The Bears’ linebacker paradox
By: Robert Zeglinski
A linebacker was once viewed as the end-all, be-all cog of a defense. Where top-tier pass rushers wreaked havoc on the edges, where cornerbacks and safeties hemmed in the sidelines and boundaries, it was the linebacker who controlled the heart of the action; the middle of the field. A hawk patrolling the grasslands. A rabid wolf taught to “see prey, get prey,” in a forest. A hunter, and a gatherer. The epitome of self-sufficiency. A field general. Being a linebacker meant everything and in between.
It still does, but not as much. Linebackers remain important. They will always be important. Any defense worth its salt cannot function without the pliability of an even halfway passable linebacker. Hell, it’s in the name. They are backers of the line in the defensive line. The second line of the defense not meant to implode. Backup to step in once their friends can’t stand up on their own. And once they step in, you can’t “hold them back, bro.” But to justify rolling out a red carpet for every man raised to be semi-competent in seeing the ball on a cycle, means ignoring the oft-arrogant, receding tide of a game.
Danny Trevathan is an unrestricted free agent this off-season. His hotshot understudy, Nick Kwiatkoski, is also an unrestricted free agent. Two members of a stellar Bears defense prepared to pay the piper, or else risk the victimhood of unemployment and understated labor. Two of the better individual linebackers to exist in professional football, as it’s understood, in 2020. Don’t dare tell them they don’t matter. They do. Even if it’s only in their minds.
The only issue, an issue both have certainly come to terms with by now if there’s anyone with a lick of sense in their ears, is that the Bears cannot keep both. What an unfortunate rub for the all-inclusive backup.
Stark realities of the salary cap mean squeezing pennies wherever feasible. Everyone’s on a tight budget. No one can afford to break the piggy bank, and it’s not just because the little piggy is the picture of adorable. The pig is for emergencies. A smart NFL organization does not raise its financial alarms to DEFCON 1 unless absolutely, positively, necessary. Anyone with the capacity to count and do basic addition and subtraction can see just the same.
In the case of Kwiatkoski v. Trevathan, it’s having to make a difficult choice at the easiest-to-learn, most seamless position. A decade ago, retaining the services of both might have been Priority Number One. Every self-respecting general manager would never dare let two adept off-ball linebackers walk away without a glance. Each of his surrogates, be it scouts, players, or Jim in accounting by the water cooler, would say the same. It would have been a stated fact. Impossible to ignore. Sow two good linebackers, reap the benefits. If only still possessing a bevy of stellar off-ball linebackers meant possessing a stellar defense by proxy. That’s not how time, or trends, ever work.
Football will always be a game built around the quarterback. A quarterback who throws the ball well, is poised in the face of pressure, who lifts the rest of his team. You can’t go anywhere without one. Winning is impossible without pressuring the opposition’s statue with a great pass rush, and protecting your own with a great offensive line. Nowhere does a linebacker fit into such an equation anymore. Considering how seldom they appear in a quarterback’s face, it’s hard to believe math ever dictated one did. Someone’s calculator must have been broken. A number punched in wrong, overestimated.
The Bears are in a place where they cannot afford to veer away from the new wave path. They must still find a quarterback, because Halas er, Heaven knows it isn’t Mitchell Trubisky. They must find a way to protect whomever is the heir incumbent to the worst place to play quarterback in the NFL. And they must not lose the one wave of their defense, built on the prowess of elite pass rushers such as Khalil Mack and Akiem Hicks, by paying into luxury they cannot afford. Any luxury where Trevathan and Kwiatkoski both sign respective blank checks means dialing back the equation that has won oh, just about every championship in professional football’s history. You might think you can beat math. Raw, unfiltered logic is the enemy you have trained for. You are an exception because of your preparation, or because you are ready to cheat. But the equation always wins. It’s always the same calculation, the same solution in the end. Ignore it, and you’re left to weep.
It is not a painless decision to choose between rewarding one of two loyal soldiers. But that’s the scenario in play for Ryan Pace. Plenty of sleep will be lost, if outright insomnia hasn’t already set in.
Once the crown jewel of the Bears’ 2016 free agent class, Trevathan has been incremental as a leader for restoring respectability to Chicago’s defense. The 30-year-old is viewed as a very underrated defender for a reason. He won’t flash as much as a superstar, or receive as much attention, but he doesn’t have to. Plays combined with a healthy dose of skill are created by Trevathan anyway. That’s who he is: a superstar.
The other side of the coin sees a grinder waiting out a maximum opportunity. A silent, dedicated worker. The classic football drone hardwired to play football, talk about football, consume football, excrete football. (Yes, in some extreme cases, I’m sure it happens. Don’t quote me.) Ever since he was profiled as a crown sleeper of Chicago’s 2016 draft haul, Kwiatkoski has never complained. Roquan Smith, the man both Trevathan and Kwiatkoski want to play alongside for the foreseeable future, took Kwiatkoski’s job by force. Nary a peep was heard from the four-year veteran. It wasn’t his place. It still isn’t. When Smith and Trevathan had their share of injury issues last fall, Kwiatkoski’s silent strength finally paid off. He broke out. He showed a premier defense it had more depth than the sum of its incandescent, irreplaceable parts. He also earned himself a lucrative payday, and that’s both here and there. Here in that the Bears are likely ill-equipped to feed into his desires. There in that he’ll find a comfortable home regardless of what dotted line the Bears do or don’t sign.
Where the line between these two Bears’ hallmarks is drawn is simple. The crucible of age. Betting on Trevathan in the short term means betting on already short-term title window. He’s the veteran. One of the ventricles of the heart of a defense. Taking on the younger Kwiatkoski translates to a higher and more steady output over a longer period of time, but perhaps a horizon the Bears may never see again. He’s a prescription of adrenaline to the arm, so long as your prescription remains affordable.
The Bears have their own self-imposed linebacking arbitration to sift through. They would do well to remember one hunter, one field general, is more than enough.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.