Thursday, January 2, 2014

Cutler's haul, Lovie's comeback & Metrodome memories

My wife and I were having dinner at a restaurant tonight when she saw Jay Cutler on the TV in the bar. "What did he do now?" she asked.

I squinted hard and saw exactly what he had done: signed a $126 million contract that includes $54 million guaranteed.

And so, one of my biggest NFL offseason questions -- What would the Bears do about this coach-killing, talented-but-never-quite-good-enough QB whose contract was about to expire? -- was answered before the playoffs even began. (Playoffs for the other teams, of course. Cutler failed to get the Bears there for the fourth time in his five Chicago seasons after going 0-for-3 with Denver.)

I suppose the Bears couldn't let such a talented player simply walk away. But now they have tethered themselves to this enigma for most of this decade.

I wouldn't have done it. I'd have franchised him and seen how he played in 2014. But what do I know ... except that he has one career playoff victory, that he never has thrown 30 TDs in a year, that he attempts at least a half-dozen stupid passes just about every game, that he goes through head coaches and offensive coordinators faster than some guys go through a buffet line, that he turns 31 in April and that he has become injury-prone?

Anyway, the Bears have their man for several more years. Just as they had him for the last five. And we saw how good that turned out to be.


And speaking of coaches that Cutler chewed up and spat out ...

Lovie Smith is back, this time with the Buccaneers.

If he's given some talent to work with, Lovie will do a good job. He no doubt learned a lot about what worked and what didn't. There are many examples of guys who struggled in their first job, got fired and came back to be outstanding coaches; Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll leap to mind. And Lovie had a lot more success in his first job than they did.

Lovie and I definitely were not close during the years I covered him. I disagreed with many of his decisions and I thought he needlessly made excuses for his players. They seemed to respect him, however, and he did win a lot more games than he lost -- not something many Bears coaches can say. He also got to a Super Bowl, another accomplishment that has eluded every Chicago coach not named Ditka, my friend.

Smith deserved a second chance as much as anybody.


The Metrodome -- that great pimple on the Minneapolis skyline -- has hosted its last sporting event and soon will be demolished.

It was a horrible place to watch baseball games and was as sterile a football environment as could be found anywhere, but I'll always have a lot of fond memories of the stadium in which I covered Twins and Vikings games from 1985-94 It was my first full-time sportswriting job, and the AP office was located right across the street from the Dome. I spent a lot of hours in that dump!

A few Metrodome memories that immediately pop into my head:

Game 6 of the 1987 World Series. When Kent Hrbek hit a grand slam to give the Twins a 10-5 lead over the Cardinals, I have never heard a more deafening din in a stadium.

Game 6 of the 1991 World Series. The late, great Kirby Puckett put the Twins on his back and carried them to an 11-inning win over the Braves.

Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. What a game! Jack Morris pitched 10 shutout innings and Lonnie Smith made one of the biggest baserunning blunders ever to cap off perhaps the greatest World Series ever.

Scott Erickson's no-hitter in 1994. It was the first no-no I ever covered. What made it especially amazing was that Erickson had allowed more hits than any other pitcher over the previous two seasons. That's right: The most hittable pitcher in baseball threw a no-hitter. I love that.

Herschel Walker's Vikings debut in 1989. When Walker returned the first Green Bay kickoff 51 yards, the Metrodome was up for grabs. Then, on his first play from scrimmage, Herschel went 47 yards -- the final 15 after his right shoe fell off during a defender's futile attempt to tackle him. By the time the day was done, Walker had rushed for 148 yards and the Vikings had a rare victory over the Packers. History shows that the Cowboys easily "won" the famed Herschel Walker trade, but that's not what the national pundits were saying after Walker's Vikings debut. More than a few were saying Vikings GM Mike Lynn had fleeced Jimmy Johnson.

Ditka rips Harbaugh in 1992. With the Bears leading 20-0, Jim Harbaugh audibled out of a running play and threw an interception that Todd Scott returned for a touchdown. Ditka went ballistic on the sideline. And after the Vikings came back to win 21-20, the coach was still fuming in the interview room: "I'll just say this: 'If it happens again, there will be changes made and they will be definite and they will be permanent.' I'm not gonna put 47 players' futures in the hands of one player who thinks he knows more than I do." How priceless is that?

The 1992 Super Bowl. I don't remember much about the game, in which the Bills got whipped again (this time by the Redskins). What I do remember is that I had just returned to work after missing nearly two weeks with a horrible case of the chickenpox, which I had caught from my son. My face still looked like the lunar surface and I still felt like hell. The game was the middle leg of an incredible seven-month run for the Metrodome that began with the '91 World Series and ended with the '92 Final Four.

Yep, even dumps can create some wonderful sports memories.

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