Bears

Lewis injury could end great career but is he the greatest MLB?

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Lewis injury could end great career but is he the greatest MLB?

The right-triceps tear that ended Ray Lewis season could also mark the end of a career that will place him in the highest level of inside linebackers, of players, period, in the history of football.

But how highest?

CSNChicago.com operatives have seen linebackers play since the very early 1960s and evaluated available film of others before that. From that a top-five list of the greats, with Lewis finishing, well, check out the list. And yes, two of the top three middle linebackers of all time played in Chicago.

A qualifier: Understand that the middle linebacker position really didn't come into true existence until Bill George stood up from his nose-guard position and started looking around. So the sample size for MLBs in particular is necessarily smaller than the overall pool of linebackers.

The runners-up: Chuck Bednariik (saw him play in my first-ever live football game; thanks, Dad), Bill George, Sam Huff, Ray Nitscke, Chuck Schmidt, Mike Singletary

5. Jack Lambert, Pittsburgh

No way to argue with the rings. A lot of hype but when you watched closely and often, this was the ignition key behind Joe Greene, L.C. Greenwood and Dwight White. Singletarys eyes were a force but the edge goes to Lamberts teeth. Or lack of same.

4. Willie Lanier, Kansas City Chiefs

Lanier was a centerpiece in one of the great defenses of all time, a member of Chiefs team won the fourth Super Bowl. Lanier had the benefit of playing behind tackles Buck Buchanan and Curly Culp but he also intercepted 27 passes in a 10-year career.

He played at 6-1, 245 pounds, about the same size as Lewis. He was nothing less than one of the best football players on a championship team.

Lanier had the misfortune of playing in the time of Jack Lambert, who was piling up rings and getting more acclaim. He shouldnt have. Lanier was better.

3. Brian Urlacher

Urlacher stands as one of the more polarizing parts of any discussion of great linebackers. One national media outlet pegged him as the most overrated player in the NFL; others rated him the best in the game, evidenced by his selection as Defensive Player of the Year in 2005 and fourth-place in 2006.

Consider this: In the defensive schemes of Dick Jauron and Greg Blache, based on front-four mastodons keeping offensive linemen controlled, Urlacher piled up 116 tackles, six sacks, three interceptions in 2001.

When Ted Washington was hurt most of 2002, Urlacher was exposed: 151 tackles, four-and-a-half sacks, seven passes broken up.

Along comes Lovie Smith and a scheme based on small, fast defensive linemen no bigger than Tommie Harris 290 for the most part. In 2005, Urlacher is Player of the Year with 121 tackles, six sacks, five passes broken up.

Where Urlacher loses style points is that he has never played with the Neanderthal gene. A lasting image of Urlacher is the laughing inside the helmet; he had some fun.

Urlacher in 2001 was running down Michael Vick (short distance). He was fast enough to spy Vick and Daunte Culpepper.

And as one longtime NFL personnel executive said in support of the ranking: If youre drafting, do you take Lanier or Urlacher? 54 was a freak.

He is also the third-greatest linebacker ever to play the game.

2 Dick Butkus
1. Ray Lewis

An incredibly close call between 51 and 52. I initially placed Butkus above Lewis, a tipping point being Butkus abilities in coverage. He played at close to Lewis 245 pounds but had a couple of inches on Lewis at 6-3.

Both defined not just the ferocity of their eras; anyone can scream and be nasty. They epitomized excellence at the game.

Its difficult to put Butkus in some sort of understandable context. In 1967 he had 18 sacks, according to one study of film from before sacks were an official stat. He had five interceptions his 1965 rookie year and had 22 for his career, tied for 11th all-time in franchise history.

But Lewis willed the 2000 Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl win with quarterback Trent Dilfer in the role of Bill Wade as caretaker. And Lewis has 31 career interceptions plus more than 40 career sacks.

