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SportsMonday

By Jim Coffman

Here's a neat little microcosm of why the Bears are where they are and the Vikings are where they are heading into this evening's 2009 Soldier Field finale.

A few years ago, the team from Minnesota identified guard as a primary need and proceeded to reel in the best guy available. Many thought the Vikings overpaid ($49 million) for former Seahawk lineman Steve Hutchinson, but with the help of a "poison pill" clause in their contract offer, Minnesota had the man to spearhead its rushing game (and help seal off opposing pass rushers) for the foreseeable future. The Vikings made the deal happen by including language that would guarantee its entire value (most football contracts only completely lock in signing bonuses) if Hutchinson wasn't the highest paid offensive lineman on his team.

Seattle, which had recently given perennial All-Pro tackle Walter Jones (who has since fallen off dramatically) a bigger contract, wasn't going to sign on for that and Hutchinson was gone.

Despite finding themselves in possession of almost limitless salary cap space earlier this year (they went into the regular season with a total payroll more than $20 million under the limit), general manager Jerry Angelo tried to fill his needs on the O-Line on the cheap. He signed former back-up Frank Omiyale from the Carolina Panthers to a contract paying him a tiny fraction of what Hutchinson makes. Omiyale played tackle for the Panthers but the Bears slotted him at guard, hoping he could be the physical presence they needed in the middle of the line they needed to combat, in particular, the Williams Wall. That would be Pat and Kevin Williams - the un-related defensive tackles who line up for . . . the Minnesota Vikings. On several occasions in recent seasons, Bear veteran center Olin Kreutz was too often seen being blown back into his own backfield by one Williams or the other. The hope was a stronger force at guard could help Kreutz hold the point up front.

It didn't quite work out. In fact, Omiyale, who was handed the starting job despite being outplayed by Josh Beekman in training camp, was benched before the Vikings obliterated the Bears in Minnesota earlier this month.

Angelo's Word
Speaking of Angelo, does he really have the chutzpah to fire Lovie Smith at the end of the season and to thereby maintain that he is worthy of hiring Smith's successor?

Angelo wouldn't go back on what he said when he hired Smith, i.e., that this was the last time he would hire a head coach (insinuating strongly that when the coach was done, he was done), would he?

I understand the McCaskeys are unlikely to eat the remaining years on Angelo's contract as well as those on Smith's deal but still . . .

At least with his comments last week, the ones where he declined to offer any measure of support for his head coach, Angelo hinted strongly that he won't be trying to sell the "we'll just change the offensive coordinator and get right back on track" line.

Talent Show
Here's another question: Do the Bears have enough talent to cut guys in order to "send messages" to other players that they better shape up?

I don't think so.

Some have advocated dumping Kreutz, who made his discontent known last week, in just such a fashion.

I always wonder what people think player-leaders in Kreutz's situation should be saying - his team is getting killed and he's supposed to just keep mumbling the same cliches?

On the other hand, while a fan dreams of his team making trades from surpluses of talent (if the Bears really think Beekman is ready to step in at center then that position would qualify), NFL squads rarely trade for a guy when there is even a hint he might be released. So a trade of the 32-year-old Kreutz seems unlikely. Maybe the Bears should try to trade Beekman. While Kreutz needs strong guards beside him, he is still a smart and tough signal-caller (for the line) who could well still have several solid seasons ahead of him.

Around The League
* Oy but Colts rookie coach Jim Caldwell made a mess of it late Sunday, benching quarterback Peyton Manning in the middle of the third quarter with a five-point lead over the Jets and essentially giving away the game and his team's chance of finishing the season without a loss.

In a decade of quarterbacking, Manning has never missed a start due to injury but there are still those, starting with Caldwell and his mentor, former coach Tony Dungy, who think sidelining Manning to counter the microscopic chance of injury was the right thing to do.

For years too many people, from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on down, let Dungy get away with what only can be described as damaging the integrity of the game, essentially throwing late-season contests (by substituting woefully incompetent backups for Manning) that didn't impact the Colts' playoff positioning.

And the most ridiculous thing is that doing so actually negatively impacts Indianapolis' playoff readiness.

On several occasions this decade, the Colts have been upset in playoff games against lower seeds after losing their focus late in regular seasons. A football team cannot turn off its intensity and then expect it to magically return on command. Competition doesn't work that way.

Dungy lucked out in 2006 when his underperforming team (relative to what it had shown it was capable of earlier in the season) ran into a Bear team that played even worse in the Super Bowl.

Otherwise, the Colts would have gone championship-less in a decade in which they set an NFL record for overall victories.

The question is whether Caldwell throwing away not only a game but also a shot at a perfect season will finally force league officials to say what they should have said long ago - that teams are to play all games to win.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman rounds up the sports weekend in this space every Monday. He welcomes your comments.

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