By Robert Zeglinski
One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is recurring memories of one’s trauma. In addition to upsetting flashbacks, as well as mental and physical reactions to stimuli, someone with PTSD is constantly reliving their trauma with no choice. They feel they need to be always on guard, either broadly in defined strokes, or often more specifically in the one realm of their life where their trauma occurred. It’s an overcompensation wrought by unfortunate insecurity. It’s instinctively reacting to failure as if one has to shift their world view to make sure they aren’t pained again.
Anyone can suffer at the hands of some form of PTSD. Anyone can be a victim to their unfortunate devices in pursuit of success. Even the Bears and Matt Nagy, who continue to dwell on the one issue most plaguing a Super Bowl contender: reliability at kicker.
Five months out from the end of the Bears’ 2018 season and the story of Cody Parkey’s disastrous lone season in Chicago lives on in infamy. For one, his 2018 sits alongside the most maligned individual and team performances in the Bears’ 100-year up-and-down existence. On modern terms, it’s in line with the walking zombies known as Marc Trestman’s 2014 team as it was just as humiliating for everyone at Halas Hall. In a town known for treating quarterbacks with the least-softened toilet paper, a kicker, inexplicably, was the most famous player and for all the wrong reasons. A fact that won’t change come this fall; whoever takes over as the Bears’ kicker might as well have a Scarlet Letter painted on their back.
That’s what happens to guys like Parkey when they miss 11 kicks, not least of which easily the most meme’d gaffe in team history to end a playoff run before it had a chance. A vapid Parkey national television appearance to garner unwarranted sympathy after the fact changed nothing: the kicker had one of the worst seasons by any player at any position on any team in Bears history.
The Bears’ fixation on avoiding the mistakes of Parkey’s past, including a questionable free agent contract, in this realm are understandable.
They have too complete of a roster, too talented of a team, to let almost nine months of grueling work go down the drain again on one leg of one unreliable man. Their commitment to bringing in younger, unproven kickers like Elliot Fry and Eddy Pineiro and give them a shot to distinguish themselves shows as much. They got themselves into this mess by not putting their kickers through the ringer enough, and there’s time to patch over the pothole. They want to learn from their mistakes, and they don’t want what should be a preventable ailment to be what holds them back from the greatness they think they deserve. They want to place the trauma of Parkey’s season, of his fateful miss on a national stage, in the rearview mirror and stop exhaustively reliving its aftermath in their heads. In other words, they’re preaching to the Chicago choir.
But the underlying sentiment to their approach thus far, all quality competition aside, only serves as a disservice to letting the wound heal. If anything, they’re letting it fester. There’s not forgetting your mistakes and oversights as to learn from them, and then there’s heavy-handed obsession covertly dragging your operation down.
There was the glorified kicking derby in early May where the Bears hosted eight candidates, most of which had minimal experience, if any, kicking in the league. At a glance the concept itself was sound. Let it play out like a tournament and let the best few stand out from the muck and earn their keep for the summer. The Bears thought they cleverly added to the dynamic when they made each green kicker make attempts from Parkey’s supernaturally infused – because the Bears infuse it with that much power – distance of a number at 43 yards. The results, with only two of the eight young men nailing it through the uprights at Halas Hall, were predictable.
Matt Nagy’s comments on the situation oozed frustration that surely hasn’t ceased. This is a man who prides himself on having every detail accounted for. He hires people to self-scout his offensive schemes weekly as to make sure he’s evolving on the smallest of levels throughout the entire season. He ingratiates himself to his players by being himself and in turn created some of the most potent chemistry on a Bears team in years. These are aspects of football and leading he can control, that he prefers to control. To lose his professional agency with an unpredictable roll of the dice at kicker should be a familiar concept. Nagy’s not used to unforeseen circumstances getting in the way of his goals. Every obstacle seen on his playing and coaching career has been met with passionate energy and optimism. On every occasion he’s found a way to thrive, to smile, while never letting reality win.
