Bears

Boden: Inconsistency plagues NHLs Dept. of Player Safety

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Boden: Inconsistency plagues NHLs Dept. of Player Safety

A bad call. And its a bad call because of the inconsistencies that have suddenly plagued the NHLs Department of Player Safety.

Blackhawks fans (and Im guessing the Blackhawks themselves) could live with this three-game suspension to Andrew Shaw if Shea Weber had gotten, say, five or more for grabbing Henrik Zetterbergs head and smashing it into the glass.

They couldve lived with it if Ottawas Matt Carkner had gotten more than three for racing across the ice to repeatedly pummel the Rangers Brian Boyle in the head while Boyle covered up and took it like a turtle disappearing into its shell.

They probably couldve lived with it a little better if Daniel Sedin had gotten something -- at least a fine -- for the elbow that forced Duncan Keiths head into the glass before Keith got his five games. All of us would understand this a little more.

I wont even start to get into the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia mess the department has on its hands. And theres much more beyond these instances in this first week of the post-season thats been full of Shanahan-igans. But part of the reason he has this mess is he took his foot off the brake he was applying to trying to remove or limit head shots from the NHL.

I loved what Brendan Shanahan was doing with the first five months of the season in order to crack down on dangerous hits. Concussions were starting to make more news than the great game he played and all of us enjoy, and that wasnt a good thing. So he was taking such positive, no-nonsense steps in doing his best job to eliminate that. Steve Konroyd and I praised him often during our coverage. This opinion now isnt simply because its suddenly hitting home. Hawks fans can deal with that. Its the perception hes ignoring or minimizing certain things that seem so obvious (Weber), and then continuing to put the hammer down on other hits. Its like a traffic cop suddenly writing tickets for going five miles an hour over the speed limit, and letting someone going fifty over the limit drive away with a warning.

On top of that, he put an unnecessary extra day into the process. Were only left to assume that was to make sure Mike Smith was OK. If hes concussed, symptoms dont always show up right away. Smith said he was 100 percent after the game. The team didnt practice Sunday. He was held out yesterday but head coach Dave Tippett indicated he was fine. Smith went through his normal morning skate routine this morning, but was made unavailable to reporters with the leagues blessing, while Tippett later suddenly called him a game-time decision as the Blackhawks continued to wait to hear about Shaws availability.

Make no mistake, Smith will be in the net tonight after winning Best Actor in a Drama. But playing that card (and maybe the Hawks wouldve done the same if the tables were turned), leaves many wondering how much Shanahan got played by the uncertain Smith status the Coyotes sold Shanahan -- apparently to the hilt. Successfully.

Shaw deserved a penalty because goalies are protected that way by the rulebook. The game misconduct he got was a tough break. Jonathan Toews said yesterday that should be it -- the Hawks lost him for half the game while Smith stayed in. But Shanahan thought what Shaw did was worse than an additional fine. Was worse than one additional game. Or two games. So Toews must now make sure his team doesnt get knocked off the tracks by all this, and do the things it needs to do to win, despite the anger and frustration they probably feel right now. Just execute, and play the best possible way they know to beat the Coyotes, without a guy whos made huge contributions for them in getting to this point. Or tell Corey Crawford to play a puck behind the net and hope a Coyotes player bumps into him.

Phoenix won this one. But the series is still tied, and needs to be won now that this over-dramatization by one team, and the league office, is over.

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

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USA TODAY

Jordan Howard's newfound receiving skill expands critical realm of the possible for Bears' offense

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears desperately need more from Jordan Howard, which may sound greedy given that he has been one of the only offensive sparks of the last two seasons. And they may be getting it.

Through the early practices in Bears Camp ’18, the nascent offense of coach Matt Nagy and coordinator Mark Helfrich has been ... interesting. The intensity and conditions can be posited as factors, but the fact remains that the defense has intercepted a half-dozen passes and the pass rush has had Mitch Trubisky and the other quarterbacks frequently scrambling after coverage locked down their intended receivers.

Amid all that, something decidedly positive and mildly surprising was unfolding.

Rush-and-cover combos force check-downs to shorter routes, in particular running backs. If this were the Kansas City Chiefs offense under Nagy last year, that would have been Kareem Hunt, who caught 84 percent of the 63 passes on which he was targeted. If this were the Bears from 2008 through 2015, that would have been Matt Forte, who never caught fewer than 44 passes in any of his eight Chicago seasons.

