The Chicago Cubs are starting…not so fresh?

Ryan Dempster was traded away last year for being too far in his 30's - despite wielding a 2.25 ERA at the time.

Ryan Dempster was traded away last year for being too far in his 30’s – despite wielding a 2.25 ERA at the time.

The Cubs’ 2012 pitching staff ranked 24th in ERA and 29th in wins. Theo Epstein’s solution for 2013?

A similar approach to last year – sign a lot of guys and see who sticks.

Unfortunately, not only is Theo’s approach to free agency not so fresh, but neither are the Cubs’ recent signings. Edwin Jackson (age 29), Scott Baker (age 31), Scott Feldman (age 29), and Carlos Villanueva (age 29) will be joining the club for 2013. Signing four 30 year olds, none of whom have a career ERA below 4.15, seems like a questionable tactic. The tactic is even more baffling considering the young core Theo is building around in the field.

Starlin Castro is 22. Anthony Rizzo is 24. Brett Jackson is 25. Josh Vitters is 23. Darwin Barney is an old man at 27. This is clearly a team built to win in the future. So what is Theo’s plan?

Travis Wood’s signing last year made more sense than any of the signings this year. Wood was 25 then, showed promise with the Reds, and did the same for the Cubs at times during an admittedly mercurial season. Acquiring young starters with potential seemed to be the most logical plan for the North Siders.

Anibal Sanchez fit that plan. Sanchez is 28 with a career 3.75 ERA. Pair him with the recently re-signed Matt Garza, 29 and career 3.84 ERA, and the Cubbies have two formidable starters who will still produce at a high level when the batters are ready. If Jeff Samardzija is consistent, the top three of Chicago’s rotation could be elite for years to come.

Edwin Jackson seems to be more of a consolation prize. Granted, he is only one year older than Sanchez, but with a 4.40 career ERA. His earlier years in Los Angeles and Tampa Bay may have inflated that number, but he is not a sure bet for No. 2 production. While Sanchez has posted a consistent ERA worthy of the top of the rotation, Jackson’s ERA fluctuates annually.

Scott Baker? He has the potential to win over 10 games and post an ERA under 4.00, but he’s 31 and didn’t pitch last year. Risky.

Scott Feldman? If he actually earned a spot in the rotation, I predict an ERA of 5.00 (close to his career average). Feldman had one good season in 2009 and it will likely stay that way.

Carlos Villanueva? A bit more intriguing. If Garza, Samardzija, and Jackson are locks, then Villanueva has to beat out Wood or Baker. He was good at times with the Blue Jays, and I give him a 50/50 chance.

While all of these pitchers are decent, none of them have what it takes to be elite right away. With a bevy of 29-31 year olds, it doesn’t seem any of them will develop into great starters for years to come either.

That leaves Theo with a decent middle-aged rotation that’s going nowhere.

Any of these four guys could be No. 3 at best, but out of the rotation at worst. None of them have age working on their side. Perhaps Epstein is waiting for the Cubs to be close before he makes a splash in free agency.

With these pitchers, Epstein could be waiting a long time.

QB Quandary

The key to predicting the rest of the playoffs lies with the signal callers

 

Only Tom Brady, Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, and Colin Kaepernick remain in the NFL playoffs.

Who will emerge victorious?

The obvious choice is Tom Brady, who with 17 postseason wins passed Joe Montana and became the all-time leader at QB. He’s led the Patriots to 5 Super Bowls and won 3 of them. The others are grossly inexperienced in comparison. Flacco has been to 2 AFC Championship games and no Super Bowls. Ryan has been to no NFC Championship games. Kaepernick has yet to start for an entire NFL season.

Brady and Manning will not meet in the postseason this year.

Brady and Manning will not meet in the postseason this year.

Brady can thank John Fox’s ultraconservative play calling for knocking his biggest AFC threat, Peyton Manning, out of the playoffs. The Broncos were the #1 seed and winners of 11 straight entering the playoffs. Their most recent loss was against the Patriots in week 5, which Denver was certainly eager to avenge.

Now we’ll get a different rematch.

The Patriots and Ravens met last year in the AFC Championship game, when the Patriots won 23-20 to advance to the Super Bowl. The Ravens drove the field, and Flacco placed a pass in Lee Evans’ breadbasket with 30 seconds remaining in the game.

Evans dropped the ball. Billy Cundiff missed a field goal. The Patriots advanced off of the Ravens’ miscues.

Keep in mind, none of those late game miscues were Flacco’s fault. Many critics claim that Flacco wilts under the pressure of big games. He earned that reputation as a rookie and second year quarterback, when he threw more interceptions than touchdowns in the postseason.

Has Flacco exorcised his postseason demons?

