By Robert Zeglinski
There are aspects of life people can never stop protesting. Events where no matter the circumstances or context, a talking point will be shredded, recycled, shredded, and recycled again. No matter the evolution of a mindset, someone, somehow will find a bone to pick. Anyone can passive aggressively grumble under their breath. They often do. They actually relish in the opportunity to vent, sometimes out in the open. It doesn’t what matter what the issue at hand is. The smallest of displeasures from a different era can embolden the loudest of critics.
In the NFL, the customary debate along these lines is the merits of its preseason exhibitions. (That’s aside from the effects of head trauma on active and former players. Or the acceptance of domestic violence in exchange for morally devoid victories and profit adorn in scars of shunned victims. And a gluttonous need by self-obsessed owners to vacuum up every last dime and nickel on the carpet, of course. Whoa hey, they missed some in the couch cushions!)
This is a parley Matt Nagy’s Bears have already participated in to initial mixed reviews last season. By all open secret indications, they’re about to stoke the fires once more.
To begin wrapping the Bears’ last week in Bourbonnais this year, the standard “starters’ playing time” query was posed to Nagy. A preseason game against the Panthers, a game with nothing at stake, is on the horizon. Gauging the temperature of the reigning Coach of the Year and how he views his roster in early August is appropriate. When he’s at the helm of a preseason Super Bowl contender laden with esteemed veterans and difference-makers, understanding exactly what Nagy’s plan is becomes paramount. It’s Nagy’s job to not only escort this Bears roster to February, but to make sure they start their coronation with a healthy stable of players in September.
His response to a Bourbonnais media contingent was predictable. A sheepish grin on his face, Nagy knew what he wanted to allude to. He kept it terse for a reason.
“We’re still going through things with that,” said Nagy. “I think you guys know where I stand big picture.”
Since Nagy is the coach who controversially pulled the plug on Bears starters in Chicago’s fourth preseason game against the Chiefs last summer, his cryptic messaging didn’t need a cereal box decoder ring to decipher. If there’s a core Bears player on the field against the Panthers on Thursday night, someone’s made a logistical mistake. The “big picture” is that if you see any notable household Bears name this preseason, glimpses will come in cameo form: welcome for a split second borne of face-to-name recognition, and few and far between.
When Nagy pulled Bears starters last summer, the fervor of a Grabowski city was at a fever pitch. Never mind that the week previous the Bears had lost No. 2 tight end, Adam Shaheen, and No. 2 outside linebacker, Leonard Floyd, to unfortunate injury. The sanctity of the game hung in the balance. A rookie hotshot coach in Nagy hung it out to dry. It was said the unproven Bears needed more seasoning together. They needed time to develop chemistry—as if the preseason was where that was evidently going to happen. A loose cannon in Nagy ostensibly lost sight of what was important. Then the Bears went on to win 12 games and capture the NFC North for the first time in almost a decade. Saying frustration over upsetting preseason norms was in the rearview mirror would be an understatement. Objects were not closer than they appeared. They never were.
A year later the marquee Bears have everything to lose by deploying any chess piece for more than a handful of snaps this preseason. A handful of snaps might be overzealous.
Does in-his-prime First-Team All-Pro Khalil Mack need a slow tune-up? If he did, the Bears would have a bigger problem than concerns over outcries stemming from personnel decisions. The only place Mack has yet to move the needle during his illustrious career is in the postseason—a place where he has a grand total of zero sacks and zero playoff wins. A monkey on his back that he’s extremely eager to pry off his shoulders. A black mark on his resume he cannot remedy at this time of year, at this time of day, in this part of the country, and localized entirely within the preseason. Principal Chalmers can similarly attest to this notion.
Will the referendum be written on Mitchell Trubisky based on what he accomplishes against soft-shell defenses? If that was the case, a lot of NFL teams would dump their top-pick quarterbacks a lot sooner. No more wasting time or money on guys who might or not be The Man. Final evaluations on Trubisky’s pro ceiling are fast arriving and on the way. None of them can be derived from any preseason action.
Whatever heights are Bears destined to reach in 2019, no reasonable conclusions will be drawn from how they play the blandest of vanilla football. There’s a target on their back. When you have a target on your back, you’re not making a name for yourself anymore because you don’t have to. Everyone knows who you are for a reason. They’re aiming to shoot you down. This is the next logical step in progression as a team, as a brotherhood. When you stop playing for August and September; when you’re not the underdog or dark horse anymore; when you’re not catching opponents off guard; when you start reading your own press clippings, tweets, and articles; when expectations are higher than ever; when you realize and your teammates belong; that’s when delusions of grandeur don’t seem so delusional anymore. Win a division and mature over the course of an off-season, and you’re playing for January. For the first Sunday of February. It’s not looking ahead as much as staying exceptionally ambitious. Anything that can then derail the grandest of goals is inconsequential.
Every football game is an adventure in pushing the limits of the human body. That’s how the sport was designed. Getting hurt or getting injured is the closest synonym of football, of the NFL. But there’s no logical assertion to expose experienced players to additional unnecessary punishment. There’s no sound argument that placing the Mack’s, Trubisky’s and others of their ilk in the line of fire is anything but a perverse exercise in adhering to an archaic mentality. A mentality where the preseason is an inessential test of merit of a player. One can be a Super Bowl MVP at the peak of their powers. They can have surefire Hall of Fame resume to call back on. In every instance an outspoken critic demanding they dress for the preseason would be present regardless. That’s the way it’s always been done and that’s the way it needs to stay. The status quo only begets any change from what someone is accustomed to when they let, it after all. The idea that these players don’t get to play in the upcoming season until they participate on a few rote snaps at 70 percent output is accommodating a bloodlust for football. A bloodlust that will be more than satiated in the fall. But some desperately need it to be quenched months in advance.
There is no long-term perspective involved in this old-school overthinking. It’s passing a rigorous multiple choice test and meeting an illogical bar of acceptance. Sometimes one comes out unscathed. Sometimes one doesn’t and that’s when the preseason debate recycles anew.
NFL players don’t need preseason games to get in shape. NFL players on a team expected to make a Super Bowl run are already in elite physical condition. They arrive to training camp and practices finely-tuned machines. If they don’t, they quickly face an uphill battle of scrutiny and judgment from their teammates and coaches. They fall behind and their shine loses luster. Rest assured, faces-of-the-franchise and other core guys don’t need half-speed, halfhearted, lackadaisical football to be prepared for the live show. They’re either ready for the violent car crash known as an NFL game, or they’re not. Barring an unforeseen setback in health, most are. After several years in the league, a maximum of 10 snaps in an exhibition won’t shift this outlook.
August in pro football is akin to the tutorial level of any video game. It’s framed as an imperative rite of passage to every season, especially for novice players. If you’re an undrafted free agent or journeymen looking to cement a short-term job, it’s of more value to you. Anyone else on an NFL roster—be it a star, franchise player, or established starter—couldn’t care less, shouldn’t care more, and shouldn’t think about the preseason even in passing. When they visit the tutorial, it’s not their first go-around. They already understand the routine. They’ve been through the hand-holding. The path to professional success isn’t hidden for them anymore. Their groans of boredom are audible from the other room.
The Bears have a lot to demonstrate and live up to this season. None of it can happen before Labor Day. The cutscenes of their latest tutorial can’t be skipped through fast enough.
Robert is an editor and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.