By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – When the NFL unveiled a new helmet rule this past May – emphasizing that no player on the field can lower their head to initiate contact – no one knew what to make of the development.
All that anyone understood was that this was going to dramatically change play styles for every player in the league. With such ambiguity and play-to-play grey area expected, a coming storm has long been predicted over this fundamental matter. Where the league finally, mercifully simplified the catch rule this off-season, they’ve now again complicated professional football to it’s core.
It’s only fitting this helmet rule becomes a problem for the Bears before anyone even participates in games. What actually looks like a problem to only the Bears the more and more information is released.
For over a week into this year’s training camp, Matt Nagy had no relevant updates on negotiations with Roquan Smith over his rookie contract with the Bears. The coach continually leaned on cliches and insisted there was nothing fresh to divulge. He exemplified everything there is to know about coach-speak, saying nothing and something at the same time.
On Saturday with the team heading into it’s second break of camp, Nagy curiously elaborated on the helmet rule being “part of the issue” in an impasse between the Bears and Smith. He, of course, refused to go into further detail. But not before lighting a match and setting the fuse. Because by “part of the issue”, it’s the main contentious factor.
To clarify, the new and thoroughly unclear NFL helmet rule is the reason for the roadblock between Smith and the Bears as his camp holdout extends well past a week. It isn’t about money being voided from game checks for suspensions: those are league-mandated and a separate conundrum altogether. Smith can only reasonably appeal those incidents. It’s about Smith’s agency making sure there is no clause and fine print in Smith’s contract that would void any of the tangible guaranteed money from his four-year, roughly $19 million dollar deal in the event of missed time due to a suspension from the helmet rule. Money Smith decisively earned based on the NFL’s rookie wage scale and where he was drafted.
The Bears in this instance refuse to give up any ground and have drawn a hard line. This is strangely obtuse, because they seem to be the only team that has taken this stand with their top 2018 draft pick. Nagy said that “very few” players received similar voiding language in their deals, which strongly suggests that some prospects did. The educated guess here is that those who did get this voiding language included didn’t have their agents looking out for their best long term interests like Smith’s party. In essence, not enough homework was done.
The Bears say they don’t want to set a precedent for everyone else in negotiations with Smith through this rule. Unfortunately, they’ve already lost that choice.
At least not in setting a standard of voidable money. It’s too late. Other organizations have beaten the Bears to the punch in not putting this language into top picks’ deals.
Take fellow inside linebacker in the Bills’ Tremaine Edmunds at No. 16 overall, for example. He didn’t receive this voidable helmet rule language in his contract. Not by coincidence and as first reported by The Athletic, Edmunds shares Smith’s agency representation in Creative Artists Agency Football.
Take No. 2 overall pick in the Giants’ Saquon Barkley, who plays a similar major contact position at running back that could be subject to significant sanctions from the helmet rule. According to Pro Football Talk, he didn’t receive this language in his contract either. And Barkley’s represented by an entirely different agency in Roc Nation than Smith and Edmunds, showing this isn’t one group choosing to simply give the Bears a headache. They’re merely and legitimately protecting their players’ finances.
A lot has been made of Smith being the lone player that is causing a kerfuffle over this helmet issue with his contract. Well, it’s clearly not Smith that has the problem given other disclosed deals of top picks making certain they didn’t have voidable guaranteed money.
It’s the Bears being stubborn and setting an unfortunate precedent but familiar NFL precedent in a situation that’s only going to escalate.
It’s players being effectively protected by their representation and the Bears choosing to stand their ground.
It’s the Bears originally drafting Smith for his physical and fast play style at linebacker, but then ironically attempting to protect themselves in the event that his physical and fast play style costs their young face of the defense much of his livelihood due to the human element of officiating. An egregiously nefarious loophole that only perturbs them so much given evidence.
It’s hypocrisy, and a truly unfair mandate of the finest order.
Look at how this story is being processed publicly at the moment. Examine the optics the Bears are trying to perpetuate.
Nagy purposefully revealed negotiations with Smith have come to a standstill because of the helmet issue without specific clarification for a reason. For as much as he insists he doesn’t want to reveal too much because of respect for Smith and the Bears, this was the coach acting as a team mouthpiece. The same day that Ryan Pace appeared on Sirius XM Radio – an appearance planned in advance – to discuss Smith’s situation publicly. Again, done for a reason.
This was the Bears beginning their subtle public assault to pressure Smith’s camp into folding first from something only they refuse to renege from. This was the Bears attempting to reveal only as much information as necessary to push the boundary of painting Smith’s representation as unreasonable. So someone, anyone can run with misinformed context against Smith and do the Bears’ dirty work for them. They’re relying on a football culture that sees players as greedy any time they look to protect their livelihood. A culture that refuses to lambast the team involved. The Bears are innocent and Smith is not because (unclear) reasons is their argument boiled down.
The more practice and game time in the preseason Smith misses and the longer this staring contest draws on, the more aggressive the franchise is going to become on this relations front. That’s when the Bears open themselves up to more criticism as they’ll lose support with these attacks. Something Pace and company surely don’t want to invite.
The more time this goes on, reality is this is going to reflect incredibly poorly on the Bears: who are standing on hollow ground with no other foundation lean on.
The Bears say they don’t want to be used as a precedent for their negotiations with Smith over the helmet rule. They’ve lost that choice, and they didn’t have it in the first place. Their precedent is one of a hypocrisy unique to the NFL. One that rewards players for their freakish ability, but then cuts bait as soon as the ability betrays them. R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.