There was good news, bad news and good news on the Roquan Smith front Tuesday.
The Bears rookie linebacker from Georgia “had a better day” of practice as he deals with a tight left hamstring, according to coach Matt Nagy. He won’t play in the preseason finale Thursday night against the Bills, meaning he will miss the entire preseason. But Smith still has a chance to play in the regular-season opener against the Packers Sept. 9 at Lambeau Field.
In fact, “there’s still a good chance,” Nagy said. “Day-by-day with him. We’ve stacked two in a row for the positive. Let’s just keep that going. If he’s able to play and we feel good about it, trust me, we’ll give him an opportunity to get in there.”
As cautious as Nagy has been with injured and recovering players since becoming the Bears’ coach, it’s unlikely he will throw Smith into the deep end in Green Bay, if he plays him at all. Smith has had just three complete practices since ending a 29-day contract holdout Aug. 13, and only two of them in pads. He has been limited since he was pulled out of practice Aug. 21 with the tight hamstring.
There’s no telling how it’s going to play out. Not even Nagy knows that. If there’s a rookie on the spot here, it might be Nagy more than Roquan. As a first-year head coach at any level, this is new territory for him.
A big part of Nagy’s job is managing people — massaging egos, meshing disparate personalities, knowing when to coddle and when to crack the whip. Before he’s ever won or lost a game — admittedly not the best time to make a judgment — the early indications are positive. As a manager as much as a football coach, Nagy has made a good first impression. He doesn’t sound like a rookie. Every move has been made with the touch of someone who’s done this before.
That said, green-lighting Smith’s NFL debut could be a potentially vexing challenge for Nagy. He has to trust the team’s trainers and doctors, Roquan himself and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio to gauge Smith’s health and preparedness. After that, all Nagy has at his disposal is the one thing he has to trust the most — his instinct. It’s his call.
So far, Nagy’s instinct has been caution. “I don’t want to get to a spot where we rush him back and then all of a sudden he comes back and — boom — you just lost another six-to-eight weeks,” Nagy said. “I lean more towards … the cautious side … so you feel really good that there’s a strong chance of that not happening.”
Avoiding injuries and managing them are potentially make-or-break factors for NFL head coaches. On Monday, Nagy used a classic John Fox-ism: “The best ability is availability.” But the times, they are a-changin’. Where the 60-something Fox said, “You can’t put ‘em in bubble-wrap,” the 40-year-old Nagy, who decided to sit his starters against the Chiefs said, “Yes you can.”
At this point in 2015, rookie wide receiver Kevin White was on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. In 2016, linebacker Pernell McPhee was on the PUP list. Last year, wide receiver Cam Meredith was on injured reserve.
This year, the Bears — knock on wood — look like they’ll enter the regular season in good shape. Guard Kyle Long and wide receiver Allen Robinson, though eased through the preseason, appear to be at full strength. Outside linebacker Leonard Floyd suffered a broken hand in the preseason, but he’s still expected to play against the Packers. Even if he’s limited that’s a win, considering this team’s injury history. Adam Shaheen is in a walking boot with a perplexing sprained ankle and foot he suffered Aug. 18 against the Broncos, but that’s among the team’s deepest positions.
Managing Smith’s return will be an interesting test for Nagy. He’s still a rookie, too.
“I’m learning a lot,” Nagy said. “With this being my first year doing it, I’m leaning on other people. I give my own input [but] that’s why you hire the people you hire and surround yourself with people in this building that you trust.
“I have a lot to say in these decisions, but we all feel good about him. And … we don’t ever look back. That’s the decision we make and we roll. In this case here, maybe there are some things we learn from. We’re not going to sit here and say we have all the answers. But if we feel we’re making the right decision at the time, we’ll go with it. If we feel like it was the wrong decision, we’ll fix it and next time try to make a better [decision].”