From Comcast SportsNetSANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) -- Jim and John Harbaugh have exchanged a handful of text messages, and plan to leave it at that. No phone conversations necessary while the season's still going. No time for pleasantries, even for the friendly siblings.There is work to be done to prepare for the Super Bowl, prepare for each other, prepare for a history-making day already being widely hyped as "Harbowl" or "Superbaugh" depending which nickname you prefer."It doesn't matter who the coach is, what relationship you have with the person on the other side," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said so matter-of-factly Monday afternoon.Their parents sure aren't picking sides for the Feb. 3 matchup in New Orleans.These days, the Harbaughs' longtime coaching father, Jack, stays away from game-planning chatter or strategy sessions with his Super Bowl-bound coaching sons. Baltimore's John Harbaugh and little brother Jim have been doing this long enough now to no longer need dad's input.Yet, they still regularly seek it. And, their father does offer one basic mantra: "Get ahead, stay ahead.""Probably the greatest advice that I've ever been given and the only advice that I've ever found to be true in all of coaching, I think we mentioned it to both John and Jim ... the coaching advice is, Get ahead, stay ahead,'" Jack Harbaugh said."If I'm called upon, I'll repeat that same message."His boys still call home regularly to check in with the man who turned both on to the coaching profession years ago, and the mother who has handled everything behind the scenes for decades in a highly competitive, sports-crazed family -- with all the routine sports cliches to show for it.The Harbaugh brothers will become the first siblings to square off from opposite sidelines when their teams play for the NFL championship at the Superdome.Not that they're too keen on playing up the storyline that has no chance of going away as hard as they try."Well, I think it's a blessing and a curse," Jim Harbaugh said Monday. "A blessing because that is my brother's team. And, also, personally I played for the Ravens. Great respect for their organization. ... The curse part would be the talk of two brothers playing in the Super Bowl and what that takes away from the players that are in the game. Every moment that you're talking about myself or John, that's less time that the players are going to be talked about."Both men love history, just not the kind with them making it."I like reading a lot of history ... I guess it's pretty neat," John Harbaugh offered Monday. "But is it really going to be written about? It's not exactly like Churchill and Roosevelt or anything. It's pretty cool, but that's as far as it goes."Nice try, guys.John watched the end of Jim's game from the field in Foxborough, Mass., as Baltimore warmed up for the AFC championship game. Jim called his sister's family from the team plane before takeoff after a win at Atlanta and asked how his big brother's team was doing against New England.The improbable Super Bowl features a set of brothers known around the NFL as fierce competitors unafraid to make a bold move during the season. Unafraid to upset anyone who stands in their way.In fact, each one made a major change midseason to get this far -- John fired his offensive coordinator, while Jim boosted his offense with a quarterback switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick.Leading up to Sunday's games, parents Jack and Jackie said they would wait to decide whether to travel to New Orleans if both teams advanced or stick to what has been working so well -- watching from the comfort of their couch in Mequon, Wis."We enjoy it very much. We get down in our basement, turn on the television and just have a fantastic day watching outstanding football," Jack said last week. "We share our misery with no one but ourselves. Not only the misery, but the ups and downs, the ins and outs of an outstanding professional game."And, no, the Harbaughs weren't looking ahead to a potential big trip to the Big Easy.Jack insists his wife is quick to pull out that old sports cliche: "It's one game at a time. I think it's very appropriate," he said.Jim figures they won't possibly miss this history-making game."I think they'll be there," he said with a smile.The brothers, separated in age by 15 months, have taken different paths to football's biggest stage -- years after their intense games of knee football at the family home. They tried to beat each other at cards, or whatever other game it was at the time. Sometimes, they tried to beat each other up. Sister, Joani Crean, often got in on the fun, too.The 49-year-old Jim never reached a Super Bowl, falling a last-gasp pass short during a 15-year NFL career as a quarterback. The 50-year-old John never played in the NFL.Still, both will tell you, "Who's got it better than us? No-body!" -- one catchphrase they got from their dad."We can't put into words what it means to see John and Jim achieve this incredible milestone," their brother-in-law, Indiana basketball coach Tom Crean, said on Twitter. "We talked to Jim (before) his team plane left. All he wanted to know was how was John doing? How were they playing? One incredible family who puts the care, well-being and love for each other at the forefront like most families do. Again, we are very proud of them. Going to be exciting to watch it unfold."John worked his way up from the bottom of the coaching ranks, while Jim was the star college quarterback at Michigan, a first-round draft pick and eventual Pro Bowler who made coaching his career once he retired.John already has the one-up, while Jim's team is the early favorite. John's Ravens beat the 49ers 16-6 on Thanksgiving night 2011, in Jim's rookie season as an NFL coach -- though both know that means nothing now."I just want everybody to know, that was a four-day deal and every story has been told," John said. "We're not that interesting. There's nothing more to learn. The tape across the middle of the room story, OK, you got it? It's OK. It was just like any other family, really. I really hope the focus is not so much on that. We get it, it's really cool and it's exciting and all that."Said Jim, "Completely new business."In spite of his efforts to avoid the topic, Jim did take the opportunity to express how proud he is of John."He's a great football coach, a real grasp of all phases -- offense, defense, special teams. I think he could coordinate at least two of those phases and do it as well as anyone in the league," Jim said. "I've got half the amount of coaching experience he does. Again, it's not about us. I keep coming back to that. I'm really proud of my brother. I love him. That's the blessing part, that this is happening to him."And, fittingly for the big brother, John feels the exact same way.
