Bears key to 2012 and beyond: The "Flex" Factor

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Bears key to 2012 and beyond: The "Flex" Factor

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. Beyond the error-plagued efforts on the first day of Bears training camp were signs of something else happening besides balls bouncing around on the ground, on the offense in particular but also deeper down.

Call it the flex factor. It is something that has been subtly running through the 2012 Bears and may be one of the true keys to the current and future fortunes of the organization.

Consider: The Dallas Cowboys of Tom Landry were famous for their 4-3 Flex defense. It was a scheme that had some defensive linemen on the line of scrimmage; some a little back from it; most players in a one-gap system; one in a two-gap.

And no one quite able to figure out where everyone was, where they were going, or exactly what they were doing.

If you were watching the goings-on Thursday, you were seeing a different kind of Flex taking shape.

A Flex offense
In theater, action is character. So it also is in the NFL.

On the first play of Thursdays team session, quarterback Jay Cutler passed off a rollout to his right. After a quick-release throw on second down, running back Matt Forte burst untouched through the middle of the line and was just about to St. Louis before he decided to stop and jog back.

It went on like that. Indeed, the exact character of the 2012 offense was difficult to discern from what was on display Thursday.

That would in fact be the whole idea, perhaps the theme in all of what is developing under offensive coordinator Mike Tice.

The Minnesota Vikings ran an eclectic offense while Tice was their head coach. He had his Randy Ratio for wide receiver Randy Moss, yet a tight end led his teams in receptions twice.

Tice coached and played under Dennis Green, he of the classic West-Coast-offense tree, and also played under Chuck Knox, of Ground Chuck notoriety for his run-based thinking.

Tice was Bears offensive line coach the last two years and the one most responsible for bring balance to the offense in both 2010 and 2011 after it had lost its compass under Mike Martz.

Jeremy Bates was hired this offseason as quarterbacks coach but is the de facto passing-game coordinator even without the title, according to insiders. Bates, Cutler and Brandon Marshall had huge production in Denver under head coach (and West Coast practitioner) Mike Shanahan.

(A side note: Marshall also caught 101 passes and had a career-high 10 TDs the year after Bates, Cutler and Shanahan all left. The message here would be that Marshall does quite nicely no matter what the system the designerprototype Flex receiver.)

What has become amply evident, however, is that where both Martz and predecessor Ron Turner were strict adherents to their systems, the new Chicago Bears offense may be difficult to pigeonhole precisely because its not wedded to one system.

Its going to be a combination of all of our coaches and our ideas, and coach Tice is flexible, as long as you really explain it and it makes sense, Bates said Thursday.

Coach Tice is going to bring his knowledge and so is the rest of the staff.

The Emery Element

The flex factor was in evidence off the field as well on Thursday.

While analysis of Phil Emerys background understandably focused on organizations of which he was a part, perhaps more immediately more relevant were the systems for which he provided personnel.

Unlike some general managers, Emery brought with him zero absolutes on schemes. He was part of staffing the 4-3 two-gap scheme of Dick Jauron and Greg Blache, with 290-pound defensive ends and 350-pound defensive tackles keeping blockers away from Brian Urlacher.

In Kansas City, where Emery was prior to Chicago, the Chiefs ran one of the few true 3-4 schemes and ranked just outside the top 10 in points allowed and yardage the past two years.

He was hired in Chicago with a 4-3, one-gap coach in place and made a 260-pound edge rusher the No. 1 draft priority.

But the Thursday trade of a late-round draft pick to Tampa Bay for defensive tackle Brian Price was a flex in a completely opposite direction.

Price is listed at 343 pounds. The biggest defensive tackle on a Lovie Smith team has been Alfonso Boone at a paltry 318 pounds.

Price may very well not make the 2012 Bears roster (he did not fare well in the conditioning test in Tampa). But he was a No. 2 pick and at a time when starting nose tackle Matt Toeaina is 308 pounds, the Bears are looking outside the tackle box at options.

The NFL may be a passing league but the Bears are making sure than they do not get run on, either.

In that, they are decidedly not flexible.

Royals delete sympathy tweet to White Sox following sweep

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Royals delete sympathy tweet to White Sox following sweep

For the third straight game, the White Sox bullpen was unable to hold off a late rally by Kansas City. Sunday's 5-4 loss to the Royals extended the White Sox losing streak to six games and gave the Royals a three-game sweep over the White Sox.

But the Royals weren't done with the White Sox just yet. They took to Twitter to offer their "support" to the struggling south-siders, posting a GIF of White Sox outfielder Melky Cabrera hugging Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer in a previous series, and asking if the White Sox need a hug. The tweet has since been deleted, but no need to fear, we have a screenshot for you. 

Take a look.

The White Sox could use a lot more than a hug at this point. 

