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Top 14 Chicago sports stories of 2014

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Top 14 Chicago sports stories of 2014

It was a whirlwind of a year in the Chicago sports world. Though no teams were crowned champions in 2014, there were a number of stories - both good and bad - that helped shape the landscape of each. Memorable games, stars arriving, legends departing all made up the year that was. Here's our take on the Top 14 Chicago sports stories of 2014:

14. Notre Dame suspends four amid academic investigation

THE STORY: With Everett Golson back in the fold and a number of key starters returning, Notre Dame had dreams of getting back to competing for a national championship. But those dreams were put on hold, at least momentarily, when DaVaris Daniels, Eilar Hardy, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams were suspended indefinitely for alleged academic violations. There was hope they would return to the team at some point, but that time never came. The Irish raced out to a 6-0 start with wins over Michigan and No. 14 Stanford and were ranked as high as No. 5 in the country, but the loss of the suspended student-athletes, specifically Daniels and Russell, ultimately caught up with them. An offensive pass interference prevented a last-second loss at top-ranked Florida State, setting in motion Brian Kelly's group losing five of their last six games.

THE QUOTE: "I think if you create an environment and lay out the expectations of your program and they’re not met, then they should be held accountable. That’s been the case every year I’ve been a head coach." - Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (August 16)

13. Kings top Blackhawks in overtime of instant classic Game 7

THE STORY: Game 7 of the Western Conference finals between the Blackhawks and Kings had a little bit of everything, much like the entire series. The Blackhawks, riding momentum from wins in Game 5 and 6, shot out to an early 2-0 lead behind goals from Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews. But the Kings answered with two goals in 51 seconds, and ultimately erased Blackhawks leads three different times. That sent the Game 7 to overtime - for just the sixth time in conference finals history - where an Alec Martinez shot deflected off Nick Leddy and past Corey Crawford, sending the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three seasons. And though it didn't end with a Blackhawks victory, the series as a whole has gone down as one of most exciting in recent memory.

THE QUOTE: “We were one goal away. That’s all it came down to. We had a feeling this game was going to find a way to go to overtime, come down to overtime, the way these two teams were fighting playing against each. We were just looking for that one lucky bounce and ran out of time. We didn’t get it.” - Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (June 1)

12. Bulls trade Luol Deng, opening the door for Joakim Noah

THE STORY: Just one week into 2014 the Bulls produced shockwaves throughout the Windy City when they dealt longtime veteran Luol Deng to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Andrew Bynum's contract and three draft picks. After failing to agree on a extension, Deng, who had $14.3 million remaining on his expiring contract, had expressed the desire to test free agency in the offseason, forcing the Bulls to make a financial decision in dealing him on the cheap. It freed up cap space and got the Bulls under the luxury tax threshold, but it also meant that championship aspirations would be put on hold for yet another year in the wake of Derrick Rose's season-ending knee surgery. It also opened the door for Joakim Noah, who became the face of the franchise and willed the Bulls to 48 wins and a playoff appearance, both of which seemed impossible after Deng's departure. Noah wound up earning All-NBA First Team honors and was named the Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 12.6 points, 11.3 rebounds and 5.4 assists in 80 games, salvaging a once-lost season.

THE QUOTE: “(Luol) has gone above and beyond anything we could have imagined, and we appreciate that and respect that. I want to convey from our organization to 'Lu,' publicly, what he’s meant to us and how difficult a decision to move him this has been." - Bulls VP of basketball operations John Paxson (January 7)

11. Jackie Robinson West captivates the city

THE STORY: What began as a nice story in South Williamsport, Pa., eventually took on a life of its own in the city of Chicago. The Jackie Robinson West baseball team, a group of 13 African-American boys from the South Side, fought their way through the Little League World Series, eventually becoming the first team from Chicago to win the United States title and qualify for the championship in nearly 50 years. Their magical run captivated the city, both the White Sox and Cubs expressed their support, the team was given a parade through Chicago upon their return and they made a trip to the White House to meet President Barack Obama.

THE QUOTE: "Just being there was unbelievable. And then we got there and won our first game we were like, 'Yo, let's try to win the whole thing.' So the mood changed and we tried to focus on winning the whole thing. So being on that field, knowing that we were the No. 1 team in the United States of America is unreal." - Jackie Robinson West manager Darold Butler (August 24)

10. Cubs finally break ground on Wrigley Field renovations

THE STORY: For months in 2014 the Cubs and rooftop owners engaged in a legal battle over the proposed $575 million Wrigley Field renovations. And thought at times it felt as though a deal would never get done, two weeks after their season ended the Cubs finally broke ground. With commissioner Bud Selig and Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel in attendance, the Cubs began the first of four phases including altered bleachers, seven outfield signs and a jumbotron in left field. Delays temporarily halted the construction on the bleachers, and there are concerns it may not be ready by Opening Day, but breaking ground on the renovation was an accomplishment in itself and signaled another step forward in the Cubs' rebuilding.