And heres the thing: Lewis was in his 17th NFL season this year. Butkus had considerably less in front of him than Lewis (no Haloti Ngata, no Tony Siragusa, to name a couple) but he also was only able to get through nine seasons before the knee injuries finished him. Lewis didnt have to contend with the crack-back blocks of Butkus era but to be as good as Lewis iswas for all these years

Ray Lewis is simply the best linebacker the NFL has ever seen.

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

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USA TODAY

Will Bears see instant improvement under Matt Nagy? Putting his first-year expectations in context

Circling back around from the playoffs to the Bears, or at least to the Bears using the current postseason as a bit of a prism, magnifying glass, measuring stick, all of the above:

The ultimate question, obviously meaningfully unanswerable for perhaps another 10 or 11 months, revolves around expectations that were ushered in along with Matt Nagy and the rest of his coaching staff. One early guess is that there’ll be an inevitable positive bump in the record, the only true measuring stick. Depending on changes in practices, strength training, luck, whatever, Nagy might fare better than John Fox simply by virtue of having a presumably healthier roster — pick any three Bears who were injured during the 2017 season: Leonard Floyd, Cameron Meredith, Eric Kush, Kyle Long, Pernell McPhee, Mitch Unrein, Kevin White and Willie Young — and a broken-in Mitch Trubisky from the get-go.

This is far from a given, however. Far, far from a given for the Bears. Of the 10 coaches hired in the 50 years since George Halas stopped, only Fox, Dick Jauron and Dave Wannstedt improved on the winning percentage of their immediate predecessor. All dipped, save for Jack Pardee, who in 1975 equaled the 4-10 finish of Abe Gibron before him. And Pardee was getting Walter Payton in that year’s draft, so things started looking up in a hurry.

And maybe that should be the expectation for Nagy, who projects to get some or all of Fox’s wounded back, plus a draft class beginning with No. 8 overall.

Better Bears record in 2018? Maybe, but ...

The Bears are perhaps something of an anomaly (imagine that) in the near constant of incoming coaches failing to improve matters in their first years. One of the more memorable aspects of this writer’s first year on the Bears beat (1992) — besides the obvious pyrotechnics of Mike Ditka’s epic final season — was the startling turnarounds affected by first-year and first-time NFL coaches helming teams on the Bears’ schedule that year, meaning there were chances to study those in depth.

Consider: Bill Cowher took the Steelers from 7-9 to 11-5, Dennis Green took the Vikings from 8-8 to 11-5, Mike Holmgren took the Packers from 4-12 to 11-5, Bobby Ross took the Chargers from 4-12 to 11-5, and Dave Shula took the Bengals from 3-13 to 5-11.

The Bears played all but the Chargers that year, losing twice to Green, once to Holmgren and defeating the Cowher and Shula teams. Holmgren’s Packers didn’t make the playoffs, but he had to make an in-season quarterback change, which worked out pretty well long-term. It was Brett Favre.

Bears coaching-change history notwithstanding, the Nagy bar should be well above the five wins of Fox’s 2017. Nagy is a first-time head coach, but none of Cowher, Green, Holmgren, Ross or Shula had ever been NFL head coaches previously, either. Green and Ross had been college head coaches, albeit Green with a losing record and Ross barely .500 in those tenures.

And those coaches were taking over in the last year before the advent of free agency, which began in 1993. The Bears “landed” Anthony Blaylock and Craig Heyward. The Vikings secured Jack Del Rio. The Packers, Reggie White.

Odd years coming

Expectations vs. results will be interesting to observe in quite a few places this season. In some spots, the situation wasn’t completely broken but they “fixed” it anyway, in the dubious tradition of the Bears axing Lovie Smith after consecutive seasons of 11-5, 8-8 and 10-6 — two more wins (29) than Fox and Marc Trestman had combined (27) over the next five years.

