Thursday, November 29, 2007


The ‘best of’, ‘worst of’ and those highly-pretentious ‘most important’ lists will come in droves over the coming weeks. Being that these are the final days of an interesting, surprise-filled, sense-jolting, reality-checking, sometimes depressing, but consistently intriguing year in sports, it seems as if every blog should participate in the fun. Yet, being a bit different, something else came to mind about sports in 2007.

While watching the Houston Rockets take on the Miami Heat on the night after Thanksgiving, a graphic came up on the screen that showed how mighty the 2005-06 NBA Champions had fallen. In the season-plus since bringing the NBA title to Miami, the Heat have garnered a record of 48-48 in the regular season (46-47 at the time of the game), were swept by the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the ’06-’07 playoffs and even lost all seven preseason games. Yikes! There’s an unofficial statistic of note that will come up later, but along with the above, these numbers signifies a drastic change of titlists and title contenders in the major sports this year. Three teams experienced tremendous falls from grace after playing for the championships of their sports not long ago; the aforementioned Heat in the NBA, baseball’s Detroit Tigers, and the NFL’s Chicago Bears*. This isn’t an exhaustive list as other sports have had their shares of teams and players that have made complete 180 turn, yet with the high expectations after stellar seasons, it’s just amazing how these three sports witnessed these collapses all at once.

Miami Heat: Pat Riley – love him or hate him – is arguably the best coach of the past thirty years in the NBA. Sure, it’s very easy to say Phil Jackson because of his nine titles with two superstar-driven franchises and Gregg Popovich gets no love, considering the Spurs imprint on basketball in the last nine years. Yet, Riley has been able to take three different teams of three different styles and blends of talent to the NBA Finals. From the Showtime era of Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the defensive-minded Knicks of the nineties to a veteran-laden Heat led by Dwayne Wade, Riley had been able to exert the best of his team’s strengths to the max and tested the conditioning of his players throughout his years as coach.

Something happened, however, after the Heat snatched the NBA title away from the Dallas Mavericks in June 2005. The team got old, unathletic and tired despite little roster turnover in the following season. Shaquille O’Neal got hurt. Wade got hurt. Even Riley got hurt. Outside of those three, there was little else to fear regarding this team. Other than the maddeningly streaky Antoine Walker, who was shipped out to Minnesota before this season for Ricky Davis, there was little offense to buoy the team to another 50-win season. Wade missed 23 games last season for a dislocated shoulder, O’Neal sat for over thirty. Add Riley’s hip and knee ailments and you have a group that, to date, has only shared the same arena floor an astonishing fourteen times since winning the title. Was it really a surprise that the Bulls swept them in the first round of the playoffs back in May? To many who feel that having Shaq and Wade on the floor at the time, yes. So how would they respond to their current 4-10 record?

The Heat can only hope that the Orlando Magic lose grip of the Southeast Division and the Washington Wizards begin to struggle offensively without Gilbert Arenas. It’s unfortunate to say that both of their stars are injuries waiting to happen, but until O’Neal and Wade can prove otherwise, this is not a playoff team. What hurts them is the lack of perimeter shooters and someone other than Ricky Davis that can create offense on his own. Even losing Jason Kapono to the Toronto Raptors has left a sting for a team that will need to battle for wins in an improved Eastern Conference.

Detroit Tigers: When the Chicago White Sox won the World Series in 2005, they won with a deep rotation, timely hitting and a sick defense. Their addition of Jim Thome in the following offseason was supposed to signal a new era of dominance in the American League as they added more offense to an already potent lineup with Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko and Joe Crede. No one really talked about the Southsiders’ chances to contend in ’05, but trading for Thome meant that this was a team you wouldn’t forget by any means. Yet, in 2006, the pitching fell apart and they lost ground in what was a competitive AL Central Division. What does this have to do with the Tigers? Pretty much everything. Detroit crept up in a similar manner. You knew that the team had to be better than the 2003 model that lost 103 games as management decided to put their young players through the fire of losing in order to come out stronger in the future. They made incremental improvements, but with baseball fans affixed to the AL East, it was hard for people to appreciate what was happening in Motown. Over the last few years, the Tigers added the right veterans to bolster the roster; Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, Sean Casey, Gary Sheffield and as of early November, Edgar Renteria. As the White Sox slid down the Central ranks following their title run, Detroit and the Minnesota Twins battled for the division crown until the final weekend. Both played saluchi the lead, but the Tigers would enter the playoffs as the wild card… and as the New York Yankees learned, Detroit was a dangerous wild card. The Tigers rode momentum all the way to the World Series before being defeated by Mother Nature and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Unlike those Cardinals, you knew this team would be back in 2007 to contend. Sheffield’s addition was likened to when Thome joined Chicago the season before. The team wasn’t bad offensively at all, led by MVP runner-up Magglio Ordonez. Yet, Sheffield started slow and also got hurt. Rogers didn’t rejoin the rotation until mid-June. Power reliever Joel Zumaya missed three months (and will miss time again in 2008). Outside of Ordonez, the team couldn’t muster enough offense to get past eventual division winner Cleveland.