As they get set to take on the Mets in a three-game series beginning tomorrow at Citi Field, hopefully what happened in Kansas City stays in Kansas City. 

Alexander Rossi pulls off stunning upset in 100th Indy 500

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Alexander Rossi pulls off stunning upset in 100th Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A new era for the Indianapolis 500 arrived in the form of a most unfamiliar driver.

An American, no less.

Alexander Rossi outlasted his faster rivals — and his fuel tank — for a stunning victory Sunday in the historic 100th running of "The Greatest Spectacle In Racing." The unlikely win allowed the long-suffering Andretti family to celebrate in the biggest race of their storied careers and it left the top drivers in the field fuming over Rossi's good fortune.

Rossi was a 66-to-1 long shot and certainly not the driver anyone would have picked to win. But the 24-year-old Californian used fuel strategy to outsmart a handful of drivers who had the most dominant cars in the race.

Rossi stretched his final tank of gas 90 miles to cycle into the lead as others had to duck into the pits for a splash of fuel in the waning laps. He was sputtering on the final lap, working his clutch and getting screamed at by team co-owner Bryan Herta to conserve fuel, and he ultimately ran out of gas after taking the checkered flag.

His victory celebration came only after his Honda was towed to the party. He sat in the car for some time before climbing out to take that sweet sip of milk.

"I have no idea how we pulled that off," he declared.

"I really was focused on taking it one lap at a time," Rossi said. "The emotional roller-coaster of this race is ridiculous. There were moments I was really stoked, really heartbroken, really stoked. I was like, 'Wow, I'll need to see a psychiatrist after this.'"

Rossi didn't have the speed of Carlos Munoz, who was charging hard over the final 50 miles. But Munoz also had to stop for gas and didn't have a chance to race his teammate for the victory, even though Rossi was running on fumes and completed the final lap at a snail's pace of 179.784 mph.

The Colombian settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Andretti Autosport. He seemed devastated after his second runner-up finish in four years.

"I was really disappointed when it comes with fuel and you lose the race because of that," Munoz said. "I was really disappointed to get second. Half a lap short. What can I say? The only thing I'm clear about is that I will win this race one day."

Munoz has contended at Indy before and he's proven to be fast at the speedway.

Rossi? Well, not many know much about him at all.

He's an IndyCar rookie who has chased a ride in Formula One since he was 10. He left for Europe when he was 16 and never pursued a career in American open-wheel racing. But stuck without a ride this year, he made the decision to return to the United States to race and became the ninth rookie to win the 500 and the first since Helio Castroneves in 2001.

Rossi understood full well that it was strategy that got him this win, and he knows what an Indy 500 victory means.

"I have no doubt it's going to change my life," he said.

Although he's a relief driver for Manor Racing in F1, Rossi has no scheduled F1 races and IndyCar right now is his top commitment. He was lured back to America this year to drive for Herta in a partnership with Andretti Autosport. Herta was the winning car owner in 2011 with Dan Wheldon, the actual 100th anniversary of the first race in 1911, and now can claim a win in the 100th actual race.

"I can't compare (the wins) other than to say I am so happy," Herta said. " I can't overstate how hard it was for Alex to do what I was asking of him on the radio."

This Herta effort relied heavily on its alliance with Andretti, and the family was hoping Marco Andretti would give them their first Indy 500 title since patriarch Mario Andretti won in 1969.

Instead, Marco Andretti never contended on a day at least three of his teammates were clearly among the best in the field. Ryan Hunter-Reay and Townsend Bell combined to lead 64 of the first 119 laps, but the Americans were knocked from contention when Bell clipped Castroneves as he left pit road. The contact caused Bell to crash into Hunter-Reay.

"Ryan and Townsend looked really good up front, we thought they would be the team to beat," team owner Michael Andretti said. "Unfortunately, they had their problem in the pit, which I could not believe, and I thought that may have been our shot at winning."

Herta decided to gamble with Rossi on fuel strategy, and it's the only thing that made him a late contender.

As the laps wound down, American Josef Newgarden and Munoz repeatedly swapped the lead. Both had to stop for gas, Rossi moved into the lead and it was all his from there.

Michael Andretti earlier this month was voted by the 27 living winners as the best driver never to win the race, but he has now won the 500 four times as a car owner.

"I knew Alex was going to try (the fuel strategy), and we said 'Alright, if he's going to try it, we're going to try something else (with Munoz)," Andretti said. "To come home 1-2 is just incredible. It was amazing. I don't know what to say, it's a great day, to be a part of history, to win the 100th running, and to win it with a 1-2 finish is just incredible."

Newgarden finished third and was followed by Tony Kanaan, Charlie Kimball and JR Hildebrand as Chevrolet drivers took spots three through six.

Newgarden, along with Hunter-Reay, Bell, Kanaan and James Hinchcliffe, had the strongest cars most of the race. Hinchcliffe, the pole winner who missed this race last year after a near-fatal accident in a practice session, faded to seventh despite being one of the best cars in the field.

