Bears

Ex-Bear Becker speaks out on head trauma

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Ex-Bear Becker speaks out on head trauma

Kurt Becker played football for 19 years at the junior high school, high school, college and professional levels. During that time, he didn't know what a concussion was. Medical research hadn't defined it yet. In the era of Dick Butkus and Mike Ditka, it was all about getting your "bell rung."

"Now the medical community has defined what a concussion is. In my 19 years, we thought a concussion was when a guy got knocked out," said Becker, who started 36 consecutive games as an offensive guard at Michigan and played for eight years with the Chicago Bears.

"We found through medical research that a concussion is when you get your bell rung. As an offensive lineman, we got our bell rung a lot. To say how many times, I couldn't put a number on it. I never lost consciousness. But there were numerous times I went back to the wrong huddle or had a lapse during a play."

It was a different game in those days. It was coached differently and played differently. The athletes weren't as big or as strong or as fast as today's players. They didn't refer to bounties but there were Doug Planks and Jack Tatums and they wore stickers on their helmets as rewards for hits and tackles and big hits.

"We took care of each other, our teammates," Becker said. "If it occurred, a teammate would straighten me out and I'd play through it. It was a mentality of macho. We were warriors and that meant something to you as a football player."

"There was pain and there was injury. An injury was when it didn't work. In the whole time I played, I can recall only one or two players who missed a week because of a concussion. But now we have found that it is a dangerous subject. Now a week isn't nearly enough time to recover. There is a big change."

Becker has become more aware of the issue in recent months. He recently was hired as the head football coach at his alma mater, East Aurora. Next fall, his son will be a preferred walkon on the football team at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

He has seen many former football players suffer through Alzheimer's disease and dementia, mostly related to concussions. And he has agonized over 20 former NFL players who committed suicide because of their physical condition, most notably former Bears teammate Dave Duerson.

As a result, Becker was persuaded by friend Tom Cross (R-Oswego), the minority leader of the Illinois House of Representatives, to testify before a House panel to support legislation designed to increase widespread awareness of head trauma and provide concussion safeguards for high school athletes.

"As someone who is involved in high school sports, I could see there was no protocol for dealing with this subject," Becker said. "We created a platform for the Illinois High School Association to adopt. It gives us tools to deal with concussions."

Under provisions of the legislation, the referee has the primary responsibility of pulling an athlete from a game if he is experiencing concussion-like symptoms. But that is only the beginning in a series of events that are designed to be sure that the injured athlete isn't returned to competition before he is physically and neurologically able.

"Football is a contact sport and you will get hit in the head. Is it a head injury or part of the game?" Becker said. "The good thing now is the issue is out of the hands of the trainers and coaches to determine when an athlete can return to play. If it is determined that you have a concussion, you have to see a physician who must determine when you can return to play."

"The part of the bill that I like is the education part. We need to educate parents and kids about what a concussion is. More importantly, we need to re-evaluate how we are teaching the game. We're still stuck in the way it was 20 years ago, not how it is today."

Becker points out how the game has changed. For an offensive lineman, the style has changed. And there's a big difference. Today, offensive linemen in college and the NFL are taught zone blocking with their torsos in an upright position and using their hands. Previously, blocking skills weren't as clearly defined in the era of the Green Bay sweep and traps and pulling guards.

"Skills have evolved today as athletes have evolved. Today, they are bigger, stronger and faster," Becker said. "If we change the way we play the game, if we use the body and not the head, then the rules have to change. What position is a player hit on every play? The line of scrimmage. Today, we block more with our hands and body. We need to change the rules so kids aren't called for holding for playing that way."

As Becker approaches his first season as a head coach in a high school program, he believes he has two vital responsibilities:

1. To produce the best athletes he can, to prepare them physically so they are ready to compete.

2. To be sure that the way he is teaching the game is the right way.

"What we did 20 years ago isn't the correct way today," Becker said. "This is a different style than I learned when I was growing up, what is being adopted today in college and the NFL.

"Before, linemen would hit with their heads and shoulder block. Now we block with our torso with our hands and arms in front of our chest and shoulders. We keep our heads out of the game.

"We have to get back to tackling as we were taught. Aim at the target, your head slides off and you tackle with your shoulder and wrap your arms around the opponent. Throwing your body at his legs isn't what you can do.

