Mekle has never died.

For some inexplicable reason, modern writers often judge Merkle as if he is playing today after the rule that Merkle broke has been enforced for over 100 years. Few seem to understand Merkle's point of reference. But the Rochester Red Wings understand and appreciated Merkle.

Some 88 years after his playing time with Rochester, Fred is being honored by induction into the Rochester Red Wings Hall of Fame. On Friday, August 10 at 7:05 p.m., the Red Wings play the Pawtucket Red Sox and in a special pregame ceremony, Fred Merkle and another Red Wings luminary, Dave Leonhard will be honored. The Red Wings Hall of Fame night will also feature post game fireworks sponsored by Flower City Printing and Western new York Dental will be giving away toothbrushes. You have to love the Minor Leagues!

Radio host Bob Matthews of Rochester's 1180 WHAM will be interviewing our author, Mike Cameron, in the days leading up to the induction and game. More information on Redwings games/tickets is available on their site.