By: Robert Zeglinski
BOURBONNAIS-Never mind the return of the NFL’s No. 1 reigning defense, with nine starters from 2018 set to reprise roles. Forget a revamped and more versatile running back room led by the star power of Tarik Cohen. The story of this Bears summer was always going to center on the kickers. The moment their 2018 campaign ended on the leg of Cody Parkey, the microscope was to intensify on potential replacements. And that intensity wouldn’t wane until the powers that be found an answer. As much as anyone at Halas Hall would like to shift attention to more positive storylines, scrutiny at kicker carries the burden of the day, of the week, and of the season.
Normally the quarterback is the talk of Chicago. Every throw, every practice, and every game is dissected to the point of grating exhaustion. It’s an accepted rite of passage. But on an otherwise complete roster, the Bears’ gaping chasm of a question mark at kicker takes center stage. It’s an anxious platform to stand on. A platform no can be certain doesn’t have a secret trap door.
So as the Bears practiced in front of their fans for the first time in the 2019 season, an almost-perfect outing from Elliott Fry did a lot to alleviate palpable tension.
The 24-year-old rookie from South Carolina went 7-of-8 on major field goal attempts on Saturday. Each kick of increased distance, save for an unfortunate initial attempt wide left, cut through the hot Bourbonnais air like a sharp butcher knife down the middle. Each instance, from a meager 30 yards, to the hallowed ground of 60, looking nearly identical in approach. If there was a hint of a breeze, let alone any wind, it wouldn’t have phased Fry. If there were occasionally poor snaps, it didn’t matter. Fry found a rhythm and knocked kick after kick after kick after kick through both uprights like a routine practice. He had been there before and done that, except he hadn’t. It’s unfathomably early to make any sweeping judgment, but Fry managed himself as if it were any other day. His approach was as if Bears’ had no issues at kicker. This was the opening salvo from a kicker treating a up-for-grabs job as if it’s his to lose. He has no intention of surrendering any ground.
The Bears have posited a lot of measures into place to fix their kicking mess over the past six months. Most notable was team-mandated silence before every attempt by a kicker in organized team activities. It’s early, but the Bears were understandably pleased. Their grand old and unnerving kicking plan is working.
“It was a pretty good day for our kicker (Fry), for what he did,” said Matt Nagy. “You saw what we did with the Augusta Silence in OTA’s. That’s nothing compared to the pressure he just went through.”
Whereas being true to yourself, having fun, and other cliches was how the Bears chose to operate during Nagy’s rookie season, pressure is ostensibly the buzz word of this Bears’ season. The transition from cool youth pastor and trusted friend at the YMCA basketball court, to lead guru of a Super Bowl contender demands this shift. No where is the pressure more escalated, isolated, and condensed into a fragile bottle of angst than at kicker. Even if was only practice, for Fry to shine in his introductory test in front of the public spoke volumes as to how this kicking competition can and should unfold.
Adversity can derail an entire season for the fragile psyche of a kicker. It’s about how you weather the storm after a miss while understanding you’re going to get another shot. A shot you can’t miss. A shot you know in your heart of hearts that you’ll nail every time. For Fry to nail seven straight attempts after an opening miss was the epitome of a kicker keeping his cool. One miss is but one miss. Nothing more, nothing less. Now don’t let it snowball. If a mandated alternating schedule designed to let Fry and Eddy Pineiro establish a harmony is any indication, then the Bears’ heavy-handed grasp of this situation might be vindicated.
“We don’t care about weather, we don’t care whatever the script is for that practice, whatever happens for that day that kicker can mentally prepare for that day,” beamed Nagy. “Today was Elliott’s day. Tomorrow is Eddy’s day.”
There’s a method to the madness. If you’re Fry or Pineiro, it’s time to embrace the madness and let it completely envelop you. Nagy was happy to elaborate on his designs behind the method.
“There’s pros to doing it this way,” Nagy said. “I was thinking about some of the pros at Augusta or when you’re at a basketball camp in a free throw contest, where you miss one and get a few more shots. Or when you’re at Augusta and you have to wait 10 minutes before your next shot in front of a crowd. This let him (Fry) get a rhythm, and he did great.”
A rough spring of kicking and little bloom feed into the worst insecurities of anyone with an inkling of emotional investment in the Bears. That’s now in the rearview mirror, steadily but increasingly getting smaller as the Bears drive away. Enter a summer marked by a new hope. Get the caravans loaded and rolling along. A heated competition to be the kicker for the best Bears team on-paper in decades is underway. The fireworks are just getting started.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.