"If I was in Alex's position, I'd be the happiest person in the world right now, I wouldn't care how we won the damn race," Newgarden said. "Everyone was on different strategies, and they played that strategy. Those guys, to put it politely, weren't as strong as us. They didn't have as strong a chance to win, so they had to mix it up. It worked out at the end for them."

In front of the first sellout in Indy 500 history, Rossi stunned the more than 350,000 fans in attendance. He was in Monaco this time last year for F1's signature race, unsure of what his future held.

"I had no idea I'd be in IndyCar, I had no idea I'd be in the Indy 500," said Rossi, who becomes the 70th winner in race history.

He will now also become the 103rd face on the famed Borg-Warner Trophy.

How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

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How Ben Zobrist is finding the fountain of youth with Cubs

Joe Maddon laughed when a reporter mentioned the sense of renewal the older Cubs players are feeling now after signing as free agents, enjoying life on a young team with the best record in baseball and the vibrant atmosphere in Wrigleyville.

“They’ve been born again?” Maddon said. “That’s because they’re around Zobrist.”

Maddon can smirk because he knows Ben Zobrist’s journey to the big leagues so well after managing the Tampa Bay Rays for nine seasons. Zobrist, the son of a minister, grew up in downstate Illinois, played at Olivet Nazarene University and helps organize chapel services for his teammates.  

But even Maddon hasn’t seen Zobrist play at a higher level than right now, watching this hot streak continue during Sunday afternoon’s 7-2 win over the Philadelphia Phillies in front of 41,575 at Wrigley Field. 

“I’m trying to figure out myself if I can keep this up, to be honest,” said Zobrist, who turned 35 last week. “It just helps when you feel like things are going well up and down the lineup and we’re going to score a lot of runs. It kind of frees your mind up to be able to just try to see the ball and hit it.” 

That’s what Zobrist did in the third inning against Vince Velasquez, the talented 23-year-old right-hander who began the day with a 2.75 ERA, a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout on his 2016 resume and a prominent spot in Philadelphia’s rebuilding plan.

Zobrist launched a three-run homer that flew out toward the right-field bleachers, bouncing into and out of the basket, extending Zobrist’s hitting streak to 15 games, giving him 34 consecutive starts where he’s reached base safely and leading to a three-game sweep of the Phillies (26-24).  

“He did have it when he was a baby – he always had a good eye at the plate,” Maddon said. “The difference is when guys get a little bit older, a lot of times they have to commit to pitches sooner. That’s when it goes away, and that’s when they start chasing a little bit more. He’s still quick and short to the ball, so he doesn’t have to commit early.

“He’s covering a greater variety of pitches more consistently. Off-speed, fastball, he’s covering everything probably better than he did when he was younger.” 

Zobrist needed to spend parts of three years with Tampa Bay’s Triple-A affiliate before finally establishing himself as an everyday player for the Rays during his age-28/All-Star season in 2009. 

Now Zobrist is getting “Benjamin Button” references for his age-reversing start to this season.  

“Do I look younger?” Zobrist said. “It’s a matter of just continuing to grow and mature as a hitter. You got to keep doing that. No matter how old you are, you’ve never arrived in this game. This game humbles you quick. And you got to try to stay on top of it.”  

That’s why the Cubs wanted Zobrist’s switch-hitting presence in the middle of their lineup, making the Starlin Castro-for-Adam Warren trade with the New York Yankees during the winter meetings and signing the game’s premier super-utility guy to a four-year, $56 million contract.

“Man, he’s raking right now,” pitcher John Lackey said. “When he gets up at the plate right now, we’re just kind of wondering which direction the hit’s going to go. When he gets out, it’s more of a surprise right now.”

Zobrist probably won’t win a batting title – he’s now hitting .351 –  and he can’t keep getting on base 45 percent of the time. He pointed out that he didn’t have great at-bats on Sunday, striking out twice and grounding into a double play. But the Cubs have clearly felt the effects from his age-defying start.   
 
“Probably the best I’ve ever had, to be honest,” Zobrist said. “I’ve had some good stretches where I got a lot of hits. But as far as feeling comfortable, seeing the ball, putting good swings on the ball, this is probably the best it’s been for any three-, four-week stretch of time.

“You ride it out as long as you can.”

Maddon keeps thinking about how to manage the workload, to make sure Zobrist stays healthy throughout the season and fresh for October, and thinks focusing on one position (second base) should help. But right now, Zobrist is in the zone.  

“Sometimes hitting feels like you’re holding napkins down in the wind,” Zobrist said. “I got to do this and this and this and this. And then you got the ball coming at you. But lately I haven’t even had to do that. That’s the crazy thing about it. After I do my pregame work, I feel pretty locked.”