THE QUOTE: “The fact is that there were a lot of days where I was concerned that we would never get to here. Absolutely. But ultimately the mayor stepped up and we worked it out. We found a way to make sure that we could get this ballpark saved.” - Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts (October 11)

9. Paul Konerko says goodbye to Chicago, White Sox faithful

THE STORY: Paul Konerko's final season in Chicago wasn't what he had hoped for, appearing in just 81 games while the White Sox struggled to an 89-loss campaign. But not even a down year could dampen the legend's final weekend at U.S. Cellular Field. During a 42-minute pregame ceremony Konerko, surrounded by family, friends, former and current teammates and special guests, was presented with gifts, a video tribute and a statue in the left-field concourse. Hawk Harrelson also announced plans for Konerko's No. 14 to be retired the following season. Konerko was replaced to start the 6th inning and walked off the field for the last time to a standing ovation, capping off a memorable afternoon for one of the South Side's greatest.

THE QUOTE: “This is way more than you ever dream could happen when you pick up a bat. You’re six years old and you find yourself here 32 years later with all this going on, it’s not something that you think is going to happen." - White Sox legend Paul Konerko (September 27)

8. Blackhawks lock in Kane, Toews with matching contract extensions

THE STORY: During the process of negotiating their respective contract extensions, Jonathan Toews said he texted Patrick Kane a few times to make sure they were on the same page. And like he had been on the ice for the first seven years of his NHL career, Kane was on the same page as his counterpart. So it was only fitting that the two signed identical eight-year, $84 million extensions in July, keeping them in Chicago through their primes as they work together for a third Stanley Cup. The duo's extensions don't begin until the 2015-16 season, but they've already gone to work on that goal; the Blackhawks enter 2015 with a 25-10-2 record and 52 points, sitting atop the Western Conference.

THE QUOTE: "We'll never deny the fact that we're part of a very special group of players that have enabled us to have a lot of the individual success that's been noticeable. So at the end of the day, there's that. And on the other side, we feel there's a number we deserve and are happy with. So far it's worked out and I'm sure as the game keeps growing, the Hawks will have a team that will be successful for years to come." - Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews (July 23)

7. The summer of Carmelo Anthony

THE STORY: Everything was in place for the Bulls to make a major splash in free agency this past summer. A state-of-the-art practice facility, trade assets in the form of two first-round draft picks and young and cheap prospects, the departure of Carlos Boozer's bulky contract and a healthy Derrick Rose returning to a championship contender had all the makings of Chicago being a prime destination for Carmelo Anthony, who had opted out of his deal with the New York Knicks. The Bulls were the first to officially meet with Anthony, with Joakim Noah and Rose acting as recruiters for the seven-time All-Star. The Melo-drama lasted weeks, with Anthony making stops in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and New York, all the while the Bulls being considered the frontrunner for his services. Anthony ultimately opted for the familiarity and cash in New York, re-signing with the Knicks on a $124 million deal. But that decision also allowed the Bulls to begin working on Plan B, which included signing Pau Gasol, bringing over rookie Nikola Mirotic from Spain and re-signing Kirk Hinrich to a two-year deal, among other deals. The Bulls didn't get their man, but at 22-9 they're in far better position than Anthony's Knicks, who are going nowhere at 5-28.

THE QUOTE: "There was one point in time I was like, 'Oh, I'm going [to the Bulls]....You could see the culture they have over there. The seriousness they have, what they're about. It comes down to winning to me, and that's what they're about. That's what I like. They hit everything on the nail. That's hard to do." - New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (November 28)

6. White Sox rookie Jose Abreu takes the league by storm

THE STORY: Rick Hahn was adamant when the White Sox signed Cuban slugger Jose Abreu to a six-year, $68 million deal in March that the addition was made for the long-term, not just for a season-long boost in 2014. That may be the case, but Abreu certainly made his imprint on the White Sox in his first year in the bigs. The 27-year-old first baseman hit .317/.383/.581 with 36 home runs and 107 RBIs in 145 games and was unanimously named the BBWAA American League Rookie of the Year, earning all 30 first-place votes. He twice won AL Player of the Month (April, July), was a major reason the White Sox made a 10-game jump in the win column in 2014 and felt comfortable enough this offseason to make major splashes in acquiring Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson and Melky Cabrera.

