CHICAGO -- Covering preseason football is all about finding the storylines.
Here's one for you: Why play this game at all?
Charging regular-season ticket prices for the fourth game of the preseason is the biggest boondoggle in professional sports. Check that, charging fans $46 for parking at a preseason game is boondogglier, but that's another story.
Paying good money (as opposed to Monopoly money) to watch Jay Cutler hand off six times before exiting is one thing. Paying it to watch the first-string defense play one play, thanks to a Zackary Bowman interception on the first pass of the game, well, that's a kick in the you know what.
"They were going to play one series, no matter how it ended," Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith said of his defense during halftime of the Bears' 26-23 win over the Cleveland Browns. "We didn't get a whole lot done, aside from that interception."
"They were pretty excited," Bowman said of the first-teamers. "That was our goal, just to go in there, get a turnover and for those guys to get off the field."
I have to give Bears fans credit for their stimulus spending and their abundance of team spirit. When Brandon Rideau caught a third-quarter touchdown pass that wound up tying the game, the "fourth phase" erupted in applause. Not only that, but the stadium was still three-quarters full, at least. I guess I'd stay 'til the bitter end, too. It's not like there's traffic on Lake Shore Drive after a game.
You couldn't have paid me to watch this game as a fan. I don't care if my name was Jonathan Ryan Rideau.
The status of the fourth exhibition game has been a hot topic in the NFL for years. With the owners and players negotiating on a new collective bargaining agreement, there has been debate on adding two regular-season games and taking away a preseason game or two.
Owners, of course, love hosting two exhibition games. It's free money. Most players don't mind, because they don't play. Maybe it only seems like a guy gets injured in the fourth game every season, but it came true Thursday when backup running back Kevin Jones sprained his ankle in the first quarter. Jones could miss a month, and who knows, if he's out too long, maybe his spot on the roster.
Should they just cut the fourth game already? Well, not if you know the guys trying to make the roster.
"I don't want to comment on that, because it's for guys trying to make this team," said center Olin Kreutz, who didn't play at all. "Forty guys [actually 22] are going to lose their job [Saturday] and this was a big game for them. There are going to be guys waiting for that call and I don't want to say it doesn't mean [anything] just because it's doesn't mean much to me. It means a lot to a lot of people."
Technically, that's true, but Smith said he won't be wrestling with any decisions based on this game, which makes you think this could've been settled already and the guys who are the last cuts could already be in another camp.
"I don't think there are any tough decisions," Smith said, "because we've been evaluating these guys all along. We're going to have to cut some good football players."
For the record, cuts will be made on Saturday, if you're contemplating getting "Rideau" stitched on your jersey.
Rideau, who has been cut a few times since going pro in 2005, now has to sweat out the next day to see if he made the team. He's the kind of guy Kreutz is talking about. Even though Smith said there's no bubble, per se, Rideau is probably fighting for that last receiver spot with Rashied Davis, who didn't play and is a little banged up, Smith said.
"Honestly, as far as my performance, I feel it wasn't the best preseason I've had," Rideau said. "But hopefully I did enough that they'll keep me around."
You can't help but root for a guy like Rideau. But personal dramas aside, from a big-picture standpoint, this game was as exciting as sitting in traffic on Lake Shore only to sit in more traffic on the expressway.
I don't want to be the complaining sportswriter, frustrated with the middling problems of our time (let's see, war in Iraq, health care crisis ... preseason football ticket gouging), but after watching Cutler come on the field for six straight handoffs and the Browns starting Brett Ratliff at quarterback, I don't see how you can take this game too seriously.
Heck, Cutler said he didn't even bother to take a pregame toss. Why send him out there at all if all he did was hand off?
"I have no idea," he said, laughing. "Talk to Lovie, I guess."
No one had any idea. Since Cutler made it to the sidelines without stubbing his finger on a handoff to Jones, it was a moot point.
Last week's game in Denver was fun. It had a charged atmosphere because of the whole Cutler-comes-home story. The starters played the first half. This was scripted like a high school game early on: Run, run, run, run, run, missed pass in the flats, run.
There was a buzz in the crowd when Caleb Hanie and Star of the Game Johnny Knox hooked up on a 43-yard pass just before the two-minute warning in the first half. Knox caught the high pass, stopped, and spun right past defensive back Corey Ivy.
The next play, however, Hanie got sacked for a 7-yard loss. Then Garrett Wolfe lost a yard trying to bounce a run outside, and Hanie overthrew Devin Aromashodu near the end zone, and fans were delighted with another Robbie Gould field goal.
Wow. Sorry, that's all the play-by-play I can muster.
Knox caught two passes for 62 yards, returned a punt for 38 and five kicks for 135 yards.
"He looked good," Cutler said. "It was a fourth preseason game, but he looked good in the return game."
The end-of-the-string defense had trouble corralling the playmaking quarterback from Tarleton State, the immortal Richard Bartel. The inclusion of Bartel forced everyone to wonder where the heck Tarleton State is.
"I thought I knew every college in the country," former college football player Rick Telander mused in the press box.
I had an inkling Tarleton was in Texas and I was proved right. It's in Stephenville, Texas, and the most famous alum, aside from Bartel, is probably former Cubs reliever Chad Fox. So there you go.
Aside from Tarleton history, here's what I learned:
Battling-for-a-spot defensive end Ervin Baldwin looks nothing like his long-lost brother Billy Baldwin.
Backup fullback Jason Davis doesn't like you, or your "junk" crowding his locker after a game.
Knox is very, very fast.
Bowman can totally outguess a third-string quarterback.
My old college classmate, Browns punter Dave Zastudil, can still hit that coffin-corner punt.
It's time for the regular season to begin.