But those were thens, this is now, and the featured back in the Chicago offense is Howard. That qualifies as a question for the developing Bears offense, an iteration of the West Coast system that is predicated on positive plays and ball control using the pass.

The reason is that Howard has developed two competing personas through his first two NFL seasons. One was that of a workhorse running back, the first in Bears franchise history to top 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons. A model of consistency at 4.6 yards per carry.

The “other” Jordan Howard was the model of inconsistency — a running back among the worst pass-catchers at his position, low-lighted by the drop of a potential game-winning touchdown pass against the Atlanta Falcons last opening day. Howard dropped six of his 29 targets last season, according to Pro Football Focus. The year before he was determined to have dropped seven of his 50 targets.

An emerging 'new' Howard

But maybe that latter was then and this training camp is now.

The defensive pressure has, by chance or by choice, sent Trubisky passes toward Howard. The third-year tailback has responded with both efficient pass-catching and occasionally light acrobatic work, turning off-target throws into positive plays.

The results qualify as a significant positive from early camp. Howard is getting a clean-slate start from Nagy and running backs coach Charles London, and the hope is for a three-down back in the Hunt/Forte mold, which Howard can only be if he is an effective third-down option. His head coach thinks he is.

“Obviously, there’s this façade out there, there’s this notion that (Howard) is just a first- and second-down back, and I don’t believe that,” Nagy said. “Jordan can play all three downs. We’re going to do that. We’re going to use him. And we’re going to use other guys on first and second down when we need to.

“For us, it’s important for Jordan to know and for everybody on our offense to know that he’s a big part of this. This kid’s had a very successful career so far. We’re crazy as coaches and as offensive coaches if we don’t understand it and if we don’t use that to our advantage.”

Wanting Howard to be a three-down force and achieving that are two different things. For his part, Howard has worked to effect what can become a tidal shift for the offense.

“Definitely it’s important to me, just building my confidence more and more with catching the ball and working my body,” Howard said. “It’s definitely important to me. ... I definitely have improved my hand placement. I used to have my hands all over the place, but now coach London is working with me on my hand placement and looking the ball in.”

Possible impact on Howard

The impact of a multi-dimensional Howard cannot be overstated, and it could be overlooked in the buzz of all the other “weapons” the Bears brought in this offseason. It shouldn’t be.

Neither should the effect his enhanced skillset can have for Howard himself.

When the Bears’ offense broke out under Marc Trestman in 2013, finishing second in scoring, Forte caught 74 passes while posting his career-high 1,335 rushing yards on an average of 4.6 yards per carry.

Hunt as a rookie last season led the NFL with 1,327 rushing yards, averaging 4.9 yards per carry while being the Chiefs’ third-leading receiver in both catches and targets. Howard was the only of the top eight leading rushers in 2017 with fewer than Leonard Fournette’s 36.

Tarik Cohen delivered 53 receptions. But Cohen is not a three-down back with the capability of the 200-plus carries that 17 of the top 19 running backs logged last year.

A critical element projects to be Howard’s conditioning and ability to take on a larger and more diverse workload. That limited him in his rookie season, when his usage in fourth quarters dropped at times because he simply wasn’t in requisite shape. The Bears hope that issue and the drops are behind Howard.

“He’s a patient running back,” Nagy said. “I think he as good vision so he’s patient, has good vision, and when you combine that with the power that he has, he finds ways to get yards. The nice thing for us is that we can move him around and do different things.”

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

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USA TODAY

Podcast: Main takeaways from the 5-game Cubs-Cardinals series

Tony Andracki is joined by Phil Barnes, the senior editor of Vine Line, to break down the Cubs-Cardinals 5-game series at Wrigley Field that kicked off the second half of the 2018 MLB season.

The main takeaways from the weekend included an up-close look at a Cubs starting rotation is still struggling to find their footing almost 2/3 of the way through the season. 

The Cubs lineup and bullpen continue to be the saving grace of the team with the NL's best record and run differential, but there are serious question marks moving forward on the depth of the relievers as well as waiting for Kris Bryant to return to MVP form.

Check out the entire podcast here: