Blackhawks losing their spark; Now what?


Blackhawks losing their spark; Now what?

There was a time when you could see a fire in the Chicago Blackhawks.

You would have certain players, especially captain Jonathan Toews, seething and putting their angst into words. Even as much restructuring and readjusting that last years team faced, there was a big response before losing streaks got out of hand.

But as the Blackhawks losses have mounted in February, youre seeing less of that. The anger has dissipated into bewilderment and, to some degree, a feeling of resignation. This skid has been a punch to the Blackhawks midsection, and theyre struggling to catch their breath.

The Blackhawks havent had a losing streak like this since the 2008-09 season. And for a still young group thats used to winning a lot, there seems to be a sense of, What do we do now?

So is this just a total collapse, or were there cracks in the faade even during the best of times this season?

Even when we were in first place and it was tight, I think there were a lot of games when we werent that good, Duncan Keith said prior to Saturdays game. Now its caught up with us.

Thats true in a few aspects. Even in some of their victories they were giving up a lot of goals, as team defense and goaltending have struggled. They have yet to record a shutout this season, have yet to prove they can win those 1-0, 2-1, tight, low-scoring games.

The Blackhawks core pushed them to the top of the NHL standings through the first three months. But individual slumps happen, and unfortunately for the Blackhawks their top guys are all slumping at the same time. And the supporting cast hasnt been enough to buoy the Blackhawks through their troubles.

Coach Joel Quenneville has juggled lines trying to get something, anything. Nothing is working. Occasional healthy scratches for Bryan Bickell and Michael Frolik havent bolstered their games, and other leashes have been way too short -- Brendan Morrison was a healthy scratch Friday, after just four games with his new team.

You need every guy in the room, said Patrick Kane, whos been way too quiet this season. When we were successful, whether last year or the year before, we had a lot of depth, a lot of players stepping up beyond their game. That goes for me and for anyone in the room.

And, yes, Kane called himself out too.

Its something where Ive got to pick it up, got to score goals. The onus is on a lot of guys, but first and foremost you look at yourself and try to figure out what you have to do better.

The Blackhawks have to figure it out quick. The teams in front of them are pulling away. The ones behind them are gaining. They need to re-ignite that fire.

We need everybody on board, Quenneville said. Were not thinking about standings right now. Were thinking of trying to win a game.

There’s no easy fix for the Bears’ running woes, but does it matter?

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There’s no easy fix for the Bears’ running woes, but does it matter?

Here are two valid statements about the 2018 Bears:

1. They’ve never been better at scoring points, averaging 29.9 per game — the franchise’s highest in the Super Bowl era. 

2. Their running backs haven’t ran the ball with much, if any consistency. 

Jordan Howard is the Bears’ leading rusher, with 137 carries generating 460 yards — good for 3.4 yards per carry. Only five times in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) has the Bears’ team leader in rushing attempts had an equal or lower yards-per-carry average than Howard’s 3.4: 

Anthony Thomas (2002): 3.4 yards/carry
Ken Grandberry (1974): 3.3 yards/carry
Lewis Tillman (1994): 3.3 yards/carry
Neal Anderson (1993): 3.2 yards/carry
Curtis Enis (1999): 3.2 yards/carry

The difference in those five years: The Bears, in total, averaged 15.5 points per game in those five seasons — about half what they’re averaging in 2018. That doesn’t mean the Bears aren’t searching for a solution to their run game woes, though. 

“You can’t go through this thing and be one-dimensional,” coach Matt Nagy said. “It’s just too easy for defenses.”

The Bears offense, of course, would be better if Howard and Tarik Cohen were more consistently effective — behind a more consistently effective offensive line and with more consistently effective playcalling. But re-watching the film from Sunday’s 34-22 win over the Detroit Lions, it’s not clear if there’s an easy fix — or a fix at all — to what’s ailed the Bears’ ground game. 

There were some plays in Howard’s 11-carry, 21-yard afternoon on which the running back didn’t appear decisive enough. There were others where the blocking wasn’t there, be it from the offensive line or guys like fullback Michael Burton. On a few of them, the play design didn’t seem conducive to picking up yards. And then there were some where Detroit’s defensive line — led by solid run-stuffers in Damon “Snacks” Harrison and A’Shawn Robinson — would’ve beaten the best-blocked, best-executed or best-called running play. 

“We’re not going to stop until we get it figured out,” Nagy said. “And for what we did yesterday, that’s not good enough. In my opinion, it’s up to us as coaches to lift every stone possible to figure out what do we need to do. Yeah, it is about players and it is about execution, but we need to do our job too and figure out, okay, what’s best for the Chicago Bears run game, what is it. 