THE QUOTE: "I think we all felt he had the potential to be this type of player at some point during his White Sox career, but I don’t believe any of us would have told you with a straight face that we fully expected this to be in Year 1.” - White Sox general manager Rick Hahn (November 12)

5. Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux enshrined in National Baseball Hall of Fame

THE STORY: There was little, if any, doubt that Frank Thomas and Greg Maddux would be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on their first try. But that didn't dilute the scene in Cooperstown this past summer when both players made heartfelt speeches upon being inducted into baseball lore. A nervous Maddux, who received 97.2 percent of the vote (7th highest in history), thanked family, friends and teammates as well as his time with the Cubs, noting that "I learned how to pitch in Chicago." A tearful Thomas, who received 83.7 percent of the vote, thanked as many people as he could before breaking down speaking about his father, Frank Sr., who passed away in 2001. Thomas and Maddux were enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with Tom Glavine, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre.

THE QUOTE: "My dad was my everything. He pushed me day in and day out to go to practice and do all these things. He was just so proud of me all the time. I was just overcome with emotion. I’m sorry about it. But I’m not sorry about it because it is what I am and I’m proud to be here with these great legends.” - White Sox Hall of Famer Frank Thomas (July 27)

4. Joe Maddon makes memorable arrival in Chicago

THE STORY: A shot and a beer. Down the line Joe Maddon hopefully will be remembered for bringing a World Series to the North Side, but for now his electric press conference inside the Cubby Bear will go down as his highlight of 2014. Just days after he opted out of his deal in Tampa Bay rumors began surfacing that the Cubs were interested in bringing on board one of the game's top managers. And it didn't take long - 10 days, to be exact - for Theo Epstein to strike a five-year, $25 million deal with Maddon, subsequently ending Rick Renteria's one-year tenure with the ballclub. And at that press conference, Maddon reeled off a handful of memorable one-liners, talked about his enthusiasm for breaking the Cubs' 106-year long World Series drought and instilled yet another ounce of hope in the prospects of a championship on the North Side. The Cubs' offseason picked up steam shortly after that, but it was Maddon's hiring that got the ball rolling on the next phase of The Plan.

THE QUOTE: "I'm gonna talk World Series this year. I promise you. I am. And I'm gonna believe it. And I'm going to see how it's all going to play out. It's within our future, there's no question about that." - Cubs manager Joe Maddon (November 3)

3. The Derrick Rose roller coaster continues

THE STORY: Derrick Rose began 2014 the same way he began 2013: Sitting on the bench in a suit and tie, out for the year with a season-ending knee injury. This time a torn meniscus in his right knee had been the culprit, and there were real concerns that another knee injury, on the heels of a torn ACL in 2012, could cripple his NBA career. He watched as the Bulls won 48 games and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by the Wizards before deeming himself ready to compete with Team USA in the FIBA World Cup. He looked fresh in Spain, and though his jump shot was non-existent he did enough to bring optimism of health for the upcoming season. And while he missed 10 games early in the 2014-15 season with ankle and hamstring injuries, Rose appears to have turned the corner. In his last eight games, the former MVP has averaged 21.9 points and 4.3 assists in 29.0 minutes, helping the Bulls to a 22-9 record and looking like the favorites in the East. It's safe to say 2015 will begin far different for Rose than 2014.

THE QUOTE: "My confidence level is very high, like it’s always been. My goals are still the same: stay healthy, keep stringing ‘em out, and win games.” - Bulls point guard Derrick Rose (December 12)

2. White Sox trade for Samardzija, Cubs sign Lester to open free agency

THE STORY: Baseball season in Chicago went quietly in 2014, with the Cubs and White Sox each losing 89 games. But the offseason couldn't have been louder for the two organizations, and in the span of 24 hours each made big moves that should yield major dividends in 2015 and beyond. The White Sox began by acquiring Jeff Samardzija in exchange for a handful of prospects, adding a veteran right-hander to an already impressive starting rotation. Less than a day later the Cubs received word that Jon Lester had accepted their six-year, $155 million offer to become the ace on the North Side. Both teams made additional moves in the hectic offseason, but adding frontline starters created a mutual buzz on both ends of town that hadn't been felt in quite awhile.