So far, the Tigers have addressed a need at shortstop when they traded two prospects to the Atlanta Braves for Renteria. Not only is this a defensive upgrade, but offensively, he’s one of the best 2-spot hitters in the game. This allows them to keep switch-hitter Carlos Guillen by moving him to first base in hopes of getting production from a consistent sore spot.

Chicago Bears: If people thought that Common and Kanye West’s Super Bowl song was a bit premature, at least they didn’t make a song this season about returning to the grand finale this year. If there was a mighty fall this year in sports, it involves these Bears. They had a defense that suffocated any team that wanted to run the ball. They have an electric return man in Devin Hester. They have an incredible home-field advantage in Soldier Field. And last season, they had the luxury of playing there in the brutal cold and snow that blankets the Midwest in January. They dispatched the New Orleans Saints’ highly-potent offense and feel-good story to reach their first Super Bowl since the famed ’85 Bears used the same blueprint to impose their will the mid-80s NFL. Yes, they feasted from a poor division (just as the Philadelphia Eagles had done during their NFC dominance) and were able to get by with frustrating play from Rex Grossman. No matter their apparent flaws, Chicago boasted a top-five defense that created turnovers and converted them into points.

Then Dennis Green was fired in Arizona. Bill Cowher resigned from Pittsburgh. Bill Parcells retired for the umpteenth time. Marty Schottenheimer got axed in San Diego. This led to Ron Rivera, who had been the Bears’ defensive coordinator, interviewing for or at least becoming a candidate for those positions. Negotiations between him and the Bears for a contract extension fell through after all of those jobs filled up. Maybe in hindsight, this has a greater effect on the defense than originally thought, but at the time, pigskin pundits felt that there was still enough in the Bears’ favor to return to at least the NFC Championship Game. Add the Lance Briggs’ franchise-tag near-disaster. Add the debate over the quarterback position between Grossman, Brian Griese and Philadelphia’s Donovan McNabb. Add Tank Johnson’s woes. Add the decision to go with high-priced 2005 draftee Cedric Benson over Thomas Jones. Add the injuries to the defensive front seven along with cornerback Nathan Vasher. Maybe this was too much for a team coming off of the best season in twenty-one seasons.

Standing at 5-6, the only way that the Bears can make the playoffs is by help. As possible as it is that the Detroit Lions or New York Giants fall flat, don’t bank on it. There are more issues going beyond getting a wild-card spot in January for this team. For one, will Briggs return after this franchise-tag season? The weakside linebacker is guaranteed to make at least the $7.2 million per year figure based on what he’s bringing home this year and with several teams likely to pursue his services, this season’s finish just might make the decision for him. Middle linebacker Brian Urlacher won’t be pleased with losing his defensive coordinator, talented-but-troubled nose tackle (Johnson) and his ‘Will’ within a year of playing in the Super Bowl. Will the team pry McNabb out of Philly as it has been constantly rumored for about two years? What will the team look for through the 2008 Draft? A return to form is already difficult in the NFL if you’re not New England or Indianapolis, but the problem is exasperated when such drastic changes occur moments after nearing the pinnacle of the sport.

Say What?!?!: Hey, if anyone has NFL Network, could you give us poor saps with cable a play-by-play on the Packers-Cowboys game?


That Sports Chick said...

Hey Jason, it's Chi-Chi from WHCR. I totally agree. Miami is old and oft-injured. This 2007 team looks nothing like the the champs from a few seasons ago.

Even more disappointing are the Chicago Bears. It's hard to believe these guys were serious Super Bowl contenders. Their worst move was picking Benson over Jones. I lived in Chicago for a few years, and I was there when he was drafted. He's been trouble from the start, with contract negotiations and injuries. Now he's done for the season.

Oh how the tables have turned...

Jason Clinkscales said...

I don't know what it was, but I could see this coming when it came to the Bears. It wasn't just Grossman or the decision to go with Benson, but I think Tank Johnson's departure means more than anyone is leading on. You don't have to be a sack artist to be formidable on defense, but considering how at his age (just 25), he is already one of the best nose tackles in the league. Think of why Sam Adams, Ted Washington and Keith Traylor always had jobs for being space eaters, letting the linebackers and defensive ends run free.

What gets to be about Chicago is that they actually have talent on offense. They may not be as dynamic as other teams, but they have receivers that can move the chains... if they could only stop dropping the ball once in a while.