1985 Bears Coverage: A case of waste for Bell and Harris

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Every day of the 2015 Chicago Bears season, Chicago Sun-Times Sports will revisit its coverage 30 years ago during the 1985 Bears’ run to a Super Bowl title.

A case of waste for Bell and Harris

Ray Sons

Originally published Nov. 24, 1985

I wish the Bears had signed Todd Bell and Al Harris.

That’s easy for me to say, because it isn’t my money. I never take sides in financial wrangles between professional athletes and their teams, because I don’t comprehend sums beyond my electric bill, and I figure it’s none of my business, anyway.

In this case, however, I can’t bite my tongue, or keep my typing fingers in my pockets. I think there is a terrible waste of a year in the lives of two young men, and no amount of money can buy back a year, or a day, for any of us.

Saturday afternoon was the deadline for signing these players and having them available for the playoffs. The Bears are 11-0 without them, and may be able to win all games through the Super Bowl without their help.

Dave Duerson, though not nearly as versatile as Bell, is doing an excellent job of filling in for Bell at strong safety. Wilber Marshall has performed so well at outside linebacker that Harris would not be able to dislodge him.

Still, there is a waste, because Harris and Bell are exceptional athletes. They should be playing football, here or elsewhere.

I don’t know who is at fault. Maybe none of the parties to the deadlock have erred; maybe all have been too obstinate. This much seems evident: The system doesn’t work.

Jerry Vainisi, the Bears’ general manager, told me the other day he hadn’t talked to Bell’s agent, Howard Slusher, since the first week of October. Vainisi hadn’t talked to Harris since Oct. 15, when a deal the Bears had worked out to send him to Detroit fell through because Harris rejected the Lions’ offer.

Vainisi stated the Bears’ position this way:

“We made them an offer we felt was competitive and reasonable and within our salary structure. When they didn’t accept it by the time the season started, in our opinion, the price went down. We felt it would be disruptive to bring them back late. The team would have suffered by trying to make adjustments for their absence and would suffer again by dislodging someone who had taken their place.

“Even if we left the offer the same, they would have suffered a pro-rated loss for the games they had missed. In addition, our reason for offering them less after the season started was based on them not being as effective and productive for lack of conditioning.”

Though their replacements are doing very well, there is always the possibility of injury. Aren’t you worried about that, Jerry?

“Yes, we are. We’ve discussed that virtually every week of the stalemate. If that happens, we feel we have the people we can shift around.”

On this point, there is difference of opinion within the coaching staff. As usual, it is between Buddy Ryan, the defensive coordinator, and head coach Mike Ditka.

Despite the awesome effectiveness of the defensive team, Ryan will tell anyone who asks that he needs both men, especially Bell. He has lobbied in their behalf with Vainisi and team president Michael McCaskey all season. He went public with his views at a press conference, butting heads with the club’s official position.

If I were he, I’d be saying the same thing,” Vainisi says tolerantly. “In this case, you go with the head coach, and the head

coach feels it would be disruptive.” Disruptive, that is, to bring in either Harris or Bell and demote the guys who have been replacing them so well. “Mike doesn’t want to do anything that would change the chemistry on the team.”

Ditka’s position is reasonable. Bell and Harris, if signed yesterday, would not be fit to play immediately. Even if they weren’t given back their starting jobs, they would have to be counted against the Bears’ roster limit after a two-week grace period, meaning two other players who have contributed to the club’s success would have to be cut. Why rock a boat that is winning a race, by kicking out two oarsmen this close to the finish?

The positions of McCaskey and Vainisi are reasonable, from a business standpoint. Why pay more than you must to put a winning

product on the field? You can’t sell more tickets, because all are sold.

Vainisi says there is no animosity keeping the sides apart. “Both sides have principles we’re trying to stand on.” He and Buddy Ryan shake their heads over the money Bell has lost by not taking the Bears’ offer before the season opened. They won’t say what it was, but a good guess is around $325,000 for this year. Add to that a possible $62,000 each Bear will make if they win two playoff games and the Super Bowl.

I’m not concerned with the money wasted or the business principles here. I’m concerned with the loss of time that never can be recaptured.

Todd Bell was a starter in the last Pro Bowl. Al Harris was a standout on the best defensive team in the league. They played out their options and found no other team willing to offer what they thought they were worth. Perhaps their views of their worth were inflated. I don’t know.

I do know there would have been a bidding war over them if they had been baseball players. It doesn’t happen in football because a “free” agent isn’t really free, now that there isn’t any real competition from the United States Football League. NFL owners don’t bid against each other, ostensibly because the rules require stiff compensation. A team hiring Bell, for instance, likely would owe the Bears two first-round draft choices.

He wants to play now,” someone close to him told me. “But he has to play at their terms. I don’t think that’s fair.” This source said Bell felt betrayed, that he had given the Bears his best in 1984 and they had not returned their best to him. Bell’s negotiating position had been flexible, according to this person. “He was willing to come down, if they were willing to come up. But they were very hard-nosed.”

As I said, I don’t know whether one or both sides were too bull-headed to give in. I do know the average length of a NFL career is 4.2 seasons. Bell and Harris have lost one of those years beyond recall. If they aren’t needed here and the system doesn’t allow them to sell their services in a free market to another team that has need of them, the system stinks.

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