THE QUOTE: "I want to win regardless of where I'm at. That's something we talked about extensively when we met. I believe in the plan that they have in place right now for the future of the Cubs." - Cubs ace Jon Lester (December 15)

"It's just what I remember growing up, so there's a very distinct intangible feeling I get when I'm around (Chicago) that is a comfort level because it's the same exact atmosphere that I grew up with playing in the parks. It has a lot to do with it.” - White Sox starter Jeff Samardzija (December 16)

1. Endless mistakes snowball in disastrous Bears campaign

THE STORY: Where to begin? A team with Super Bowl aspirations under second-year head coach Marc Trestman became the laughing stock of the NFL in a matter of weeks. From Lance Briggs' Double Nickel-gate, to back-to-back humiliating defensive efforts against the Patriots and Packers, to Aaron Kromer telling Ian Rappaport the Bears had buyer's remorse on Jay Cutler's contract extension, to three straight nationally-televised losses to the Lions, Cowboys and Saints, and Jay Cutler's $22.5 million salary being benched in Week 16, rock bottom was reached in arguably the franchise's most embarrassing season in 95 years. It ended with Trestman and general manager Phil Emery being fired on Monday. Where the Bears go from here remains to be seen, but what is clear is that this debacle of the season was Chicago sports' top story of 2014.

THE QUOTE: “We've been through a lot over the last six months. Certainly every day's a challenge handling the adversity that we've had and the minimal success we've had and it's been a challenge, something you've got to absorb and embrace along the way and try to be as consistent as you can wit the football team getting them ready each and every week." - Bears head coach Marc Trestman (December 25)

Just missed the cut:

- Javier Baez and Jorge Soler make memorable debuts for Cubs
- Duke-bound Jahlil Okafor leads Whitney Young to state title
- Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman both injured in possible final season in Chicago
- Jimmy Butler rises to stardom early in 2014-15 season
- Tim Beckman leads Illinois to bowl game, retains job
- Northwestern football players win bid to unionize

 

Order of Top 14 list determined by Comcast SportsNet Chicago staff

Photos courtesy USA TODAY SPORTS IMAGES

 

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Defensive Line

2017 grade: B+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Mitch Unrein (free agent), John Jenkins (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Jared Crick, Frostee Rucker, Dominique Easley

This unit was consistently the Bears’ best in 2017, with Akiem Hicks playing at a Pro Bowl level (don’t let his exclusion from the game fool you on that) and Eddie Goldman putting together a rock-solid, healthy year. 

Hicks signed a four-year contract extension just before the season began and rewarded the Bears with a dominant year, racking up 8 ½ sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. Goldman played in and started 15 games and was a key reason why the Bears limited opposing rushers to four yards per carry, tied for the 10th-best average in the league. 

But while the Bears’ defensive line was certainly good, it wasn’t as good as it could’ve been. These words from Vic Fangio ring true for Hicks and Goldman:

“I think they all have a lot more to give to us than we’ve seen,” Fangio said. “And it’s our job to get them to improve and become even better players. That will be more important to us than anybody we can acquire between now and whenever our first game is. So, and I know it’s always sexy to talk between now and the first game, you know, who are you going to draft, who’s in free agency, etc., but we’ve got to get our so-called good players playing even better. And that will be critical.”

Hicks will enter Year 3 in Fangio’s scheme, while 2018 will be Goldman’s fourth. It’ll also be a critical year for Jonathan Bullard and Roy Robertson-Harris, who’ve flashed potential at times but haven’t been able to turn that into consistent success on the field. 

And that’s where we begin to look ahead to free agency and the draft. Is the Bears’ evaluation of Bullard -- their 2016 third-round pick -- positive enough to hand him a bigger role in 2018? That’s question No. 1 to answer, with No. 2 then being if the team should try to re-sign Mitch Unrein. 

It may be a bit risky to move forward with Bullard, given how popular Unrein was among the Bears’ defensive coaching staff. 

“He’s one of the glue guys on the defense and the team,” Fangio said last November. “Every team needs a few of those guys who are going to do everything right, full speed, hard and tough all the time, and that’s Mitch.”

Defensive line coach Jay Rodgers offered this up about Unrein back in October: “He allows those guys to play fast,” with “those guys” being Hicks and Goldman. 

Statistically, the 30-year-old Unrein doesn’t  jump off the page, but he did record a career high 2 ½ sacks in 2017. Perhaps there would be some benefits to continuity in the Bears’ base 3-4 defensive line.

Worth noting too is this position isn’t a huge need, given Unrein usually played between 40 and 55 percent of the Bears’ defensive snaps on a per-game basis last year. Keeping Unrein for a relatively low cap hit would make some sense, as opposed to testing free agency to replace him.

Jared Crick is coming off back surgery and an ineffective 2016; Dominique Easley is coming off his third torn ACL this decade; Frostee Rucker is in his mid-30’s. The Bears could look to pick a 3-4 defensive end in April, but that would be a pretty quick re-draft of the position and would be an indication they don’t think much of Bullard. This seems like a position where keeping the status quo is likely, save maybe for replacing John Jenkins with a different backup behind Goldman. 
 

