Competition vs. friendship on the O-line: Bears aim to stay close

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Competition vs. friendship on the O-line: Bears aim to stay close

Because it pushes already competitive individuals sometimes even more, competition for positions is a good thing.

Dont necessarily tell that to the players with jobs at risk, particularly along the offensive line, traditionally the closest-knit group on any football team.

Long-time Bears center Olin Kreutz always maintained that the most unpleasant time in his distinguished career was the 1999 training camp and preseason competition he went through vs. Casey Wiegmann.

The reason had nothing to do with acrimony or bad feelings between the two. It was that each knew that the loser was someone who deserved to be an NFL starter.

Kreutz went on to become a six-time Pro Bowl center and started 183 games for the Bears. Wiegmann was voted to the AFC Pro Bowl as a member of the Denver Broncos and at one point had a 127-game streak of consecutive starts.

Then 2012 training camp has been the proving ground for JMarcus Webb and Chris Williams at left tackle. Both have started at the position; both have started at right tackle as well.

Unless a calamity befalls Gabe Carimi at right tackle, either Webb or Williams will no longer be a starter.

In a meeting room and position group built on closeness, a measure of strain among friends would be understandable.

Not at all, insisted center and Bears co-captain Roberto Garza. Both guys are true professionals and weve spent a lot of time together, but this obviously has nothing to do with the friendships.

Its got everything to do with them just showing the coaches that they deserve to be the starting left tackle. Nothing gets in between us.

Competitions are going on elsewhere. Chilo Rachal and Ricky Henry are challenging guards Chris Spencer and Lance Louis. But the starters in each case are established rather than in the kind of competition involving Webb and Williams.

And much of the upheaval along the offensive line over the past couple of seasons has been the result of injury rather than straightforward Player A beating out Player B.

The one with arguably the most to lose right now is Williams, who becomes a free agent after the 2012 season. But Webb is desperately in quest of establishing that he was not the pass-protection disaster that he became in 2011.

Its a big position to be in for both guys, Garza said. Its Chris contract year and JMarcus is trying to establish himself as well. So its going to be very competitive and important for our team.

Both know the stakes and the terms of the competition.

It doesnt affect me too much, Webb said. You just got to come out here and do your job, get better every day and help your team out.

For Williams, who has lost tackle jobs before, theres always pressure, he said. Everyone has a job to do the whole team and we just got to come out and do our best to be explosive and take care of our part of the bargain.

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Nikola Mirotic, Bulls show some moxie in road win over Bucks

Whacked on his ailing left hand by Khris Middleton, Jimmy Butler shook off the pain to hit a rare triple in transition while Middleton was complaining for a foul a couple possessions later.

Butler then darted into the passing lane for a pass intended for Jason Terry like a linebacker jumping into the flat for an interception, then trotted down for an uncontested dunk to give the Bulls an unlikely 17-point lead.

For the man who claims he’s the best football player in the NBA, playing through the pain and doing so with his team’s playoff hopes dwindling, Butler may finally have some believers to his boasts.

Not only did the Bulls avoid a season sweep to the Milwaukee Bucks with a resounding 109-94 win at the BMO Bradley Center Sunday afternoon, they restored a slight sense of pride after looking like they had none of it Friday night in their loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

Butler scored 20 with a career-high 13 assists in a grinding 39 minutes, but he could play the role of a semi-closer, making those big plays in the fourth when the Bulls pulled away.

Instead, it was March Madness as Nikola Mirotic played up to his career numbers in his favorite month on the calendar, drilling five triples on his way to 28 points and eight rebounds in 35 minutes.

Mirotic and Rajon Rondo helped the Bulls to a decisive double-digit lead in the third quarter with Rondo scoring 14 of his 18 points in the period, hitting a triple, getting into the lane for layups and dishing out a few of his eight assists.

It was an offensive masterpiece for the Bulls, a prospect that seemed highly unlikely given the opponent and the way they played coming into Sunday’s contest. And with the Bucks getting Giannis Antetokounmpo going early along with Middleton, it looked like a nightmare of a different kind was in store for the Bulls.

But Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg wasn’t about to let an instant replay occur, having seen his own version of a “Nightmare on Madison Street” Friday night against the woeful 76ers when his backups let time stand still for minutes at a time, squandering a double-digit lead.

Hoiberg decided not to mess around with the second unit as the Bucks began pulling away in the same manner the 76ers did Friday night. He brought the starters right back in when the lead ballooned to 45-33 at the 8:29 mark.

Then the Bulls went to work to finish the half, with a 23-10 run, along with starting off the third as efficient as they had been in awhile against a worthwhile opponent, shooting 14 of 21 in the period to take a 91-79 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

Mirotic was seven of eight from the field before halftime and his first miss of the third—a 30-foot triple that went wide right, wound up in a 3-point opportunity for Rondo, who scooped the ball and scored on a layup while being fouled.

It was that kind of afternoon for the Bulls, a team that can’t seem to decide who they want to be on a nightly basis—making it that much harder for an opponent to predict, that much more difficult to eliminate from the playoff conversation.

Cubs expect Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell to be ready for Opening Night

Cubs expect Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell to be ready for Opening Night

MESA, Ariz. – The Cubs expect Ben Zobrist and Addison Russell to be ready for Opening Night, downplaying any health concerns about their All-Star middle infielders. 

One week out from facing the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, manager Joe Maddon spent part of Sunday's media session saying how he had no concerns with his World Series MVP's stiff neck and his franchise shortstop's stiff back.

"You can tell with 'Zo,'" Maddon said at the Sloan Park complex. "He'll come around and let me know specifically if he feels it's going to be anything longer than that. He's talking either tomorrow night or the next day."

Zobrist, who spent nine seasons with Maddon's Tampa Bay Rays, hasn't appeared in a Cactus League game since March 19. Maddon also signaled Russell is close to returning to action after being a late scratch from Friday's lineup.

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Not like this, but the Cubs already planned to schedule extra rest for Zobrist, given his age (36 in May), the playoff stress on his body from back-to-back World Series titles and emerging options like Javier Baez on a mix-and-match team. 

All along, Maddon hasn't worried about finding enough at-bats for Baez, knowing that injuries are inevitable and the Cubs have insurance policies up and down the roster that should pay off across a 162-game season. But in this case, it doesn't sound like the Cubs are testing that theory with Zobrist and Russell.

"None of this stuff is really threatening," Maddon said. "The trainers have no real strong issues with anything. It's almost like you'll be overly cautious right now. And that's all we're doing."