At first glance, the answer is yes. His playoff stats over the past three years feature a TD:INT ratio of 12:2. As mentioned earlier, he led the Ravens to what easily could have been a Super Bowl season. His overall record in the postseason is 7-4. He is a capable quarterback with the ability to win a Super Bowl. If Trent Dilfer could do it, why not Joe Flacco?

Flacco’s statistics belie a more troubling trend, however. From 2010-2012, his completion percentage dropped from 64.1% to 57.1% to 52.6%. His yards per attempt rose from 6.1 to 7.65 to 10.75 during those years. That means one thing: Flacco now lives (and dies) by the long ball. Flacco has one of the strongest arms in the NFL, and his recent pairing with speedster Torrey Smith has opened up new possibilities for the Ravens’ passing game. This shift could be interpreted as Flacco moving from a game manager to a game winner. It also means that Flacco depends on large chunks of yardage, which are unpredictable and unsustainable in the NFL.

Let’s reevaluate Flacco from this new lens. Flacco’s pass to Lee Evans in the 2012 Championship Game was from the 14 yard line, so we won’t include that in his boom or bust style of quarterbacking. How about the Broncos game from this weekend though?

Flacco’s completion percentage was a shade under 53 against Denver. Chad Henne completed 53.9% of his passes in Jacksonville this year to come in as the 32nd best QB in the regular season. So 52.9% is not great.

Flacco did pass for 331 yards and 3 TDs. However, if you take out two Torrey Smith touchdowns against aged great Champ Bailey, then his stat line is a meager 240 yards with 1 TD. If you then eliminate his last minute pass to Jacoby Jones, his stat line is a paltry 170 yards with no TDs. So all of Flacco’s scoring and about half of his yardage came on 3 plays.

In other words, Flacco lives by the long ball. And it would not be hard to die by it, either.

It’s not fair to discount plays that happened. You could also point out that Flacco might have completed a few other long balls for even more scoring plays – other opportunities were definitely there on Saturday. Flacco has a big arm, and he has shown that he can win playoff games. Flacco receives an unfair amount of criticism, and I hold myself to my previous logic: if Dilfer could do it, why not Flacco?

The only problem? If John Fox had been more aggressive, it’s highly likely that Flacco would have been waiting for next season again. The Broncos should have iced the game before Flacco threw the improbable 70 yard touchdown. Belichick and Brady showed the Texans that they have what it takes to close out games. Belichick wasn’t even watching when Vereen caught a 33 yard pass to put New England up 38-13.

Brady has the big game experience and will put the Ravens away. That leaves only the NFC in our winning quarterback quandary.

Ryan and Flacco have both been successful since their first year in the league.

Ryan and Flacco have both been successful since their first year in the league.

Matt Ryan was drafted the same year as Joe Flacco, but lacked any playoff success until this season. Sunday’s victory over the Seahawks took Matty Ice to 1-3 in the postseason. After his career at Boston College, it is difficult to question Ryan’s abilities in big games. Every one of his losses in the playoffs was to the eventual NFC Champions, two of whom also won the Super Bowl.

Is it Ryan’s turn this year? He finally broke 200 yards in a playoff game, and was methodical under pressure. He calmly led his team to a field goal with only 31 seconds to play against the Seahawks. He is armed with Roddy White, Julio Jones, Tony Gonzalez, and multiple talented running backs. Many pundits are claiming this season shows Ryan’s ascension to elite status.

It also seems fortunate that Aaron Rodgers and the Packers are not standing in Ryan’s way again this year. Rodgers has a League MVP and Super Bowl MVP to his name, and he made the Packers a popular Super Bowl pick for this year. Colin Kaepernick had something to say about that though.

Kaepernick made his first playoff start against Green Bay and showed the nation why Jim Harbaugh elevated him above Alex Smith. Kaepernick set the all-time QB record for rushing yards in a playoff game with 181. Perhaps the even more impressive part was Kaepernick’s passing. He and Jay Cutler are the only quarterbacks in history to have 2 passing and 2 rushing touchdowns in a playoff game. He didn’t just do it with his feet; the young quarterback was surprisingly accurate.

Kaepernick averaged 6.6 yards per carry during the regular season, and built on that success in the playoffs.

Kaepernick averaged 6.6 yards per carry during the regular season and built on that success in the playoffs.

Kaepernick’s season completion percentage was 62.4% – good for a first year starter (higher than Flacco’s and Ryan’s in 2008). His percentage of 54.8 against a talented Packer secondary was very impressive as well. True, it is only slightly higher than Flacco’s percentage, but the tape shows some very accurate throws (especially the second TD to Michael Crabtree). I say all of that while completely understating his ability as a double threat – 181 yards! He outperformed Michael Vick in his first postseason start. In the words of Packers GM Ted Thompson: “unbelievable.”

