Bears Notebook: Battle with Smith continues but teammates unwavering in support
By Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS – Immediate impact. That was the calling card of Roquan Smith when the Bears drafted him in April. A player that would immediately inject tenacity and freakish instincts as a three-down linebacker into Chicago’s defense. Immediate impact in the sense of finishing a defensive unit on the rise. That is, whenever Smith actually gets to the playing field.
We’re now at 16 days of Smith’s holdout from Bears training camp as both parties have drawn a line in the sand divided on key issues like an ambiguous helmet rule and grey area contract language higher-ups at Halas Hall refuse to renege on. Smith and his camp believe they are fighting for NFL players’ labor rights, while the Bears believe they’re making a stand for the league. You couldn’t get more stubborn.
Sixteen days, also known as officially the second longest rookie holdout under the NFL’s latest Collective Bargaining Agreement started back in 2011. Only the Los Angeles Chargers’ Joey Bosa, who held out for 31 grueling days in 2016, waited longer before reaching an agreement with his team.
Tellingly, Matt Nagy said on a light walkthrough Tuesday that the Bears’ negotiations with Smith were at a “stalemate.”
Sixteen days, with no signs of stopping any time soon.
Yet for as much time as Smith has already missed and will continue to miss, it doesn’t seem to be bothering the Bears at all. Otherwise they would’ve made a concerted to get Smith to sign on the dotted line sooner. The fact of the matter is, the holdout doesn’t seem to be bothering the people that one would be worried about the most: Smith’s teammates.
Throughout the last few days, two of the Bears’ most prominent leaders in Danny Trevathan and Sam Acho – the Bears’ NFL Player Association Representative – each spoke up in effusive support of their rookie cohort. If they thought his holdout was being selfish or representative of a me-first attitude, they sure didn’t show it.
“He’s (Smith) got some catching up to do, but we’ll get him caught up to date with no problem.”said 2016 captain Trevathan of Smith acclimating into the Bears’ defensive scheme whenever he returns. Trevathan has in regular contact with the young linebacker, and isn’t the least bit concerned.
Meanwhile Acho, the man that should be most dialed-in as to how Bears players conduct themselves in areas such as contract disputes as the team’s union rep, refused to lambast Smith’s dealings. Acho, who is seemingly always beaming with a pearly-white smile, praised the rookie’s approach more than anyone.
“I’m going to let him use his time to do his thing and figure out what he needs to figure out,” said Acho, who hasn’t been in contact with Smith. “But he can take his time, man. I got his back. Regardless, I think everyone on the team does. I can speak for everyone on the team when I say that.”
However long Smith’s contract situation takes to get resolved with whatever ultimately is the final solution, rest assured that it’s not going to ruin any team chemistry or brotherly bonds. Football is a business and livelihood first and foremost, and the Bears are firmly in the corner of their prized rookie.
Sixteen days, they can go on forever.
Unfortunate test subject
Smith’s impasse with the Bears (supposedly) over the NFL’s helmet rule has not taken away focus from how it will affect the rest of the roster. This is an issue every team across the league is still learning how to deal with, and watching film and instructive tape in seminars can only do so much. No one knows how initiating contact with your helmet on any play is going to be officiated until games are played.
Luckily (or unluckily) for the Bears, they get to be one of the league’s first lab rats as they travel to Canton, Ohio to play the Baltimore Ravens in the Hall of Fame Game this Thursday. They get to be featured in the first bubble of a rule that either dramatically changes how we view football as we know it, or is sparsely enforced as more of a placeholder as an “example” of safety.
Never to shy away from unforced adversity but confused at the prospect of a rule, Nagy and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio elaborated on how many Bears will respond to changing a manner of football they’ve played their entire lives.
“This game’s been played a certain way for a long time and it’s going to be hard for some of these guys to naturally not do that. That’s what they’ve done,” said Nagy of guys lowering their helmets. “We have to understand that there’s going to be times where in a crucial game there’s going to be something called and you’re just hoping you’re not on the wrong end of it too often. We gotta teach our guys right from wrong.”
That’s the emblem of a green head coach not making excuses for his players. Whether this rule costs the Bears valuable results or not, especially early on, it doesn’t matter. Part of playing successfully under an incredibly stringent rule is accepting that it won’t always go in your exact favor.
Fangio, ever the old school surly boss of a defense looking to make a leap, was not nearly as kindhearted to taking the rule’s guidelines in stride. He’d be lying if he thought it was going to positively affect the Bears’ defensive play without a sample size to draw from.
“I’ve shown them plays where I think we can definitely adjust,” Fangio said of how he’s applied the rule. “I think there are some plays that will be hard to adjust. We’ll just have to keep working on it.”
The rub is just that: where players won’t be able to adjust. Where the human element takes over of a judgment call. Though, like Nagy, the defensive guru in Fangio refuses to make excuses for his players. They have no choice but to adjust, like players have in every era in the past. You can’t last if you don’t adapt.
“One of the most non-football rules ever put into football was the five-yard illegal contact rule. If coaches from the ’60s rose from the dead today they would want to go back in their grave with that rule,” said Fangio. “And we’ve adjusted. I think they’ll eventually adjust.”
Only time will tell whether Nagy and Fangio’s admirable stances have basis for a glass half full of optimism, or whether it’s a competition committee pushing the boundary of advocating for player safety a tad too far. R.
Robert is a writer and producer. He’ll be with the Bears all through training camp. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.