Cubs

Offensive grades: Bears return to prominence

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Offensive grades: Bears return to prominence

A desperately needed rebound from the disaster in San Francisco is the only way to look at the overall offense.

The distribution of the ball bordered on the bizarre with Brandon Marshall targeted on 17 of 31 throws by Jay Cutler, but Mike Tice put together a plan and packages to force the Minnesota Vikings to respect the run, with the result that Cutler was sacked only once, and that when he tripped over his own centers feet.

The commitment to the run (39) and balance (32 pass plays) was a decisive factor with the offense putting together drives of 10, 14 and 12 plays, and at least one first down on eight of the first 10 possessions when the game was remotely in any question. The offense scored on four straight possessions in the first half, three times for touchdowns, and took the heat off the defense for a change.

QUARTERBACK B

Jay Cutler evinced no signs of his concussion of two weeks ago and was an efficient 23-of-31 for 188 yards, a touchdown and one interception off a tipped ball. He used mobility in the pocket well and spread the ball among eight different receivers, albeit with 17 throws to Brandon Marshall.

Cutler created a problem by tripping over the foot of C Roberto Garza on his first dropback for a sack. Cutlers gratuitous flip of the ball at the end of a successful scramble inside the Minnesota 20 cost the Bears 15 yards and was an inexcusable lack of composure in a critical situation, and resulted in the Bears losing a TD chance.

Overall, an important return from injury and managing the game well without excessive exposure to risk other than some forced throws toward Marshall.

RUNNING BACK B

The numbers were not big but the effects from backs were. Michael Bush reaffirmed the value of his signing last offseason with two rushing TDs and yeoman work throughout the game, particularly after Matt Forte suffered an ankle injury in the second half. Bush moved the chains and also moved the pile as well for 60 yards on 21 carries, none for more than eight yards.

Forte fought for 42 yards on 14 carries before his injury. Fortes fumble on the Bears first play from scrimmage gave the Vikings three points and was just poor ball control since he wasnt hit by a tackler. It was his first of the year in 145 carries but a big mistake at the time.

Evan Rodriguez swung out of the backfield for a key 11-yard catch for a third-down conversion in the second quarter.

RECEIVERS A-

A difficult group to critique if only because the passing game was so Marshall-centric. Marshall was exceptional with 12 receptions for 92 yards, many times working against double-plus coverage and taking hits. His average per catch was a modest 7.7 and he gave away yardage with questionable moves after a couple of catches, but he also blocked well and created a place for Cutler to go in crisis.

Earl Bennett caught all four of the balls thrown to him, with a Bears-long of 20 yards and picking up three first downs on his catches. Matt Spaeth made a picture-book catch of a 13-yard TD pass in the second quarter and his blocking throughout was key in the run game.

Kellen Davis grab in traffic in the first quarter set up Bushs first scoring run. But Davis had two catchable balls get away and missed chances to sustain drives.

OFFENSIVE LINE A-

Have to grade on a curve here. This group spent the last week in turmoil with changes at RT (Jonathan Scott for Gabe Carimi) and LG (Chris Spencer for Chilo Rachal). And it only got more chaotic on Sunday.

Spencer and Louis both exited with knee injuries, forcing Edwin Williams in at left guard in the second quarter after Spencer was shaken up, and Carimi at right, for the first time in his career high school, college or NFL.

Carimi as an extra tight end and JMarcus Webb caved in the Minnesota right side for Bushs one-yard TD run in the first quarter. Webb more than atoned for his nightmare in Game 16 last season against Jared Allen, holding Allen without a sack and to one quarterback hit, that long outside the pocket.

Scott was outstanding on the right side, containing Brian Robison with one hit and a couple of tackles.

COACHING A

Mike Tice called himself out on his play-calling but had a plan in place for the Vikings. The Bears had 39 snaps in the first half, with 21 runs and 18 pass plays on the way to a 25-3 lead. The running wasnt dominating (2.7 yards per carry) but the physical play slowed the pass rush.

Using a jumbo package of Gabe Carimi as the extra tight end, Matt Spaeth as a wing, and Michael Bush behind Evan Rodriguez gave the Bears some heft in the run game.

Tice used a mix of max-protect with chipping on Jared Allen to slow the blindside rush from the All-Pro end. But the mix of signals was key against a defensive front that had allowed only seven rushing TDs all year but gave up two to the Bears.

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

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USA TODAY

Would trading Kyle Schwarber begin to solve pitching issues that run much deeper than Chris Bosio?

The Cubs now apparently believe they are a stronger organization without Chris Bosio, firing a pitching coach known for his strong convictions, brutal honesty and bottom-line results in a move that doesn’t seem like an actual solution.

Hiring Jim Hickey – who has a good reputation from his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, a close friendship with Joe Maddon and what looks like a slam-dunk interview lined up for Monday – might make the manager feel more comfortable and less isolated.

