Bears

Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

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Jeff Samardzija's Excellent Adventure

In a couple of weeks, Jeff Samardzija will be the Cubs' ace. It will be by default, of course, with Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza having left for greener pastures. Nevertheless, the former Notre Dame stand-out known more for his play on the gridiron those days than on the diamond will be the Cubs number one starter -- hard to believe considering where Samardzija was at spring training a year ago. Back then, no one knew if Samardzija was going to make the team, let alone how he would fit in.

But late last season, Samardzija started to figure it out and the turnaround was on. Even I've done a complete 180 on the guy who I dismissed as a character out of the movie "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" completely unworthy of the 10 million signing bonus Jim Hendry gave him in 2007.

Don't get me wrong, he's still a version of Keanu Reeves' Ted likely to utter a few 'whoas' and he's got the long hair that he calls 'a great set of weeds.' (Nevermind that Jeff was only four when the movie came out.) The difference is the guy can pitch and that makes his surfer dude persona more endearing and less annoying.

But I think the real reason I was annoyed with Samardjiza for the last four years was because he was so darn unreliable. His early career was that of bouncing back and forth between Triple-A and the majors, and when he was with the big-league squad his home was in the bullpen, where he was maddeningly inconsistent. In 2009, he had a 7.53 ERA in 20 appearances, and an ERA over eight (in limited playing time) in 2010.

I was ready to see him move along, but then something clicked for him and for me and he's turned into one of the Cubs assets for the future and one of the best guys in the clubhouse to talk to. Samardzija is my new go-to-guy.

I asked Samardzija recently about how he was able to go from hanging-on-a-thread to legitimate starting pitcher. (Truth be told, an anonymous source told me Samardzija was notorious for tipping his pitches, something the Cubs have helped him correct, but he's also made some other changes.)

"Coming into camp, (the Cubs) put a lot of faith in me and there was a lot of responsibility with what they expected," recalls Samardzija. "I just wanted to take advantage of that. I worked hard in the off-season and didn't want the opportunity to slip away."

And according to pitching coach Chris Bosio, Samardzija was an eager student willing to be coached and receptive to suggestions.

"We laid out a pretty good plan for him and he's followed it," Bosio said. "Just as far as how to set up hitters, be more aggressive with his fastball, be more efficient which we're trying to stress as a staff. Jeff's following suit, he's a hard worker, he gets it."

Yes, Samardzija gets it on and off the mound. He gets that he plays a game for a living and while he takes his job seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously. For example, Samardzija pitched on his bobblehead day and jokingly said he felt some pressure to perform well because he didn't want to leave the ballpark that day and see hundreds of bobbleheads smashed on the sidewalks.

He generally lets things roll off his shoulders. Like when he hit Paul Konerko in the face during the CubsSox series. I talked to Jeff the next day and he genuinely felt bad about hitting Konerko and insisted it was unintentional. When I told him he was getting killed on the radio by fans who thought it was bush-league, he shrugged his shoulders and said, "I figured as much. It's all part of the game."

Nothing seems to bother the guy. I keep waiting for him to drop a "party on, dudes" a la Ted. The closest I came was last week when the team's nutritionist walked through the dugout. Samardzija admitted to me he eats a lot of junk food. McDonalds, you name it.

"Candy, too?" I asked.

"Oh yeah, all of it," he replied.

"That's going to catch up to one day," I said in my best mom voice.

"It's all good," he said. "I'm not worried about it."

Party on, Jeff.

If Samardzija can keep building on what he's done through 13 starts, he's going to be more than a serviceable pitcher for the Cubs and could finally realize the potential Hendry saw in him five years ago. Even Samardzija admits it's been a long road.

"It's been a long time coming," he admits. "It's nice when you work for something and end up getting what you want."

And if Samardzija sits atop the Cubs rotation even in a dismal rebuilding year, it will be significant.

I can just hear him now in his best Ted voice, "This has been a most excellent adventure!"

And it's sure to get even better for Samardzija.

Trey Burton, Adrian Amos earn Bears’ top grades from Pro Football Focus for Week 7

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USA TODAY

Trey Burton, Adrian Amos earn Bears’ top grades from Pro Football Focus for Week 7

The Bears were not at their best against the New England Patriots on Sunday. They made plenty of mistakes on all three phases and gave Tom Brady too many opportunities to control the game.