All of that spells trouble for an Atlanta team that struggled with Russell Wilson. The Atlanta secondary looked completely lost at times, and I expect Kaepernick to exploit that. The 49ers will roll to the Super Bowl, pitting two of the most successful franchises ever (8 total Super Bowl championships) against each other.

Who will emerge the final victor?

The second year pro who took over for the injured starter. If you don’t believe it can happen, check the history books. Tom Brady will be on the receiving end of his own medicine.

San Francisco 31 – New England 28.

Chicago Bears’ Top 5 Head Coach Candidates

With Lovie out, who are the best choices in Phil Emery’s “fast” and “furious” search for a head coach? I’ve identified the top 5 choices for Chicago, in order.

1. Bruce Arians, OC, Indianapolis Colts

Bruce Arians also served as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers (2007-2011).

Bruce Arians also served as offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers (2007-2011).

There’s a reason the Colts have said they desperately want Arians to remain in their organization. In Chuck Pagano’s stead, Arians led the Colts to a 9-3 record (they finished 11-5 overall). It was the best record an NFL interim head coach has ever recorded, and it was posted one year after a 2 win campaign. Their +9 win differential from last season was enough to get Indy back in the playoffs. Without Arians calling plays (due to sickness), the Colts lost to the Ravens in the Wild Card round. Arians is a former quarterback who has now worked as a mentor to both Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck. With a rookie QB, Indianapolis finished 7th overall in the NFL in passing yards. They ranked 22nd in rushing yards with Donald Brown and Vick Ballard – imagine what he could do with Matt Forte and Michael Bush. Arians has what it takes to win now.

2. Pete Carmichael Jr., OC, New Orleans Saints

Carmichael is another case of an offensive coordinator who took on extra responsibilities this past season. With Sean Payton’s suspension in 2012, Carmichael took over play-calling duties in New Orleans. The Saints missed the playoffs, but their offense averaged the second most yards per game in the NFL. Carmichael worked with Drew Brees, a potential Hall of Famer, for almost his entire career in San Diego and New Orleans. Carmichael could install an explosive offense in Chicago with Jay Cutler and Brandon Marshall.

3. Rick Dennison, OC, Houston Texans

Dennison is an obvious choice for the Bears’ head coaching position because of his previous ties to Cutler and Marshall (OC in Denver, 2006-08). His work in Houston with Gary Kubiak helped the Texans make the playoffs two years in a row, Houston’s only postseason appearances ever. Under Dennison, Arian Foster led the NFL in rushing in 2010 and became a Pro Bowler three straight years. The reason Dennison is lower than Carmichael is due to inconsistency. Matt Schaub and the offense have sputtered at times (the past three weeks are the most recent example), which has kept them from being as consistently dominant as the Saints have been for years.

Dave Toub congratulates long time Chicago punter Brad Maynard.

Dave Toub congratulates long time Chicago punter Brad Maynard.

4. Dave Toub, ST, Chicago Bears

Special teams coordinators make great head coaches – just ask Mike Ditka. Toub has been the best special teams coach in the NFL for years. Robbie Gould, Devin Hester, Brendon Ayanbadejo, and Corey Graham all made Pro Bowls under Toub’s tutelage. It would make sense for the Bears to promote someone from inside the ranks for the sake of continuity, and Toub is a viable option. He interviewed for the Miami Dolphins’ head coaching position last year but ended up staying in Chicago. Why not see if Toub can keep up his success with the Bears, just at a higher level?

5. Marc Trestman, HC, Montreal Alouettes

When I first saw the Bears were interviewing a coach from the CFL, I thought it was a joke. Don’t laugh aboot it though – Trestman is for real. His experience ranges from position coach to head coach in the NCAA, CFL, and NFL. Trestman’s worked with Bernie Kosar (twice), Rich Gannon (twice), Steve Young, and Jake Plummer at various points in their careers. He also worked with CFL all-time great Anthony Calvillo to win two Grey Cups with Montreal. His great track record with QBs could carry over to Chicago. Trestman has already worked as a quarterback consultant for Jay Cutler in the past.

Lovie/Hate Relationship

Lovie Smith was fired after a 10-6 season.

Lovie Smith probably remembers when Marty Schottenheimer was fired.

Schottenheimer’s San Diego Chargers went 14-2 in 2006, but they lost in the AFC Divisional Game. I remember thinking how insane it was to fire a guy who won 14 games in the regular season and took his team to the playoffs. He was 200-136 as a head coach, and went to the playoffs 13 years with the Browns, Chiefs, and Chargers. What were they thinking?

In the NFL, being very good is not good enough. Schottenheimer was a very good coach, but he didn’t win championships. Vince Lombardi will live on forever. Bill Walsh’s name will not be forgotten. Marty Schottenheimer could easily fade into obscurity.

Where does Lovie Smith stand?

Lovie Smith ends his head coaching career with the Chicago Bears at 81-63 after 9 years. His .563 winning percentage in the regular season turned into a .500 winning percentage in the playoffs. Those stats seem pretty solid on paper.

