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Interview: Chris Willis, Author of “Red Grange: The Life and Legacy of the NFL’s First Superstar”

| October 10th, 2019

The Vaudeville posters of Red Grange.


Chris Willis is the head of the Research Library at NFL Films. He is the author of multiple books on early pro football, including The Man Who Built the National Football League: Joe F. Carr (2010), Dutch Clark: The Life of an NFL Legend and the Birth of the Detroit Lions (2012), A Nearly Perfect Season: The Inside Story of the 1984 San Francisco 49ers (2014), and Walter Lingo, Jim Thorpe, and the Oorang Indians: How a Dog Kennel Owner Created the NFL’s Most Famous Traveling Team, all published by Rowman & Littlefield. Willis was nominated for an Emmy in 2002 for his work on the HBO documentary The Game of Their Lives and won an Emmy in 2016 for his work on HBO’s Hard Knocks: Training Camp with the Houston Texans. He was awarded the Professional Football Researchers Association’s Ralph Hay award for Lifetime achievement in pro football research and historiography in 2012.


Folks, I rarely recommend books to you. So you know when I do it’s a damn good. This is a damn good book. You can order it HERE. And I recommend you do.


MY QUESTIONS, HIS ANSWERS

DBB: I don’t like to give too much of the book away in these interviews because we want people to go out and buy the damn thing. So first, a process question. This book is huge. It’s dense. So where do you start with a subject like Red Grange? And feel free to get super literal. Like, what did you actually do first, second…etc.?

CW: When writing a biography I usually start from the beginning with the individual. With Red Grange I started with his family tree and worked my way to him. The process usually starts with interviews, and since Red passed away in Jan. 1991 there were some individuals around who could talk about knowing Red and giving me their experiences with Red. Those interviews are sprinkled throughout the book. Second, it was off to visit the places where Red lived. So I visited his birthplace, Forksville, PA; his hometown where he grew up and went to high school, Wheaton, IL; then University of Illinois for college; and then the city of Chicago where he played the majority of his NFL and pro football career.

Retraces these stops were vital to telling the story of Red and getting to know him in a deeper form. Third, it was going through research material that included books, magazines, photos, game footage, old interviews with Red and the most important element, newspapers.

I spent hours and hours going through microfilm and on-line, trying to find any articles on Red and going through every game he played in high school, college and the pros. I know there have been a few previous volumes on Red but I wanted this To be the definitive bio on him so I covered his entire career and life, some parts (like his mother, post-NFL career in radio & TV, acting) had never been covered before. So that’s why it’s a very detailed biography.


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When it Comes to Local vs. National Coverage, Consider the Fox & the Hedgehog

| October 9th, 2019


Last January I had a flight booked for Chicago, a flight I had to re-book multiple times because I had an ear infection and then vertigo.

I also had a ticket bought for the game (which Jeff still owes me for) and was consuming as much talk about the Bears as I could find. I didn’t miss one of what must have been 70 episodes Hoge & Jahns did leading up to the game, and also listened intently to a bunch of national podcasts for any mention of the team. 

And mention them they did.

I vividly remember listening to Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal breaking down the playoffs on the plane. Their analysis of the Bears, representative of the national media at large, all revolved around one man: Mitchell Trubisky. Will he be able to beat the Eagles? What can he do with his feet? Is he a liability or an asset? The Bears’ fortune, in their eyes, was completely dependent on our second-year quarterback. That’s not unreasonable, of course. Trubisky clearly had some ups and downs in the season and, more importantly, every fan of the team has a long-developed, involuntary flinch when their QB drops back for a deep pass.

So that’s what Hoge and Jahns were talking about, right?

Nope.

They spent the whole episode on the kicker.

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ATM: Pressure on Nagy to Fix Bears Offense

| October 8th, 2019

The weeks after the bye week will tell us a lot about the Bears head coach and whether he really is the genius he was portrayed as or just another in a long line of coaches who got off to hot starts, but couldn’t adjust.

Typically, teams with great coaches excel in the area of their coach’s expertise. That isn’t a good sign for Nagy, whose Bears are 28th in scoring and 30th in yardage through five games. That comes after they struggled for much of the second half last year, including just one offensive touchdown in a playoff loss.

The offense is broken and Nagy needs to fix it.

The problems start at the offensive line where the Bears made an offseason decision to swap Cody Whitehair and James Daniels, a move that has made them definitively worse at two positions. Add in the clear regression of Charles Leno Jr. and an aging Kyle Long and you have one of the worst units in the league.

