Bears

Fire hit home stretch

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Fire hit home stretch

By JJ Stankevitz
CSNChicago.com

On May 30, the Fire canned coach Carlos de los Cobos after stumbling to a 1-4-6 record through the first three months of the regular season. It was the latest change in a season full of transition for the Men in Red, and it left the squad with an uncertain future.

Four and a half months later, the Fire find themselves in a position at least one player never could've imagined: they're in contention for a playoff berth.

"Honestly, back then, no," said Patrick Nyarko when asked if he could've envisioned the Fire still being alive for the playoffs in October after de los Cobos was fired. "We all didn't know where our future lied. We didn't know what was going to happen next."

What happened next was the Fire promoted technical director Frank Klopas to the position of interim head coach. The move didn't yield immediate dividends on the field, as by August, the Fire were scraping the bottom of the MLS table.

But the attitude of the team was completely different under Klopas. Players began watching video of not only their previous game but also of opponents. Detailed scouting reports were made available, along with projected starting lineups based on more than their opponent's previous game. And, under Klopas, every player felt welcome wearing a Fire jersey.

"He came in with a real positive attitude and he included everyone. That's the difference between him and Carlos," said Nyarko. "He included everyone in game planning and built players' confidence, especially guys that had not played that much."

For all the changes in attitude and for all the improved confidence, though, the Fire still struggled to come away with three points in their matches. Draws plagued the Fire, with their MLS-record 15th coming Aug. 18 to D.C. United at Toyota Park.

"I look back at games and think, 'how did not pull three points off?'" said defender Cory Gibbs. "You look at those 16 ties, and at least more than half of them we could've said that forthose ties could've easily been wins and we could've been in a better position."

Interestingly enough, though, one of those draws may have kick-started the Fire's run from afterthought to contender.

On Aug. 3, the Fire tied Philadelphia 1-1 at Toyota Park. Klopas decided to shuffle his team's formation leading up to the match, with Nyarko moving up front alongside striker Dominic Oduro and the team's midfielders shifting into a diamond formation (one up, one back, two wide).

It wasn't that match that sparked the team, though. Ten days later, the Fire went into New York with a game plan that didn't involve Nyarko and Oduro up front. But a few hours before the match, Klopas and his coaching staff informed the team that Nyarko and Oduro would be up front.

The Fire hadn't practiced in that formation all week.

"It was a little ballsy going against New York on the road," said Nyarko. "It came out of nowhere."

Sixteen minutes into the match, Nyarko found Oduro for an equalizing goal. Midfielder Sebastian Grazzini put the Fire up with a goal in the 24th minute, and while New York ultimately knotted the match at two, the team's attack was sparked.

"Ballsy? No, I call it tactically smart," dryly said Klopas, later adding that he made the move with full confidence his team would respond well to it.

Since the match against New York, the Fire have gone 5-1-1, picking up 16 crucial points. With 37 on the year, the Men in Red still have quite a bit of work to do, but with three games remaining -- all against teams ahead of them in the standings -- a chance certainly exists that the Fire wind up in the postseason.

The list of playoff scenarios is long and complicated, although the only thing that matters to the Fire is that they win out. Nine points means they'll finish the year with 46. It won't guarantee them a playoff spot, but at least they can end the 2011 season knowing they finished strong.

Right?

"Everything doesn't mean anything if we don't make the playoffs," said Gibbs. "Yes, we feel better that we've done better, but it's meaningless if we don't win these games and get into the playoffs."

So much for that. But even if the Fire don't end up in the playoffs, these last three games will have a playoff atmosphere and intensity.

That's probably nothing in which anybody on the Fire will take solace. Missing the playoffs means those early and mid-season draws will burn more. Every shot off the goalpost, every strike that sailed high, every missed pass and defensive assignment will twist the knife a little more.

The best way to put those missed opportunities to bed is to win out.

"It's about now," said Klopas. "We can't look in the past and we can't look at what happened or might happen."