When you break them down a little more, Lovie’s resumé isn’t quite as impressive. The Bears only made the playoffs 3 out of 9 years under Lovie. Outside of a playoff victory over a 7-9 team in 2010, they only won postseason games in the 2006-2007 season. And of course, after the Super Bowl season, the Bears missed the playoffs 5 out of the last 6 years under Lovie.

In other words, since 2007 Chicago has fewer playoff appearances than Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Dallas, Denver, Green Bay, Houston, Indianapolis, Minnesota, New England, New Orleans, New York (Giants), New York (Jets), Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Tennessee, and Washington.

21 teams.

I’m not certain if one Super Bowl appearance is enough to justify keeping a head coach on with that recent track record. The other longest tenured coaches in the league this past season were Bill Belichick (3 Super Bowl wins), Marvin Lewis (3 playoff appearances in the past 4 years), and Andy Reid (5 NFC Championship appearances). Andy Reid was fired. Even with a great track record, longevity is still not a reason to keep a head coach in today’s NFL.

That leads to my assessment of Lovie Smith as a head coach: pretty good. But not great.

Was Lovie good enough to merit staying on though? I don’t think so. Lovie underachieved with a veteran, talented team, rather than improving with a young team (as Marvin Lewis is doing).

Brian Urlacher is 34. Lance Briggs is 32. Charles Tillman is 31. Julius Peppers is 32. Time is conspiring against the Chicago Bears – the window is almost shut.

I do not mention the Bears’ veteran defensive players to say Lovie underachieved with them. Quite the contrary; as Phil Emery acknowledged, Lovie is brilliant defensively. The Bears wreaked havoc on the league under his Tampa 2. The offense failed to produce with 4 different coordinators.

Terry Shea was a miserable first choice. Ron Turner experienced success with Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman, but was let go when Jay Cutler underachieved in his first season. Mike Martz was given too much power over personnel decisions (Roy Williams, anyone?), and Mike Tice proved to be an uninspiring play caller.

The worst of the group? Shea and Martz. Both brought in for their past ties to Lovie.

Martz’s ugliest show on turf was due to egregious inflexibility with Jay Cutler. Among other issues, Martz was committed to Cutler running deep drops. Cutler is more comfortable, and successful, rolling outside of the pocket. They butted heads for 2 seasons. Lovie permitted it to happen.

To be fair, Martz did resign due to “philosophical differences” between himself and Lovie. The soft spoken head coach eventually applied pressure to his struggling staff – but not before his seat warmed up.

Lovie professed three goals when he was hired as head coach: beat the Packers, win the NFC North, and win the Super Bowl. His first three seasons boded well for all three goals.

Aaron Rodgers’ first season as a starter marked a turning point in the Bears-Packers rivalry: Lovie went 2-9 against Green Bay in the regular season and playoffs. There were no Super Bowl appearances by the Bears, and the only NFC North title was the year the Packers won the Super Bowl.

Lovie’s greatest obstacle?

So, perhaps Aaron Rodgers was the nail, hammer, and lid in Lovie’s coffin.

The real problem was Lovie’s inability to manage turmoil. The offensive coordinator position was not his only problem. Injury-induced collapses also did him in.

2011 saw a 7-3 start for the Bears. When Cutler and Forte got hurt, the wheels came off. I won’t go into great detail about Caleb Hanie and Marion Barber’s ineptitude, just to save Chicago fans the pain. The Bears missed the playoffs, and Jerry Angelo was the scapegoat. A GM with better sense was needed in case injuries struck again.

Phil Emery proved up to the task by signing Jason Campbell and Michael Bush, two big name back-ups. Chicago started 7-1 in 2012. Injuries plagued the team again, and somehow Jason Campbell proved as worthless as Caleb Hanie.

Let’s not forget that Campbell is a former first round pick who led the Raiders to 8 wins in 13 games the season before. He’s not incompetent. Somehow, he looked lost. Certainly Tice’s bland play-calling didn’t help, but Campbell just didn’t seem ready. Another inexplicable collapse and another season without the playoffs. Elsewhere in the league, rookie Kirk Cousins kept his cool in his first NFL start and kept the Redskins in playoff contention. Injuries happen across the NFL, but seem to derail the Bears more than other teams.

Lovie’s merits speak for themselves. He had tremendous success with the Bears’ defense. He is a players’ coach; a man who stood by Rex Grossman through endless criticism. All-time greats like Brian Urlacher, Devin Hester, and even Mike Ditka stand by him. He is a character person who is well-respected around the league.

Unfortunately, Phil Emery is in search of championships. He certainly evaluated Lovie the way he evaluated his offensive tackles last offseason: what is the best available? Is it very good – or great?

I now understand Marty Schottenheimer’s firing.