Then, of course, there are issues at quarterback. The move to 202 stalled out when Nagy admitted they had to simplify the offense for Mitch Trubisky. A simplification isn’t a bad thing, but it’s the second time they’ve had to do that this year, cutting back after they broke training camp. We were told not to read too much into that.

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Rapid Fire Reaction to a Disheartening Loss in London

| October 7th, 2019

It’s very hard to analyze a game from inside the building. You really have no idea what’s going on. But here are a few points:

  • The building was 80% Bears fans. And the lack of run defense took them entirely out of the game. Bears had zero push up front.
  • Charles Leno is officially a problem.
  • David Montgomery has to absorb contact almost immediately upon every touch. He’s in an impossible spot back there.
  • Chase Daniel processes the field in slow motion. The Bears has open receivers all over the field but Daniel (a)took too long to identify them and (b) almost never put the ball in the right spot. If the backup is playing, the Bears aren’t winning.
  • Allen Robinson is a great player.
  • Anthony Miller is not. Yet.
  • Khalil Mack spends a lot of time on the sideline.
  • This was the first time in two years I’ve seen so many wide open receivers running through the Bears defense. Just an off day or did Jon Gruden figure something out?

3-2. One game back of Green Bay. In position to have a season but with A LOT of improvement needed. The bye week comes at a perfect time.

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Bears & Raiders in London Game Preview, Volume II: The Football Stuff (Mostly)

| October 4th, 2019

The George Inn. My favorite pub in London.


Why Do I Like the Chicago Bears This Week?

I always like the Chicago Bears.

And they are not losing in London, with Reverend Dave and I in the building, all hopped up on bitter ale.


Trite, Boring Thoughts on the Raiders (Stolen From Data’s Twitter)

Data had a stream of Tweets early in the week but I fear they were lost in the Monday excitement. He is one of the best follows on Bears Twitter and I recommend you give him a follow. Here are his thoughts:

  • Derek Carr has been sacked only 8x in 4 games this year. 4th fastest time to throw of any NFL QB, 4th shortest average throw. This feels like a game where the Bears need Roquan Smith, not Nick Kwiatkoski. Gonna be a lot of underneath stuff in coverage.
  • In the running game, Oakland runs inside a little more than outside, so in that regard Kwit would fit right in plugging the interior run. When they do run outside, the Raiders heavily favor the right by a 2:1 ratio.
  • 2 of Oakland’s 3 most targeted players have among the 15 shortest average target distances among all NFL WRs and TEs. Waller is 4th shortest TE at 4.9 yards/target, and Renfrow 3rd shortest WR at 6.4 yards/target. Together they account for about 45% of all Carr targets in 2019.
  • Looking now to Oakland’s defense, this is a game the Bears should find success through the air. Raiders giving up 8.1 yards/attempt (23rd), with 9 TD and only 1 INT for a passer rating of 106.8 (25th).
  • Some of that is because Mahomes lit them up, but Flacco and Cousins both posted a passer rating >100 against them, and Brissett threw for 3 TDs. Their pass D is bad, in no small part because they can’t rush the passer (only 5 sacks through 4 games).
  • Oakland’s run D is actually pretty solid, coming in at 16th in rush yards/game and 11th in yards/carry.
    • Editor’s Note: Dalvin Cook rushed for 110 on only 16 carries against them.

Tweet of the Week (kinda)

I found this story incredibly moving.

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Bears & Raiders in London Game Preview, Volume I: The Poem

| October 3rd, 2019

“London Snow”


She broke my heart,

in London,

in the lobby of the Bridewell Theatre.

It was snowing outside and

Brits do silly things in the snow.

Grown men in Savile Row slacks become

children on a Swindon schoolyard,

tossing snow balls and giggling,

and saying things like “jolly”.

She regretted that decision,

she would tell me later.

Maybe she was afraid.

Or maybe

it was just the snow.

 

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Can the Bears Defense Make Quarterback “Just Another Position” & Other Questions at the Quarter Mark

| October 2nd, 2019

Four games are now in the books. Here are four questions for the Chicago Bears.


(1) Can the defense make quarterback “just another position”?