“In the passing game, we’re slowly starting to figure that out — we’re not there yet. But in the run game, we have a ways to go and we’re trying to get through that. Now as we get further on in the season here, we gotta get it fixed so we’re not one-dimensional.”

Nagy has to say and believe that last sentence, of course. And for the Bears’ offense to truly fulfill its potential, it’ll need a good running game, as evidenced by what Nagy’s former team, the Kansas City Chiefs, are able to do with Kareem Hunt averaging 4.7 yards per attempt in his standout year and a half in the NFL. 

But the 2018 Bears can’t acquire a Hunt-like talent or different offensive line personnel at this point. Nagy can try to do some things differently to get the running game going, but perhaps he’s on a schematic tightrope: This a team that’s fifth in the NFL in points per game, after all, and has already scored more points (269) than it scored with Howard rushing for over 1,000 yards in 2017 (264). 

Putting too much emphasis on trying to kick-start Howard’s season could have an overall negative effect, if it impacts the rhythm Trubisky and the passing game have found at times (and even when that rhythm isn’t there, this offense has managed to put up points, like the 31 it did against New England with Trubisky completing only 52 percent of his passes). 

While the Bears’ run-pass ratio isn’t completely out of whack (55 percent pass, 45 percent run), perhaps better in-game balance could lead to more running success. The Bears have (including Trubisky scrambles) rushed 72 times against 64 passes in the first quarter, but only attempted 106 rushing plays compared to 166 passing plays in the second and third quarters. Those numbers revert in the fourth quarter, with the Bears having four multi-score wins to close out, to 71 rushing attempts against 59 passing attempts. 

But Nagy also isn’t going to force it. 

“When you run the ball and it’s first and 10 and you get second and nine, (or) it’s first and 10 and you get second and 12, that’s hard,” Nagy said. “So it’s — our guys all understand that. To me, this is a challenge. This is why I’m a coach, this is why we all coach, is to get these answers, figure it out. And we’ll do everything we can — we’re not going to stop trying until we get this thing right.”

Still, Howard’s two least-productive games by yards per carry came against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2.3) and Detroit Lions (1.9)…which stand as the Bears’ two best offensive games of the season. 

Long term, the Bears will need to find a solution to their issues running the ball with running backs. But for the last seven games of 2018, Nagy may not need to find that solution to make the playoffs. 

White Sox free-agent focus: J.A. Happ


White Sox free-agent focus: J.A. Happ

This week, we’re profiling some of the biggest names on the free-agent market and taking a look at what kind of fits they are for the White Sox.

The White Sox need starting pitching. So why not take a cue from the fine folks at Jewel and think local?

J.A. Happ is an Illinois native and attended Northwestern, and he’s a free-agent starting pitcher coming off a mighty fine season in 2018. Following a midseason trade to the New York Yankees, he posted a 2.59 ERA in 11 starts. While his numbers vastly improved after he left the Toronto Blue Jays, he finished the 2018 campaign with a career-high 193 strikeouts. In addition to last year’s success in the Bronx, he had an ERA under 4.00 in each of the three seasons prior, playing in Toronto in 2016 and 2017 and splitting time between the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015.

What Happ doesn’t seem to be, however, is a long-term option. He just turned 36 years old, meaning he likely doesn’t align with the White Sox rebuilding timeline and the planned opening of the team’s contention window.

What Happ could do, however, is serve as a bridge (however long) to that future, a future where Michael Kopech is recovered from his Tommy John surgery and Dylan Cease has reached the major leagues. You could certainly do much worse than Happ when it comes to finding a one- or two-year fill-in, and the White Sox were reportedly "working to sign" Happ during last week's GM Meetings in Southern California.

Happ would also serve as a veteran presence and potential mentor for the team’s young pitchers, the kind of role James Shields filled last season. Rick Hahn discussed the importance of that role last week.

“Having someone in there who provides a level of stability for the rotation and dependability every fifth day has some appeal that you would allow young players to go through some of the growing pains that are inevitable in their development,” Hahn said. “Having someone who can play that veteran, mentor role who can help teach guys whether it's from a game prep standpoint ... or any level of alteration with certain pitches, which is where James had the biggest impact in the minors.

“Having a guy who can play that role has appeal. It's not just what a guy can do between the white lines, it's what a guy can do for you in the clubhouse, is part of this equation.”

Happ might not stoke fans’ imaginations in the same way fellow free agents like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel might. But he’s a more realistic option that would allow the White Sox to continue to develop a homegrown rotation of the future.

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