But the new-voice/different-direction spin doesn’t fundamentally address the pitching issues facing a team that needs to replace 40 percent of the rotation and find an established closer and has zero expectations those answers will come from within the farm system.

This is an operation that won a seven-game World Series last year without a homegrown player throwing a single pitch.     

If the Cubs can say thanks for the memories and dump “Boz,” what about “Schwarbs?”

Advancing to the National League Championship Series in three straight seasons doesn’t happen without Bosio or Kyle Schwarber. But the fastest way for the Cubs to dramatically improve their pitching staff isn’t finding someone else who thinks it’s important to throw strikes. It could mean breaking up The Core and severing another emotional attachment.   

Theo Epstein saw Schwarber play for Indiana University and used the Fenway Park frame of reference, envisioning him as a combination of David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia with his left-handed power and energizer personality.

Epstein wasn’t the only Cubs official to develop a man-crush on Schwarber, but he’s the only one with ultimate control over baseball operations. Epstein’s style isn’t pounding the table as much as the ability to frame questions in the draft room, gather as many opinions as possible before the trade deadline and at the winter meetings, trying to form a consensus.

“I will say that it’s really an organization-wide evaluation of this player, but I’m not skirting responsibility,” Epstein said. “I’ll happily endorse him as the type of player that we want to win with here at the Cubs, and have won with. I don’t know, the fact that he hit 30 bombs in a bad year is a good start.

“But power is not everything. I think he fell into this year becoming more of a slugger and less of a hitter than he really is. It’s important for him to get his identity back as a dangerous hitter. Honestly, I think we feel he has the potential to be an all-around hitter on the level of an Anthony Rizzo. When he reaches his prime, that’s what he could be.”

Where will that be? As a designated hitter in the American League? That’s obvious speculation, but Schwarber has improved as an outfield defender – his strong throw at Dodger Stadium led to another NLCS Maddon Moment where the manager compared the Buster Posey Rule to the Chicago soda tax.      

A 43-45 record at the All-Star break also exposed some of the weaknesses in the clubhouse and downsides to Maddon’s methods. The Cubs flipped a switch in the second half, got hot in September and had the guts to beat the Washington Nationals in the playoffs. But that doesn’t completely wipe away the concerns about a group that at times seemed too casual and unfocused and didn’t play with enough edge. For better or worse, Schwarber approaches the game like a blitzing linebacker.

“He’s got a certain toughness and certain leadership qualities that are hard to find,” Epstein said, “and that we don’t necessarily have in surplus, in abundance, running around in this clubhouse, in this organization.

“A certain energy and grit and ability to bring people together – that’s important and we rely on it. But the biggest thing is his bat. We think he’s the type of offensive player that you build around, along with a couple other guys like him.”

Maddon would never admit it, but was the Schwarber leadoff experiment a mistake?

“I’ll judge that one based on the results and say yeah,” Epstein said. “I think we can talk about the process that went into it. Or in an alternate universe: Does it pan out? But those are just words. It didn’t work.

“Everything that went into Kyle’s really surprising and difficult first half of the season, we should look to correct, because that shouldn’t happen. He’s a way better hitter than that. What he did after coming back from Iowa proves it.”

In the same way that Maddon should own what happens with the next pitching coach, Epstein will ultimately have to decide Schwarber’s future.

Schwarber didn’t complain or pout when he got sent down to Triple-A Iowa this summer, finishing with 30 homers, a .782 OPS, a .211 batting average and a 30.9 strikeout percentage.    

Trading Schwarber would mean selling lower and take another team having the same gut instincts the Cubs did in the 2014 draft – and offering the talented, controllable starting pitcher that sometimes seems like a unicorn.

Is Schwarber still the legend from last year’s World Series? An all-or-nothing platoon guy? An intriguing trade chip? A franchise player? Eventually, the Cubs are going to find out.

“We have to look to do everything we can,” Epstein said, “and more importantly he has to look to do everything he can to get him to a point where he’s consistently the quality hitter and tough out and dangerous bat in the middle of the lineup that we know he can be.

“He wasn’t for the first half of this year – and he knows it and he feels awful about it. He worked his tail off to get back to having a pretty darn good second half and getting some big hits for us down the stretch.”

And then the offseason was only hours old by the time the Cubs showed they will be keeping an open mind about everything this winter, not afraid to make big changes.

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

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USA TODAY

Jake Arrieta shaved his beard again and he keeps looking younger

It's become a tradition that Jake Arrieta shaves his beard after the season ends.

The 31-year-old did it again days after the Cubs were eliminated from the 2017 postseason, and it's still a sight we'll never be used to seeing.

Check it out:

Weird, right?

Here's how he looked following the Cubs' World Series win in 2016:

And again in 2015:

It's crazy how much younger he looks.