Bears training camp is about immediacy, about the here and now, with the question ‘‘What have you done for me lately?’’ on the tip of everyone’s tongue. Thanks to a contract impasse, rookie linebacker Roquan Smith hasn’t done a thing so far.
But the franchise, which spends much of its time soaking in a bath of nostalgia, constantly is reminding us of its glorious history.
And so we find ourselves at a curious crossroads.
The team that celebrated Dick Butkus’ football savagery, reveled in Doug Plank’s headfirst missile attacks on receivers and admired Walter Payton’s battering-ram punishment of tacklers now wants to use the possibility of their players’ excessive violence against them.
There are two sides to Smith’s contract standoff, but it’s not hard to see the irony in the Bears’ stance.
Smith’s agents want his contract to say the Bears can’t void any of Smith’s guaranteed money if he’s suspended for violating the NFL’s new helmet rule. The rule against lowering helmets to make contact with an opponent allows the league to penalize, fine, eject or suspend players, depending on the severity of the infraction.
Smith’s camp doesn’t think that should be part of the contract’s language, perhaps because there is so much confusion about how the rule will be enforced and certainly because he plays linebacker, a position that calls for a person to stick his head in the middle of the mayhem. And there’s always the specter of agents playing hardball simply to attract future clients.
The Bears don’t want a clause that would protect Smith’s guaranteed money. They reportedly have said they’ll be fair in dealing with him if he gets suspended for a hit, an open-endedness that doesn’t sit well with Smith’s agents.
It’s an interesting position from a team that has made millions and millions of dollars through the decades off its players’ extreme aggressiveness. It’s also a bad look.
The Bears are looking forward, of course, not back. They see a scenario in which the league suspends one of their players for a dirty hit. Perhaps they see it as an opportunity to get out from under guaranteed money if he’s not the player they thought he would be.
But there’s something unpleasant about dragging Smith into this over money when the real focus should be on player safety. Making matters worse is that players and coaches are confused by what constitutes a bad hit. The Eagles emerged from a recent meeting with NFL referees frustrated about interpretations that seemed to make routine hits illegal.
Said Eagles running back Matt Jones: ‘‘It was definitely going back and forth. ‘We’re running backs, and we can’t do that?’ And: ‘We’re a defense. How are [we] supposed to tackle?’ We didn’t get an answer we wanted. We just have to abide by the rules and keep from getting fined and ejected.’’
Hovering above all of this is the concussion issue and the NFL’s glacially slow realization about how the game has damaged players’ lives. It’s true that the league reached a settlement that pays former players who have health issues tied to past head trauma. But that doesn’t begin to address what figures to be an unending line of retirees that looks more like a road filled with maimed soldiers returning from the war.
The Bears presumably want to help reduce the number of concussions in the game, but they seem to think they should benefit contractually from rules meant to make the game safer. Weird stuff.
If Smith continues to stay away from camp, it won’t be long before public perception turns against him. The rhetoric from the Bears will heat up, and fans will start to agree the eighth overall pick in the draft is hurting the team by his absence. That’s how these things always go.
The Bears still laud the vicious men they’ve unleashed on opponents. A Butkus highlight film is always good for a laugh and a wince during games at Soldier Field. All these years later, it’s amazing to think that much anger could be bottled up in one person. To watch Payton use his helmet to punish tacklers who thought they were going to do the punishing is still stunning.
I don’t recall the franchise feeling the least bit uncomfortable with the damage either man did to others or to themselves. With safety now the battle cry in the NFL, the Bears seem more worried about dollars and cents. Again, a very bad look.
Sun-Times sports columnists Rick Morrissey and Rick Telander are co-hosts of a new podcast called “The Two Ricks: Unfiltered.” Don’t miss their candid, amusing takes on everything from professional teams tanking to overzealous sports parents and more. Download and subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts and Google Play, or via RSS feed.