"Concussions are an inherent risk of the game. The bottom line is it is a tough sport for tough kids. Now we have to be aware of another issue--the head injury. It was ignored before but now it is an issue we have to deal with."

Why tight end is a significant need for the Bears in the NFL Draft

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USA Today

Why tight end is a significant need for the Bears in the NFL Draft

Most of the focus surrounding the Bears leading up to this week’s NFL Draft has, understandably, been on running backs. The Bears have to find more consistent production out of that unit, which is why general manager Ryan Pace is likely to draft a running back in addition to signing Mike Davis and trading Jordan Howard. 

But those necessary running game improvements don’t need to solely come from Tarik Cohen, Davis and a draft pick. There are other ways to help out the Bears’ running backs. And drafting a tight end may be a start. 

From a purely depth-based point of view, the Bears need to add more tight ends to their roster: Heading into this week’s NFL Draft, only Trey Burton, Adam Shaheen and Ben Braunecker man that position. Drilling down further: Burton is a “U” tight end, Shaheen is a “Y” and Braunecker can play both positions. 

So adding at least one more body to that room seems like an important task for Ryan Pace. But this is an issue that goes just beyond the number of players on the depth chart: The Bears, as an offense, would do well to be more effective when operating out of 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends, two wide receivers). 

The issue for the Bears in that personnel grouping began in mid-August when Adam Shaheen hurt his foot in a preseason game against the Denver Broncos, which kept him sidelined until November. Dion Sims took his place and didn’t play well, both as a pass-catcher and run-blocker. When Shaheen came back, he wasn’t 100 percent — and, in his first game back, suffered a concussion against the Minnesota Vikings. 

So here’s how the Bears fared in 12 personnel compared to the league average, via SharpFootballStats.com:

  Play% Pass% Run% Pass. RTG TD/INT YPA YPC
Bears 17% 49% 51% 85.0 5/3 5.9 3.4
NFL Avg. 17% 49% 51% 101.9 145/53 8.1 4.3

A few things to unpack here: First, the Bears don't necessarily need to use more 12 personnel, they just have to be better when using it. Averaging 3.4 yards per carry with two tight ends ranked fourth worst in the NFL, behind the Indianapolis Colts, Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. More disappointing, though, is the Bears’ average of 5.9 yards per pass, lower than only the Jacksonville Jaguars (5.3). 

It's worth noting, too, that the league average passer rating is about 10 points higher when running 12 personnel compared to 11 personnel (which the Bears used on nearly two-thirds of their plays in 2018). 

A large part of the Bears' issues, again, were due to the “Y” tight end personnel after Shaheen’s injury. The Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles — relevant here for the Andy Reid connections to Matt Nagy — had much better personnel at tight end (Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz) and ran 12 personnel 28 and 36 percent of the time, respectively. No team used it on a higher percentage of their offensive plays than the Eagles. 

The best-case scenario is the Bears didn’t have the personnel to operate successfully with 12 personnel in 2018, and it doesn’t take much of a deep dive into the film to see why (Sims, who was released this spring, remains unsigned). Nagy and his offensive brain trust likely can scheme some better ways to utilize 12 personnel as well. 

The issue, then, is how the Bears go about improving their tight end personnel. 

The first step would be for Shaheen to not only stay healthy, but to consistently build on the potential the Bears saw in him two years ago. Shaheen has missed 13 games in two seasons and has only been targeted 20 times in the 19 games he’s played. That makes him much more of a projection in 2019 not just from a passing game perspective, but from a blocking one as well. 

“It will be important for him to stay healthy for 16 games, number one, as they talk about your best ability is your availability,” Nagy said. “We've got to have that, that's important. He got better at holding the line of scrimmage. I thought, as a Y tight end, holding the end of the line of scrimmage and the point, he can do that, he's a big guy. Then route running, he's not going to give you the wiggle-wiggle that some of the U tight ends do. But he's a bigger type person. They should be able to play faster this year because they know where they're going.”

Still, given that projecting Shaheen isn’t an exact science, the Bears should target a tight end at some point in this year’s draft, specifically someone who can play that “Y” position. While the Bears are confident in Braunecker’s ability to play both tight end positions — important given how poorly the offense responded to losing Trey Burton prior to losing to the Eagles in the playoffs — drafting someone who can play the “Y” would seem like a smart move. 