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 Bears position grades: Offensive Line

2017 grade: C+

Level of need: Medium

Decisions to be made on: Josh Sitton (contract), Eric Kush (contract), Hroniss Grasu (contract), Bobby Massie (contract), Tom Compton (free agent), Bradley Sowell (free agent)

Possible free agent targets: Andrew Norwell, D.J. Fluker, Justin Pugh, Josh Kline, Jonathan Cooper

How the Bears’ offensive line will shape up in 2018 begins with a decision on which the Bears are already on the clock. The team has until March 9 to pick up Josh Sitton’s 2018 option -- or, to put it another way, they have until March 9 to determine if Sitton was/is/will be good enough to justify keeping him and not netting about $8 million in cap savings, per Spotrac. 

For what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Sitton as the league’s sixth-best guard in 2017. If the Bears’ grades of Sitton match those outside ones, then the team probably won’t cut him -- not destabilizing Mitchell Trubisky’s offensive line would be well worth the money in that case. While Sitton turns 32 in June, cutting him would put a lot of pressure on Kyle Long, who hasn’t been fully healthy since 2016. The Bears are hopeful that Long will be back to full strength after multiple offseason surgeries, but releasing Sitton and then signing/drafting his replacement would be a gamble on Long’s health. 

Sitton’s status is the first part of the Bears’ 2018 offensive line equation. There’s also a decision to be made on Bobby Massie, who Bleacher Report ranked as the NFL’s 14th-best right tackle last year but could be cut for about $5.5 million in cap savings, according to Spotrac. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Bears cut or kept both Sitton and Massie for now, then drafted an offensive lineman in the first round (like Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson or Texas tackle Connor Williams) and released one of them. Or they could keep both through the end of the 2018 season. All those options would make sense on some level.

What wouldn’t seem to make sense is the Bears cutting Sitton or Massie and replacing them with a free agent. This year’s offensive line free agent class, without adding any potential cap casualties to it, isn’t particularly strong. By Bleacher Report’s rankings, the best free agent right tackle is Houston’s Breno Giancomi, who’s 27th in that list -- 13 spots behind Massie. At left tackle, New England’s Nate Solder (No. 22) isn’t rated as highly as Charles Leno (No. 20), who we'll talk about in a bit here. 

The only potential upgrade available via free agency would be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (No. 2 in B/R’s rankings), who’s 26 and is in line for a big payday this spring -- but that would seemingly be counter-intuitive to releasing Sitton and then potentially paying more money to a different guard, even if he’s younger and has more long-term upside. The Bears could opt for a cheaper guard in free agency who could have some potential working with respected O-line coach Harry Hiestand -- the Giants’ D.J. Fluker (57th in B/R’s rankings) or Justin Pugh (42nd) fit that mold, as would the Titans’ Josh Kline (37th) or Cowboys’ Jonathan Cooper (38th). Or the Bears could keep Sitton and still sign one of those guys as insurance in case Long and/or Eric Kush, who tore his ACL last training camp, isn’t ready to start the season. 

Tom Compton and Bradley Sowell proved to be serviceable backups last year and could be an option to return, even with a new coaching staff in place. The health of Kush, who was missed as a reliable backup in 2017, will be important in figuring out what the Bears' O-line depth looks like. Hroniss Grasu struggled when he was on the field and missed time due to a hand injury, and despite playing for offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich at Oregon could be on the chopping block before/during training camp. 

We’ll finish here with some thoughts on Leno and Cody Whitehair. Could the Bears upgrade at left tackle and displace Leno to the right side of the offensive line? Possibly, especially if Hiestand believes he can make that move work. But it’d be odd if the Bears shifted Leno off left tackle and then signed someone who’s older and, depending on the evaluator, not even as good as him. 

This is all probably a moot point, since the Bears’ internal evaluation of Leno is what matters here. Leno is 26 and the Bears believe he hasn’t reached his ceiling yet, so more than likely, he’s sticking where he is. At the very least, he’ll enter 2018 with a starting job on the Bears’ offensive line. 

One other offseason objective for Hiestand and the new coaching staff: Keeping Whitehair at the same position. Whitehair’s versatility felt like it worked against him at times last year, with the former regime opting to shift him between guard and center quite a bit from the start of training camp through the early part of the season. That instability seemed to affect Whitehair’s play, as he went through a bizarre patch of snapping issues after moving back to center and struggled to be as consistent as he was in 2016. But Whitehair finished 2017 strong, and keeping him at center for the entirety of 2018 could get him back on track to make his first Pro Bowl.