The White Sox are heading into the shortened 2020 season with the same expectations they had back when they thought they’d be playing a 162-game schedule: to leap out of rebuilding mode and into contention mode.
They sure look capable of doing just that. And while it wouldn’t be possible without the emergence of the young core last season, you can’t build a contender solely from homegrown stars.
Rick Hahn followed through on this February 2018 declaration that “the money will be spent” with a super busy offseason that saw him add to nearly every facet of the roster. He remade the White Sox lineup, adding some power and on-base skills after the team sorely lacked in both areas a year ago. He added some dependability to a starting rotation that still seeks answers from its young, talented arms. And he even strengthened the back end of the bullpen with a proven late-inning option.
All that work got fans super excited, and though the moves were a mixture of short- and long-term contracts, they all mesh together to provide the kind of fuel that can power the White Sox drive toward the top of the AL Central.
First was Yasmani Grandal, who signed before Thanksgiving, and though he — and everyone else, for that matter — has been overshadowed during “Summer Camp” by rookie five-tooler Luis Robert, he’s probably the most important newcomer to this 2020 group of South Siders. Robert will, the idea is, be around for the better part of the next decade, and superstar status might not be far off, if his teammates’ reviews are a reflection of reality. But Grandal sees the White Sox future in their pitching, the reason he keeps giving for why he bought into Hahn’s long-term vision and signed the biggest free-agent deal in club history.
A catcher, Grandal plays a position where it’s hard to find a long-term fill. White Sox fans don’t need to be reminded of that and can probably rattle off the name of everyone the team’s tried there since A.J. Pierzynski’s departure. Grandal is rated highly as a pitch-framer, a valuable skill until the robots come for the umpires’ jobs. He’s got good defensive numbers and is known as a quality influence on pitchers. The White Sox have a lot of young hurlers, some who still need to figure things out at the major league level — or have yet to even get there — and Grandal is going to be around for at least the next four years to shepherd them into what the team hopes is a lengthy contention window.
But Grandal is a huge upgrade with the bat, too. No offense to the All-Star numbers James McCann turned in during the first half last season, but Grandal has a much longer track record of being one of the more productive offensive catchers in the game. He was an All Star, too, last season, a career year that saw him hit 28 homers, drive in 77 runs and — perhaps most importantly — walk a whopping 109 times. That walk total was one of baseball’s highest last season and a gigantic addition to a White Sox lineup that, as a team, had the fewest walks in the game in 2019.
Grandal was the big fish that bought in first, but it might be Dallas Keuchel who ends up serving as the White Sox version of Jon Lester. Keuchel has a Cy Young Award and a World Series championship on his resume. He knows how to win, and he’s bringing his veteran know-how to that same young pitching staff. He’s already receiving rave reviews for how he’s worked with the White Sox young arms.
“Talking about Dallas, you don’t have enough time in a daily day to say all the positives he brings to the table,” White Sox bench coach Joe McEwing said last week. “He’s the ultimate professional, a guy who goes out there and is an amazing teammate. What he builds, the chemistry in that clubhouse, and takes guys under the wing, the way to go about it as a true professional.