When Mitch Trubisky went off the field Sunday, for what looked like a significant period of time, there was a feeling of “uh oh, season over”. Then Chase Daniel stepped in and it just…wasn’t. Nobody would argue the Bears are better long-term with Daniel behind center. But there have been plenty of Super Bowl champion defenses – Dilfer’s Ravens, Big Ben’s first Steelers, Peyton’s Broncos – who have carried mediocrity at QB to a title. Normally backup quarterback = losing. But could the Bears defense be good enough to change that equation?


(2) Can they keep their starters on the field?

The Bears have suffered more injuries and weirdness in a month than they suffered all of 2018. Bobbie Massie vertigo? Roquan Smith personal reasons? Hicks, Trubisky, Nichols and Long hurt. Gabriel concussed. Eddy Pineiro hurt his knee doing what exactly in the weight room? It’s beyond cliched to write an NFL season is a war of attrition but there’s truly no better to state that obvious fact. Look at how narrow the gaps are at the top of the NFC. It’s very likely the team making it to Miami in February will be the team that stays healthiest.


(3) Where is the run game?

The Bears are bottom ten in both yards per carry and rushing yards per game. Not sustainable. Not when the roster is constructed the way it is in Chicago. The Bears have not been as good as expected in the middle of their offensive line but one can only expect a more comfortable Daniels and hopefully-healthy Long will improve as the season moves along. That coupled with a commitment to David Montgomery should get things going, right?

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ATM: Wims Deserves a Longer Look

| October 1st, 2019


Even after Taylor Gabriel exits concussion protocol and returns to the starting lineup, Matt Nagy must find a way to keep Javon Wims on the field. The second-year WR did not dominate on Sunday. Far from it. And he certainly isn’t getting confused for Randy Moss anytime soon. But his performance against the Vikings stood out enough for him to be given a chance to help this offense escape their current rut.

His presence gives the team another big target, which could be help a quarterback who struggles keeping the ball down. Chase Daniel used Wims’ size multiple times in the game, most notably on a 37-yard lob that helped the Bears get out of the shadow of their own end zone. The pass ended up being under thrown, but Wims made a nice adjustment in the air to make it look like a back-shoulder throw. Daniel probably wouldn’t have thrown the pass if he didn’t think the receiver could win a jump ball.

Wims can adjust in the air. That we knew. But that played showed he can also get deep. He roasted Trae Waynes and it would’ve been a much bigger gain had the throw been on-target. That speed is new to Wims and something Prince Amukamara noted in the off-season:

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Bears Dismantle Vikings, Prove Themselves Title Contenders

| September 30th, 2019


Normally this space, at this time, features what I call “rapid fire”. Because I insist on having new content by the time Chicago wakes up, which I arbitrarily deem to take place at 5 AM CT, “rapid fire” lets me pile a bunch of random thoughts, with absolutely zero structure, onto the blog. I don’t promote it on Twitter. I’m not particularly proud of it. It’s basically twelve or thirteen bullet-pointed Tweets. It’s not filler. But it’s close.

Yesterday’s performance by the Chicago Bears requires more than a mailed-in Monday. Because yesterday’s performance by the Chicago Bears was about a championship caliber team delivering a championship caliber performance in the face of adversity. Their defensive battery – Akiem Hicks and Roquan Smith – were not on the field. Their young quarterback was out for the game (and seemingly far longer) before most of the Soldier Field faithful got to their seats. They had every excuse Sunday to lose. And instead they did what we have come to expect in this new Matt Nagy era: they dominated their opponent.

It’d be easy to write about Khalil Mack today. He’s the most explosive defensive player in a Bears uniform in my lifetime. (Did the Raiders trade him to the Bears…on purpose?)

It’d be even easier to write about the The Two Nicks, Williams and Kwiatkoski. These supposed depth pieces looked like All Pros.

It’d be even easier than that to write about Chase Daniel, a journeyman backup many fans wanted cut this summer because he failed to develop rapport with Tanner Gentry in fake games. Yesterday he recorded a 101.4 passer rating against one of the league’s best defenses. (And yes, this was slightly higher than Aaron Rodgers fared a few weeks back.) Did he have to do much? No. Did he do exactly enough? Yes.

[Check out Peter King’s excellent post-game conversation with Daniel HERE.]

Many thought the Minnesota Vikings would win yesterday and assert themselves in the NFC North. Even those who picked the Bears had a difficult time seeing the contest as anything but a tight one. There were five individuals picking this game in the Sun-Times sports section. Three had the game 13-10. One had the game 15-12. One had a shootout at 21-20. Five picks with an average differential of 2.6 points.

The game was decided by ten and it didn’t feel anywhere near that close.

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