For Nagy to do everything right, and for life to decide to give him lemons anyway has to be vexing. When he doesn’t yet know how to react to the new challenge, its mystifying effect multiplies.
“Two for eight, that’s not good enough,” Nagy told reporters. “Now I will say this: We always look at the end result of what happened, which is 100 percent what matters, but as we’re learning, two of those eight holds and snaps, it wasn’t 100 percent … That’s why after today we’re not going to go out and make rash, brash decisions or anything. We’re gonna play it out.”
Having each kicker, a psychologically delicate position no one in their right mind knows how to evaluate – the craftiest minds on Draft Twitter can’t think of a reasonable system – attempt from the blundering distance that defined their predecessor doesn’t seem like a calculated decision. It’s rash and screams of desperation. You can’t hide behind cryptic coach-speak messaging in this: emotions are always worn on the sleeve.
“They know loud and clear why,” Nagy indignantly told The Athletic when asked to clarify why he had each kicker attempt a kick from 43 yards. Everything is fine. Nothing to see here. Please disperse.
How do the Bears continue to feed this madness a little over a month later?
They start treating their doe-eyed kickers like world class golfers. They institute a rule of “Augusta Silence”; complete silence in practice every time a kicker has to make an attempt as to ratchet up pressure with the exact tense bubble a Tiger Woods might have to face for the green jacket. Never mind that the thought process makes little logical sense; rarely is it completely quiet in a raucous NFL stadium. Never mind that a kicker enters his own isolated world out on the field before a pressure attempt; the metaphor between the lines the Bears are haphazardly aiming for. This insistence on putting the weight of the past on guys who have never taken professional snaps carries no water.
The following week, as the three remaining kickers attempted a 43-yarder and missed in front of a gathered crowd, was predictable. Three guys who have never professionally kicked before crumbling at the prospect of walking before they know how to crawl. Before they know how to stand on their own two feet.
As they break for the summer, the Bears have mishandled dealing with their kicking demons at every instance. It looks like they’ve become reactionary and to make matters worse, haven’t had enough self awareness to realize it. They’ve actively tried to sabotage themselves, almost as if they had so little to worry about they had to make a mountain out of a kicking mole hill.
Everything they’ve done in the 2019 off-season is a sign of someone who has lost the independence to healthily look ahead. It makes each unproven kicker on their roster carry the extra unnecessary mental weight of Parkey’s fall with them as they try to win their first major job. Instead of letting them walk in with a clean slate and learn to make pressure kicks on the fly, like every special kicker has, Robbie Gould included, the Bears and Nagy are forcing the process.
If there’s no foolproof method to evaluate regular position players, then there’s no surefire path to glory with kickers. One thing is for certain: if unicorns such as Gould or the Colts’ Adam Vinatieri had to undergo these same kind of insecure obstacles back when they started, they wouldn’t have been nearly as successful. Reliable kickers aren’t made. They’re random, and gain a needed steely nerve as they go. Or, they don’t. As much as it may pain control freaks like Nagy, you can only know a kicker has “it” the moment a game, or your season is on the line.
The Bears are not letting destiny take its course while minding their business the way good, mentally tough teams do. They’re dwelling on the past, instead of transcending past it. They’ve put themselves on a hamster wheel with no sign of slowing down. They’ve magnified their kicking problem, making it A Thing, when they could’ve proceeded without any unneeded fervor. They’ve disturbingly kept it flowing in the background as much as they attest none of 2018’s horror matters to them anymore.
If Nagy, and the Bears following his lead by extension, are going to get over the trauma of their kicking horrors, they have to start getting over it by trusting their new kickers more and starting anew. They have to give them the benefit of the doubt to give the rest of their team the benefit of the doubt and let everyone appropriately move on.
They have to stop overthinking it and reliving their playoff pain. As backwards as it may sound, they have to start digging up.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.