Bears

Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

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Historic Heisman? Te'o deserving, but past not on his side

Manti Te'o's Heisman bid started as a pipe dream in mid-September, when the linebacker received plenty of national attention for his outstanding performances against Michigan State and Michigan while dealing with a devastating tragedy.

A month later, Te'o's Heisman chances became legitimate when he intercepted Landry Jones in Norman, sealing Notre Dame's biggest win in nearly two decades. And after Notre Dame beat USC to finish its first undefeated regular season in 24 years, the argument became loud and clear:

If Te'o doesn't get the Heisman Trophy, no defensive player ever will.

"If a guy like Manti Te'o's not going to win the Heisman, they should just make it an offensive award," coach Brian Kelly said in Los Angeles. "Just give it to the offensive player every year and let's just cut to the chase."

On Thursday, Te'o broke Charles Woodson's record for most awards won in a single season. In winning the Maxwell Award -- Te'o's sixth -- he topped Woodson's five won in 1997. One of those awards won by Woodson was the Heisman Trophy, although Te'o is hardly a slam dunk to to win college football's most prestigious honor.

Te'o earned an invite to the Heisman presentation in New York as one of three finalists, meaning he'll be the first defensive player who didn't play offense or special teams to have a top-three Heisman finish since Pittsburgh's Hugh Green in 1980. A handful of defense-only players have finished in the top four -- most recently, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh -- while Alex Karras and Green are the only two defenders to finish in the top three without playing on offense.

Woodson is heralded as the last defensive player to win the Heisman Trophy, but his bid was aided by his explosive returning ability and moonlighting as a receiver. Te'o doesn't have any of that -- his impact comes only on the defensive side of the ball.

And it's a been a huge impact, one that has propelled Notre Dame to an undefeated season and bid in the BCS Championship. Te'o has 103 tackles and seven interceptions, the latter of which is the highest total compiled by an FBS linebacker in a dozen years. He's the emotional leader of a defense allowing 10.3 points per game, the lowest average in the nation. And Te'o's done it all while being a high-character guy, one who's as upstanding of a human being as you'll ever meet.

So what doesn't make him Heisman Trophy material?

It's exactly about what Te'o is lacking, it's about what Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel has done. It's Manziel -- not Cam Newton, not Tim Tebow -- who holds the SEC record for total offense, racking up 4,600 yards in his redshirt freshman campaign. With a new coach and new quarterback, Texas A&M actually wound up averaging more points per game this year against fearsome SEC defenses than they did last year against the Swiss cheese defenses of the Big 12, and that was with Ryan Tannehill as the team's quarterback.

The last few weeks have turned into ugly attack campaigns, with those in College Station and South Bend digging to find any reason, however small, to discount the other candidate (in this analogy, then, that makes Collin Klein the Green Party rep). Yes, Manziel didn't play well against Florida and LSU. But Te'o was stymied by Pittsburgh, a game which Notre Dame wound up winning thanks to a few big breaks.

It's Michael Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera all over again, with each grenade thrown making the debate more polarizing.

"That's definitely somebody that's of Heisman material," Te'o said of Manziel. "I'm a real big fan."

Manziel is a deserving candidate. So is Te'o. But only one can win the award -- and all signs point to Manziel -- so that begs another question: why not just split the Heisman Trophy into two categories, one for offense and one for defense?

It's a tricky concept, given the history of the Heisman Trophy. It's arguably the most prestigious and recognizable award in American sports, one that pre-dates baseball's Cy Young Award by 21 years. It'd take a lot of convincing for two players to be welcomed into the Heisman fraternity each year, for two players to strike the pose instead of one.

But it's rare for a defensive player to have the kind of national impact and appeal of Te'o in 2012. Quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers pepper highlight reels and YouTube clips. A mundane touchdown will get more play than a run-of-the-mill interception, sack or fumble recovery. That's why it's much easier to identify the nation's top offensive players than defensive players, unless a defender has a gargantuan season like Te'o in 2012 or Suh in 2009.

The idea of a defensive Heisman won't be realized anytime soon, if ever. And even if it is installed down the road, it won't help Te'o this year.

In a situation where there are multiple deserving candidates, one will get snubbed. This year, that guy is likely to be Te'o, and he just so happens to play defense. And while there's no doubt Te'o wants to win the Heisman, he has a chance to play for an even bigger honor -- one Manziel doesn't have a chance to get this year.

"You ask any Heisman winner that wasn't a national champion what they would rather be, and I think they would rather be the latter, a national champion," Te'o said last month. "So that's what I want. I'd rather be holding a crystal ball than a bronze statue."

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Charles Leno dubbed Bears' best-kept secret

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. deserves a lot of credit. After starting his career as a seventh-round pick and something of a longshot to ever earn a starting job, he's become an irreplaceable fixture at the most important position along the offensive line.

The four-year, $38 million contract extension he signed last offseason is evidence of that.

Despite his value to the Bears, Leno is still somewhat underrated across league circles. That may be about to change.

Leno was recently named Chicago's best-kept secret.

Leno has consistently improved as a pass protector since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2014 and is now one of the team's top 10 players. If he hit the open market, Leno might be a $60 million player with the way the offensive line market is exploding. Over the next four years, the Bears should save about $20 million on the market price for their starting-caliber left tackle.