It wasn’t all bad from Chicago, though. Trey Burton emerged as a new favorite weapon of Mitchell Trubisky, and the tight end was the Bears’ highest-graded player in the game by Pro Football Focus.

Burton had a career high 11 targets, nine catches and 126 yards with a touchdown, giving Trubisky a 144.7 passer rating when targeting his top tight end.

Seven of Burton’s targets and six of his catches traveled 10 or more yards in the air, according to PFF.

Defensively, safety Adrian Amos led the pack with a 74.6 overall grade. He did not miss a tackle after missing a career-high five last week, and he allowed only one catch for eight yards against the Patriots.

On the bottom of the scale, outside linebacker Leonard Floyd received the second-lowest grade of his career (38.9 overall) for his performance. He did not record any pressure on the quarterback in 13 pass rushing snaps, and he allowed two catches for 13 yards and a touchdown in coverage against running back James White.

Wide receiver Allen Robinson had a career-low grade as well at 44.9 overall. He was clearly limited by his groin injury, targeted five times with one catch for four yards and a dropped pass.

Overall, the Bears were able to stick with one of the top teams in the AFC while also leaving a lot of room for improvement. It’s a step in the right direction from where Chicago was in recent seasons.

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

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AP

Wendell Carter Jr. survives gauntlet of centers to begin career

Don't tell Wendell Carter Jr. the center position is a dying breed.

The 19-year-old rookie hasn't exactly been able to ease into the NBA, finding himself up against a handful of All-Stars and powerful frontcourts just five days into his career.

It culminated Monday night with a date against Mavericks center DeAndre Jordan, and once again the seventh overall pick held his own. It was much of the same as it was against Philadelphia's Joel Embiid and Detroit's Andre Drummond last week (and Nikola Jokic in the preseason finale): some good, some bad, plenty of poise and zero backing down. The NBA is unforgiving, but this could very well be the toughest stretch Carter faces all season.

"He’s playing against top level centers now," Fred Hoiberg said before Monday's game. "It’s a great experience for him. He’s going to learn and get better and he plays within himself, we will continue to look for him to be more aggressive."

He was as aggressive as the Bulls have seen him against Jordan and the Mavericks. He blew by the 20 and 18 minutes he played in the first two games of the year, totalling 32 minutes. His final line won't tell the story - 4 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists and a block - of a Carter who defended well at the rim, picking and choosing his spots on when to attack shots and when to simply use his verticality.

He wasn't credited for a block but he contested a Jordan dunk that turned into a Bobby Portis dunk on the other end. Plus-minus isn't always a good indicator of a player's worth, but Carter was a +5 in a 14-point Bulls loss. He even attempted a corner 3-pointer early in the shot clock, showing no hesitation. Carter's had his moments, but it's also apparent he's got a 19-year-old body going up against veterans each night. That'll come with time in the weight room. For now the experience is 

"I appreciate the fact I’m able to play against these very talented bigs early in my career," Carter said after the loss to the Pistons. "What I need to work on is I have to get stronger; that’s the first thing I recognize; just being up against the best. I love the competition. It’s always a great feeling going against the best."

What the Bulls are finding out is they have a player mature beyond his years. As he progresses he'll continue to get more difficult assignments. He had his rookie moment late in Monday's loss, committing a turnover in the backcourt after the Bulls had cut the deficit to five with 35 seconds left. The fouls are also an issue, as Carter has committed 10 in three games (after committing 17 in five preseason games).

That doesn't necessarily seem important for a Lottery-bound team, but considering the continued struggles of Robin Lopez (and Cristiano Felicio is entirely out of the rotation) it is. Lopez had 2 points and 1 rebound in 10 minutes while committing five personal fouls. In three games he has 11 personal fouls and 11 points, and also has more turnovers (five) than rebounds (four). If the Bulls are going to compete until Lauri Markkanen returns, Carter will need to hover around the 32 minutes he played Monday.

He'll get a much easier test on Wednesday when the Charlotte Hornets arrive in town. Cody Zeller doesn't exactly have the credentials of a Jokic or Embiid, meaning Carter may have a little more room to work. 

The Bulls know they have something in Carter. It'll be abother month until they can deploy him alongside Markkanen, but if the first three games are any indication, Carter won't have any problems matching up with some of the league's best.