By Robert Zeglinski
It’s no secret the Ryan Pace led Bears have been molding a franchise with discipline, organization, and all of the cliché frustrating assessments you will hear from a general national NFL analyst.
However, there’s a reason you hear these overused soapbox rants.
They have a measure of merit in how successful a team can eventually be and whether that summit is ever topped. A championship winner doesn’t make mistakes and sticks together. The team left standing in February has a complete semblance of unity and talent, a dangerous but entertaining mix. It’s what you’ve seen when the Patriots have been at their best or in other sports, when everyone’s new favorite team to hate, the Golden State Warriors, are running on all cylinders.
It’s basically the perfect example of your general high school football movie climactic speech put into motion. Pick one, any one. The players believe in each other, they have the talent to overcome, and they have the confidence. This might be what people mean by momentum in football even if it feels like a sham from the outside.
For all of the feel-good instilled in the Bears recently with guys “buying in” (again, it’s probably just best to not fully go along with these clichés as a fan for the sake of mental sanity), there’s been a situation that looms over one of Chicago’s best and most important players.
This is, of course, calling into question the uber-talented 26-year-old star receiver, Alshon Jeffery.
In early June with no consequential football activity, it feels odd to bring up a player like Jeffery who if you look at everything on paper, (3,728 yards and 24 touchdowns in four incomplete seasons speaks for itself) should have fans ecstatic over what he brings to the field. Yet as in always in professional sports, and really in any craft at any level, there comes the issue of compensation for service.
Jeffery to this point still hasn’t attended anyone of the Bears continually growing kumbaya mini-camp OTA’s where the brotherhood is being facilitated.
This situation pertains to the wideout only being signed to a franchise tender, not a long-term deal. Jeffery and his camp are doing their own form of rightful protest (it all depends on the perspective you take) by training hard for the upcoming season but sending passive aggressive messages by having that training not involve any teammates with no attendance at Halas Hall.
It’s a simple scheme any James Bond villain would love that many other stars have executed to a tee before. We can’t be sure if Jeffery follows a similar script when the time comes.
This isn’t an easy to bridge to cross for Pace and head coach John Fox. According to the Chicago Tribune, contract discussions by Pace have been “cordial and “productive”. It doesn’t take an advanced translator to recognize that means discussions haven’t really progressed whatsoever if Jeffery is still yet to appear in Lake Forest.
You can really tell things have gone haywire when you note that Jeffery made the trek up to Wrigley last week for the first pitch of a Cubs game but then promptly went back down to Florida to train in his program without even visiting team facilities. With the Tribune further reporting that it’s unlikely Jeffery gets a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline by the league for such contracts, you see the difficulty in wrapping the tension together.
Think of it like a Bears awkward family Thanksgiving dinner but there’s no one to say grace.
If we take a look at both sides of the standoff, there will be an opportunity for understanding.
From the Bears’ point of view, Jeffery missed half of the 2015 season and missed a lot of his rookie 2013 campaign due to injury. A rational person may look at the injuries as bumps in the road but a major sports enterprise sees a risky investment like any stockbroker.
Jeffery is without a doubt a top-tier number one receiver but that’s purely when he’s ready and able to play, at least in the team’s eyes. If he wants to be paid approximately $15 million (his franchise tender is $14.6) like other franchise wideouts, he has to prove he can stay on the field even if he’s proven he can consistently produce.
Evidently enough, the Bears either believe the injuries Jeffery has sustained have become a pattern where he isn’t taking care of himself or where he lets simple nagging injuries hold him out that others would play through.
There’s severed trust in the shadows here.
It’s the right of way in a league that purely sees players in a “What have you done for me lately?” spotlight.
Yet in Jeffery’s mind, he also has plenty of leverage.
All of these playoff aspirations and bids for contention have the air popped out if Jeffery isn’t a viable contributor either due to injury or his contract situation. Yes, recent teams have won the Super Bowl without superstar talent on the outside, but that’s not how this roster is being constructed for Jay Cutler and his offense.
A Chicago offense without Jeffery even if rookie Kevin White lives up to the hype in the coming years, is demonstratively worse. It’s likely the Bears know that same harsh truth which is why they can only send subtle messages through press conferences as any head coach or front office member has done with their players before so as to not alienate the 26-year-old.
And then there’s the ultimate win-lose scenario where Jeffery goes out and dominates in the fall playing all 16 games, helps the Bears into the playoffs, but earns himself greater contract offers from other teams, potentially rivals, and potentially pricing himself out of a relative perfect situation on the lakefront. While the Bears have a lot of cap space (approximately $26 million at the moment), they would be wise to avoid letting things escalate to that point, because you can never go wrong in having more roster flexibility.
It’s called “betting on yourself” and it worked out well for a previous young Chicago star athlete (see: Saad, Brandon).
One thing’s for certain, a future breakup wouldn’t be pretty, as these two are better together than apart. This relationship has a lot of tested patience.
Peace treaties are sometimes signed five minutes to midnight, after all.
Follow Robert on Twitter: @RobertZeglinski.