Cubs

No separation in Notre Dame quarterback battle

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No separation in Notre Dame quarterback battle

SOUTH BEND -- Everett Golson has thought about the scene. A packed Aviva Stadium in Dublin, Ireland on Sept. 1, trotting out for Notre Dame's first offensive possession of the season as the team's starting quarterback.

"Honestly, I've had dreams about it, kinda seeing visions of it," Golson said after practice Wednesday, Notre Dame's fifth of fall camp. "Me being out there, the crowd and everything. But that's what motivates me just to keep going, keep driving and learn as much as I can."

With junior Tommy Rees suspended for the Navy game, whoever takes the ball for Notre Dame in just over three weeks will be inexperienced. Andrew Hendrix has in-game experience at the NCAA level, but it's limited, and Golson has never taken a snap in a college game.

Less than a week into camp, the Irish quarterback battle has been defined as Hendrix against Golson -- both players have been splitting reps with the first and second team, while freshman Gunner Kiel has seen limited reps, coming exclusively with the third team.

While it seemed as if Golson took more first-team reps in Wednesday's practice, Notre Dame players and coaches dismissed anything but a 50-50 split in reps between Golson and Hendrix. But even if the first-team reps lean toward one player, Hendrix doesn't see it as a roadblock to the other earning the starting job.

"It's the same work you get with the ones and the twos, I think, because it's the same reads and the timing's almost the same," Hendrix said. "Really, it's when you're in, focusing on the defense and just making the right reads off that."

Kiel, a true freshman who came to Notre Dame a semester early, didn't appear too bothered by his likely No. 3 spot on the depth chart.

"Whatever the coaches want me to do, that's all I can say," Kiel said. "They're there, and they're going to teach us. If Andrew and Everett are going to get more reps than I am, that's fine. I'm going to be the best player I'm going to be for the team and do whatever I can to make the team better."

After a turnover-plagued 2011, limiting mistakes has been the mantra from head coach Brian Kelly and first-year offensive coordinator Chuck Martin since the beginning of spring camp. While Kelly preached attention to detail and zero as a positive play last year, those talking points never materialized into results.

But it's a new year, and Notre Dame's quarterbacks don't expect the same issues to pop back up.

"Our team is so good around us, the quarterback position, we don't have to win the games, we just have to get the ball to our horses and let the playmakers do their job and just minimize mistakes," Hendrix said. "We moved backwards sometimes last year, and as long as we're always moving forward, never having negatives plays, we're going to be a very good football team."

Both Hendrix and Golson aren't getting caught up in their position in the competition, which has been labeled as 1A and 1B early in camp. There's still plenty of time for separation, but until a starter is named, neither are paying much attention to what their standing may be, or what others are saying their standing may be.

"I try to stay as far away from that as possible," Golson said. "You don't really want to get too high, you don't want to get too low. You have to keep that medium. The best way to do that is to stay away from it and let people just talk."

But there does exist the possibility that either Golson or Hendrix won't be named the starter for the Navy game. And that's not anything against them -- instead, if there's no separation between the two, both could receive their fair share of playing time in the season opener.

"We'll know if we get to game time that both of them have to play," Kelly said. "Obviously they both have ability to be starters. I can't say that I wouldn't be comfortable. I'd prefer one quarterback, but at least I have some experience in balancing two if we ever have to do that. "

While there appears to be some genuine camaraderie between Golson, Hendrix, Kiel and Rees -- whose fellow quarterbacks have lauded for his attitude while not taking any reps, at least in Wednesday's practice -- at the end of the day, it's a competition, and most likely one player will emerge at the end.

"I really just focus on myself. That's the only way you can focus on it," Hendrix said. "I think you just gotta keep your own head down, keep chopping wood and at the end of the day, coach Kelly's going to make the decision that's best for the football team. I can only control what I do, and that's all I focus on."

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Takeaways from Cubs Convention and players primed for a 2018 breakout

On the latest edition of the Cubs Talk Podcast, Kelly Crull, Tony Andracki, Jon Graff, Matt Buckman and Scott Changnon rattle off their main takeaways from the weekend’s Cubs Convention, including the funniest moments and how the players engaged with fans and each other throughout the three days at the Sheraton Grand Chicago.

Plus, which players — besides Kyle Schwarber — made the most of the offseason and are primed for a breakout in 2018? The crew gives its take, with options including Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ and Jason Heyward.

Take a listen below:

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 effected by first-year (and first-time) NFL coaches that year, with several 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 (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 instead having one of the all-time great defenses in 2015.

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.