“His history has shown he’s a winner in every aspect, on the field and off the field, in the clubhouse. We are very very fortunate as an organization to have him to help us as an organization and help everybody in that clubhouse.”
But it’s his dependability every fifth day that will be the biggest plus for the White Sox, who outside of Lucas Giolito struggled to find much consistency from their starters during the 89-loss campaign a year ago. If White Sox fans turn up their noses at a Cubs comp, though, then let’s call Keuchel a potential Mark Buehrle type. Like the South Side legend, he’s got a closet full of Gold Gloves, and he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished without exactly blowing people away like Michael Kopech. With Keuchel and Giolito paired at the top of the starting staff, the White Sox have a reliable 1-2 punch that would sound pretty good as the first two starters in a playoff series.
To get there, though, the White Sox will have to outslug — or slug right along with — the division-rival Minnesota Twins. Before the previous offseason, this team just wasn’t capable of doing that. Grandal adds some power to the lineup, as does Robert and another newcomer in Nomar Mazara, but the White Sox have a new big bopper in Edwin Encarnación. The guy’s hit at least 30 home runs in each of the last eight seasons. Like José Abreu, he’s a proven and consistent veteran slugger who provides not just production but the peace of mind that the production will be there. He also brings an imaginary parrot.
The White Sox lineup is significantly more menacing with Encarnación in the middle of it, and for a team that ranked toward baseball’s bottom in both home runs and slugging percentage last season, it’s one heck of an upgrade.
“It gives us depth,” McEwing said of Encarnación last week. “It lengthens an extremely good lineup. It was a good lineup before. It makes it extremely longer. And the professionalism, Eddie, you can’t put a number on it. You can’t put a measure on it what he means to this ball club, not just in the clubhouse but on the field. When he steps in the box, it’s a presence that is the model of consistency in what he has done throughout his career and what he’s capable of doing. It means so much to every individual in that locker room and every time we step on the field, it’s a different presence.”
And it’d be wrong to exclude Steve Cishek from this group. He’s the newcomer at the back end of the White Sox bullpen. Teamed with Alex Colomé and Aaron Bummer, a unit that was a strength last year is now stronger. While Hahn will be the first to remind you of the volatility of relief pitching from one season to the next, Cishek brings a nice track record, including some high-stakes moments during his two-year stint with the Cubs. That time on the North Side showed durability, if nothing else, as Joe Maddon called on Cishek a whopping 150 times in two years.
The White Sox are obviously in the position they’re in because of the meticulous work of bringing young talent into the organization and getting it to the big leagues. But it’s free-agent splashes that truly move the needle in a fan base starved for championship contention. The White Sox did that, too, over the winter, reaching the always planned-for phase of the rebuild when they started adding win-now pieces.
Grandal and Keuchel are multi-year additions that fit in with Hahn’s long-term planning. Encarnación and Cishek? Maybe more like hired guns. Regardless, they’ll all have an impact on the 2020 team, and their presence is a big reason why the White Sox look ready to take the next step.
The Chicago Bears have a lot of tight ends on their roster. Nine, to be exact. Of those nine, rookie second-round pick Cole Kmet is the most exciting, while veteran free-agent signing Jimmy Graham is the most baffling.
Tight end was one of Chicago's biggest weaknesses in 2019 and Ryan Pace did his best to fix the problem this offseason. Whether or not he accomplished that goal is up for debate.
According to Pro Football Focus' recent ranking of all 32 tight end groups, he didn't. The Bears came in at No. 26.
The Bears are taking a see-what-sticks approach to the position, as seven other players are competing for the last one or two spots, but this unit’s success will be determined by what Graham has left in the passing game and how ready Kmet is to be a viable contributor as a receiver and as a run blocker. Even with the hefty offseason investment, Chicago’s tight ends come with plenty of question marks.
Graham will be the most heavily scrutinized of the bunch in 2020. The Bears signed him to a two-year, $16 million deal in free agency following a season where it looked like Graham was better suited for retirement than a lucrative multi-year deal. He's a big reason why Chicago's tight ends are still viewed as weakness. As PFF aptly stated, the Bears are, at best, a question mark when it comes to the position.
If Kmet doesn't quickly adjust to the NFL game and make an impact early in his pro career, the Bears' offense will be hamstrung once again by its lack of playmaking tight ends.