Sometimes that sort of thing can work out. Phil Jackson did get the Michael Jordan Bulls to the next level that Doug Collins hadn’t. And Joe Maddon got the Cubs over the Rick Renteria hump, though adding Kris Bryant, Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester probably helped, too. Fox got the Broncos into a Super Bowl with Peyton Manning, but Gary Kubiak won one with Manning. Fox’s Broncos went against the 2013 Seattle Seahawks, one of the top 10 defenses of all time, while Kubiak had the good fortune of facing the 2015 Panthers.

But back to current NFL case studies:

— The Lions fired Jim Caldwell after a 9-7 season, his third winning year out of four there, two of those going to the playoffs.

— The Titans concluded their playoff year with the exit of Mike Mularkey, his reward for a second straight 9-7 that reversed four straight losing years under others.

— Chuck Pagano had five .500-or-better seasons with the Colts, didn’t have Andrew Luck all year, and was fired two years after going 5-3 with Matt Hasselbeck filling in for Luck.

What the expectations are in those venues is their business, just as it was when Phil Emery launched Smith in a fashion similar to the Titans with Mularkey. Smith didn’t reach the 2012 playoffs but would have been fired for anything short of a Super Bowl appearance, as Mularkey was for only winning one playoff game with Marcus Mariota as his quarterback.

All of which makes the Nagy/Pace Era more than a little intriguing. Nagy takes over a team with a No. 2-overall quarterback, as Mularkey did with Mariota. Some of Mularkey’s undoing traced to failing to maximize Mariota with an offense suited to how his quarterback plays his best, and force-fitting a player into a scheme is high-risk at best.

That doesn’t really apply in the case of a conservatively wired Fox, who directed that the offense be kept under ball-security control with a rookie quarterback. Fox and Dowell Loggains arguably were as constrained by Trubisky as he was by them.

But Nick Foles flourished with the Eagles under Chip Kelly and Doug Pederson, struggling a bit under Jeff Fisher. Case Keenum, a teammate of Foles when the Rams played in St. Louis, was so-so under the defense-based Fisher with the Rams, yet went supernova this year under the defense-based Mike Zimmer with the Vikings, which speaks to the value of the right coordinator irrespective of the head coach’s offensive or defensive background.

In the end Nagy’s achievements will be player-based. They always are. What he can do with what he’s got and given, via draft, free agency or whatever, vs. the successes and non-successes of others in his situation, is the work in progress now.

Viewers' Choice: Vote for High School Lites game coverage

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Viewers' Choice: Vote for High School Lites game coverage

Who wants it more?

We are putting High School Lites, Chicagoland's top prep sports show, in the hands of area basketball fans in our "Viewers' Choice Game of the Week." Fans will get the chance to pick one game that the NBC Sports Chicago (@NBCSPreps) crew will cover on Friday night. We will send our cameras to the game that gets the most votes; highlights and postgame reaction of that game will appear on that night's "High School Lites" broadcast at 11 p.m. The show also live streams at NBCSportsChicago.com/watchlive. High School Lites will also have broadcast replays at 6:30 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. the following Saturday. This week, it's all about powerful things coming in smaller packages. We're leaving the 4A schools for another week. It's time for some of the smaller schools to do battle: a West Side duel between Raby and Wells, a 'North vs. South' game with Ellison and Northtown and the Battle of Elmhurst featuring IC Catholic and Timothy Christian. Which game should we cover this week?

Raby at Wells, 5:00 p.m.

Ellison at Northtown, 6:30 p.m.

IC Catholic at Timothy Christian, 7:30 p.m.

Poll opens Tuesday at 12:00 p.m. and closes Thursday at 4 p.m. Here is what fans need to do to vote:

— Follow @NBCSPreps on Twitter.
— Note the "pinned Tweet" atop the @NBCSPreps feed. Vote for the game you want us to cover.
— Spread the word! 

We will make an announcement on @NBCSPreps just after 4 p.m. Thursday with the official results of which game will be covered. And as a reminder, be sure to follow @NBCSPreps for updates on the "Viewers' Choice Game of the week," along with other high school sports news, scores and highlights this season.