Leno has enjoyed steady improvement since his rookie season. His grades from Pro Football Focus reflect that: 53.6 (2014), 56.3 (2015), 71.2 (2016) and 80.4 (2017). 

The Bears' offensive line is poised for a big season in 2018. Leno and Bobby Massie are back as starters at tackle. Rookie second-round pick James Daniels will pair with Kyle Long at guard and third-year pro, Cody Whitehair, will get back to focusing on being the team's starting center.

If Leno's trend of improved play continues, he's a great candidate to go from best-kept secret to league star in 2018.

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

The trade rumors aren't going away, but that hasn't changed Cubs' faith in Addison Russell

How much do the Cubs really need Manny Machado? 

They entered play Tuesday leading the National League in runs per game, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and run differential.

That doesn't sound like a team desperate for another bat and would trade future assets to go all-in for only a few months of a player, even one as good as Machado.

Of course, the Cubs went out and got walloped 10-1 by the Indians Tuesday night at Wrigley Field, but that had more to do with awful pitching and Machado won't do a thing to help that area of the game. In fact, Machado would actually hurt the team's run prevention given he's a worse defensive shortstop than Addison Russell.

All that being said, the Machado rumors probably won't be going anywhere until the Baltimore Orioles deal their shortstop to either the Cubs or another team, so Russell will have to get used to hearing his name included in such conversations.

Any Cubs package headed to Baltimore for Machado likely has to start with Russell, the Cubs' 24-year-old shortstop who won't become a free agent until after the 2021 season.

"He would be robotic if it did not [affect him]," Joe Maddon said. "I think honestly if he was 7, 8, 10 years into the league and something like this was being bandied about, probably not nearly as much. But the age that he's at, the experience level that he's at, I think it just can't help but have an impact.

"So we just gotta continue to nurture him here. I talk to him all the time. There's certain things you can't control. You can't control what's being said, but you can control how you react to it. That's about the best thing we could encourage him to do and he'll get our support."

Maddon said he gives Russell a hug and reminds him of "something" before every game as he tries to massage the confidence of a player that is currently the shortstop of a Cubs team with World Series expectations.

Russell doesn't turn 25 until next January, yet many people act like he's already peaked as a player. 

He's two years removed from hitting 21 homers and driving in 95 runs as part of the 2016 championship season.

2017 was a lost year for so many reasons — from off-field issues to shoulder and foot problems — and Russell has only 1 homer in the first quarter of the 2018 season, but he's taken other strides this year.

He currently boasts career best marks in walk percentage, strikeout percentage, line drive percentage, groundball percentage and is using the opposite field more than ever.

The power hasn't come yet this year, but a .343 on-base percentage is a pretty solid complementary piece to one of the best all-around defenders in the game.

Russell ranks 10th in baseball in Defensive Runs Saved among all players, tied for second among shortstops. Fielding metrics are not perfect, but Machado is 133rd in DRS among qualifed fielders and 24th among shortstops, so there is clearly a gap between the two players' glovework.

Maddon has never shown any outward sign of altering his belief in Russell becoming a dynamic player.

"Addy's gonna continue to progress to the point where all his game is gonna become consistent," Maddon said. "And even beyond that, who do you like better at shortstop [defensively] right now? ... His throwing's dramatically improved. His baserunning decisions — I know he had a gaffe in Cincinnati, but for the most part, he's gotten better.

"So what we're really talking about is his hitting. That's where people get hung up about this game all the time. I see absolute progress in that, also. He just came off a hot week and he had a couple tough days and then all of a sudden, it becomes exaggerated. Why? Because he's 24.

"I think the sky is the limit for this guy. He's a confidence guy like most of us are. As he's feeling good about himself, that's when the line drives start to occur. I mean, one of the biggest hits so far was the ball over the centerfielder's head in Atlanta [last week].

"And he always has this tendency to do some really good work when it matters most. He's been that guy already. So just be patient. He's just gonna keep getting better."

Remember, Russell is the same guy that hit a grand slam and drove in 6 runs in Game 6 of the World Series in Cleveland and started every game at shortstop that postseason. Every year Russell has been the Cubs' shortstop, the season has included a trip to the National League Championship Series.

"Our front office has always been one to make moves and they’re not afraid to do things and we’ve seen that," Kris Bryant said. "We won a world series because of that, getting [Aroldis] Chapman and some of the other guys we got, but we don’t put one ounce of thought into that because we’re happy with the guys we have here.

"The effort that everybody puts forth day in and day out when they’re on the field is spectacular. You know we have a great group of guys here and until someone is gone, we’re going to play with what we’ve got and continue to play the way we have. So, not much thought about [trade rumors]."

Russell has also quietly been very productive over the last month after a slow start to the season. Since April 26, he boasts a .306/.386/.444 slash line (.830 OPS).

It's still hard to see the Cubs willing to give up the next 3.5 years of Russell for 3 months of Machado and MAYBE a slightly better chance of re-signing the superstar this winter.

"I was talking about a 24-year-old hitter, what about a 24-year-old human being having to process all of that?" Maddon asked. "Whether he's hearing it or not from anywhere here, it's just mom, dad, brother, friend, former coach on the phone — 'What's that all about?' 

"He's gotta be inundated with that conversation. He didn't ask for that. He's just doing his job."