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. 
 

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

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AP

Anthony Davis could be the lone torch-bearer for Chicago at All-Star weekend in 2020, and object of recruitment

There were no Lakers or Clippers in the 2018 All-Star Game, but Los Angeles was well-represented with plenty of homegrown talent, plenty of historians with Los Angeles ties and all the pageantry L.A. can provide.

Russell Westbrook, Paul George and James Harden are among the All-Stars who came home to put on the biggest show of entertainment the league has to offer, and the new format featuring captains LeBron James and Stephen Curry produced one of the most competitive finishes in recent All-Star history as the spectacle wasn’t lost on DeRozan, who plays for the conference-leading Toronto Raptors.

“It was a dream come true,” DeRozan said. “I’ll forever be a part of this, and to come out and be a starter in my hometown, it was a dream come true.”

With Chicago hosting the event in 2020, one wonders if the city or the Bulls will be as represented.

“What better time to do it than in Chicago?” Bulls rookie Lauri Markkanen said about his aspirations of being an All-Star sooner rather than later.

New Orleans’ Anthony Davis, to this point, is the only Chicagoan carrying the torch as an All-Star. For years, Chicago could claim their homegrown talent rivaled the likes of Los Angeles and New York, the self-proclaimed “Mecca”.

But now they’ve fallen behind in the way of star power, as Derrick Rose has gone from MVP to one of the biggest “what if” stories in modern-day sports. Jabari Parker was expected to be next in line but his future as a star is murky due to the same dreaded injury bug.

“I didn’t know that. But there’s a lot of great players (from Chicago),” Davis said Saturday during media availability. “Jabari is just coming back, Derrick is going through what he’s going through. That’s fine. D-Wade is getting older. We have a lot of great guys. Guys have been hurt, in D-Wade’s case he’s just getting up there in age now (laughs).”

Davis is arguably the league’s most versatile big man, keeping the New Orleans Pelicans afloat while DeMarcus Cousins is out with an Achilles injury. He’s had to watch the likes of George deal with free agent questions about the prospect of coming home to L.A., even after he was traded from Indiana to Oklahoma City in the offseason.

It still hasn’t stopped the chants from Lakers fans, panting after George in the hope he’ll be a savior of sorts. And even though his contract isn’t up for another few seasons, teams are lining up in the hope they can acquire him through free agency or trade.

It could very well be him getting the chants when the All-Star party comes to Chicago and he could be joined by the likes of Markkanen and Zach LaVine in the big game.

LaVine was in Los Angeles for the weekend and Markkanen opened eyes around the league with his showing in the rising stars game as well as the skills challenge.

Davis could wind up being the object of everyone’s affection and could find himself being recruited by the likes of LaVine.

Even though 2021 is a long way away, a guy can dream, right?

“I mean, I’m cool with a lot of dudes in the NBA. I feel like I’m a likeable guy,” LaVine told NBCSportsChicago.com about recruiting star players to the Bulls franchise. “I can talk about situations like that, it would be my first time being put in a position. It would be a little bit different but I think I can handle it.”

LaVine has his own contract situation to take care of this summer, being a restricted free agent but understands the Bulls’ salary cap position and their long-term goals.

“Yeah I think once the offseason comes and everybody settles down, and I’m comfortable, and I know the position I’ll be in,” LaVine said to NBCSportsChicago.com.

“I think we’ll start having those conversations because we want to get the franchise back to where it was, on that high plateau. That’s what it’s supposed to be.”

“I’m trying to solidify myself in the league to a certain degree. Once you start reaching those points you can talk to anybody to get to where you want to get to.”

LaVine attended several events over the weekend and shared the same space as several All-Stars in non-media settings. It’s easy to see why he would think he could have that affect with his peers.

Being careful about the rules on tampering, he said about a potential sit-down with Davis, “I would bring some Harold’s chicken to the meeting and we’ll be all good.”