The Bears aren’t going to land one of the clear-cut two best tight ends in this year’s draft — Iowa’s duo of T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — but there are a handful of tight ends who could interest the Bears in the middle rounds of the draft. San Jose State’s Josh Oliver (No. 95 on Pro Football Focus’ top 250) profiles as someone with the flexibility to play both tight end positions; Stanford’s Kaden Smith comes from the new “Tight End U” and could be had later in the draft. Those are just two names; perhaps it’s better to wait until after the Bears pick a tight end (if they do at all) to project how they could fit within the offense. 

Rookie tight ends rarely make significant impacts, especially those who fall to the middle rounds of the draft. But even if the Bears can improve blocking-wise from 12 personnel, that would have a positive impact on their ability to run the ball. 

And running the ball better means more opportunities for play action, which means more opportunities for open throws, which means more opportunities for Mitch Trubisky to lead scoring drives, which means more points. Everything works together — which is how drafting a tight end could help the Bears push toward the overall goal of scoring more points. 

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

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USA TODAY

Season in Review: Otto Porter shoots the lights out in small sample size

Over the next month we'll be recapping each of the Bulls' individual 2018-19 regular seasons.

Previous reviews: Lauri Markkanen | Shaq Harrison | Ryan Arcidiacono

Midseason expectations: Otto Porter Jr. arrived in Chicago the same night the Bulls posted a 126.3 offensive rating in a 125-120 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. Maybe that was foreshadowing for how the offense would look two days later when Porter made his Bulls debut. That was the expectation, at least, that Porter would infuse life into a stagnant Bulls offense, space the floor and give the Bulls some versatility on the defensive end. Given the Bulls were 12-42 when Porter arrived, the expectation was that he’d gain some chemistry with Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen heading into the 2019-2020 season when he’d have an entire offseason to figure out a defined role.

What went right: How about 49 percent from beyond the arc? Again, it was a small sample size, but Porter connected on 39 of his 80 3-point attempts in 15 games with the Bulls. Perhaps a change of scenery and leaving that nightmare of a John Wall-less Wizards offense, was exactly what he needed. Past his lights-out shooting, Porter showed a knack for distributing that he rarely showed in Washington.

Consider that Porter had 40 assists in 15 games with the Bulls, half of the 80 assists he had with the Wizards in 41 games. He had a career-high eight assists for the Bulls in a March game against the Pistons, three more than his high in Washington last season. Porter is never going to initiate offense but playing well in pick-and-roll action and keeping the ball moving around the perimeter only adds to his value.

What went wrong: Pegged as two-way player when he arrived in Chicago, Porter didn’t do all that much on the defensive end. The Bulls were 1.1 points per 100 possessions better defensively when Porter sat than when he played. It’s a small sample size, and the Bulls defense was a mess regardless of who was or wasn’t on the floor, but it’s hard to pick out any real significant defensive plays that Porter made in his 15 games.

The Stat: 111.5

We’ll disclaim here that it was just a 17-game sample size, but that’s still more than 20 percent of the season. In the 17 games between Porter’s acquisition and when he was shut down for the remainder of the season, the Bulls’ 111.5 offensive rating was ninth best in the NBA, better than teams such as the Warriors, Hawks, Sixers and Nuggets.

What’s more, their turnover percentage (13.3%, 13th), effective field goal percentage (53.0%, 11th) and offensive rebound percentage (26.1%, 15th) were all top half of the league. It was their best stretch of the season, and it was no coincidence that it came while Porter was in the lineup and healthy. Small-ish sample size? Yes. Still promising? Yes.

2019-20 Expectations: A lot. No, the Bulls didn’t give Porter that massive contract. But it’s going to stick with him as long as the Bulls are paying him. Expectations are clear: Continue to be an elite 3-point shooter and move the ball – whether it be around the perimeter or in pick-and-roll action – once the defense shifts.

Speaking of defense, Porter will be tasked with changing the narrative in Chicago. The Bulls need to improve their defense if they’re going to have any change of competing for a playoff spot and much of that responsibility will fall on Porter. He’ll routinely be guarding the opponent’s best wing and will need to hide Zach LaVine at times. It’s a tall order, but it comes with the territory while making $27 million per year.