- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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CLEVELAND -- In times like these, when the stadium is empty, the preseason is over and we're all desperate to cleanse ourselves of the exhibition stink, the easiest cliche in the sportswriter's handbook is:
"You might say the fourth game is worthless, but it wasn't to (insert fringe player's name)."
Well, who am I to mess with tradition?
The Chicago Bears' 28-20 win over the Cleveland Browns to wrap up a 3-1 preseason slate might have lacked in star power, fans and polish, but a few fringe players stood out for the Bears and maybe earned themselves a roster spot and a chance at some real money as the team's Super Bowl-or-bust season commences.
By now, most borderline guys have an understanding of where they stand, with the second wave of cuts, after other clubs empty their benches, still encroaching. But for running backs such as Armando Allen and Lorenzo Booker, this game was a chance to prove something, especially with incumbent third-stringer Kahlil Bell getting released before the third preseason game.
And both came through, albeit against the lowly Browns and their understudies.
Allen, who fought through leg cramps during the game, led the team in rushing (83 yards on 16 carries, highlighted by a late fourth-quarter rush of 49 yards that all but ended the game) and receiving (five catches for 51 yards, all in the first half, including an 11-yard touchdown). He also added two kick returns for 44 yards and a forced fumble on the punt team.
Meanwhile, Booker had 15 carries for 81 yards and caught four passes for 16 yards. He left in the fourth with a head injury, and while he wasn't made available to the media, he was talking to teammates in the locker room and said he was fine.
Allen, maybe taking that team-first vibe to a new level, said the only important thing was getting that win, not making a name for himself. Riiigggghhhhtttt.
"I think I felt I did everything I could tonight to help our team win," he said. "That was the most important thing for us, to finish out on a good note. Tonight wasn't really about me, just looking at those guys in the huddle knowing what we went through in camp."
"Both of them played good," fellow running back Michael Bush said. "They're ballplayers. They'll play somewhere, if it's not here. Armando's great and Book's good too. We're talented in the backfield."
Who else might have solidified their spots?
Quarterback Josh McCown, who played the entire game by necessity (Jay Cutler and Jason Campbell sat, as did the starting offensive line) hooked up with Dane Sanzenbacher on a 30-yard touchdown in the first quarter.
McCown, the steely veteran, went 16-for-20 for 137 yards and two touchdowns in what might have been an audition to be the Bears' third quarterback.
Sanzenbacher was thought to be a lock for the roster after Rashied Davis was released this week. The second-year receiver out of Ohio State has been playing special teams and has the backing of Cutler.
"In a game like this, you can't get in your head, you just have to go play," Sanzenbacher said.
Sanzenbacher was a borderline guy last year and had a nice fourth preseason game. Now armed with a little more special teams experience, it seems like he has a place on this team.
"I'm not sure how the whole situation works, to be honest," he said. "I'd like to think the coaches have 90 percent of the roster made up, in their minds at least, before this game. But it's nice to come in and give that extra push and that thought in their mind, and go in and make plays."
I mock the fourth preseason game like every other red-blooded American who desires stakes in my sports-watching.
But I've never quite understood the anger about preseason football, and especially the fourth game. You don't have to watch. Plenty of other TV to watch, books to read or tweets to send.
Now, season-ticket holders have to pay, though even if the NFL ever cuts the preseason to two games, the teams will just add the lost revenue into the remaining tickets. In reality, I'd rather have a fourth preseason game so that the vendors, car parkers and assorted per-game employees get an extra check and guys like Armando Allen can get some carries.
If a fourth game is the difference between a guy making the roster, well, another reason to keep the game.
And I have to add, Cleveland is the perfect city to hold a fourth game. It's a passionate, dedicated football town full of really sad, already defeated fans. There was no inflated meaning to this game, no sense of football joy. The stadium was maybe a third full, and only a few thousand remained by the fourth quarter.
At lunch Thursday, in the suburb of Bedford, my season-ticket-holding friend implored, "They have to be better than last year!" The chatter on sports talk radio was desperate prayers about Colt McCoy's trade value (this game didn't help).
After 15 minutes or so of optimistic talk, the radio host admitted this looks like a three- or four-win team.
But while Cleveland tries to force excitement for a doormat team, the end of the preseason means the Bears' season can begin.
"It's serious time now," Bush said. "Not saying the preseason wasn't serious, but it's time to get rolling."
Next week, Forte and Bush take the carries from Allen and Booker, and McCown to Sanzenbacher gives way to Cutler and Brandon Marshall. Anything and everything is possible. Open your imaginations, because reality starts soon.
Armando Allen and Lorenzo Booker had much at stake on Thursday.