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Hold the phone: Bears’ kicker battle will be as real as it gets in preseason

While backups on offense and defense get most of the playing time, Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro have a starting job to win.

Eddy Piñeiro (15) and Elliott Fry (8) are still neck-and-neck in their battle for the Bears’ kicking job. Preseason performances figure to determine a winner — or convince the Bears to look elsewhere.
For the Sun-Times

Coach Matt Nagy and the Bears have two main goals in the preseason: Don’t get anybody hurt and don’t show anybody anything.

No wonder the preseason is becoming a necessary evil in the NFL. It seems to serves only one purpose: to give NFL teams two more games they can tack on to their season-ticket package. Nagy tried to sell the idea the Bears can evaluate the bottom of their roster — but not too hard.

‘‘For us to be able to evaluate second- and third-team players against some ones and twos, that’s pretty good,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘That’s a credit to [general manager] Ryan [Pace] and our personnel guys for bringing good players in so we can create depth and competition.’’

After Nagy barely played his starters in the preseason last year and went 12-4 with few major injuries, it’s hard to argue with his tack. Then again, with his offense getting stymied more often than not in training camp against a Bears defense that appears ready to hit the ground running, Mitch Trubisky & Co. probably could use a game against another defense to see what’s really happening out there.

Nagy agreed with that notion but quickly indicated it won’t happen when the Bears host the Panthers in their preseason opener at 7 p.m. Thursday at Soldier Field.

‘‘When we get to the preseason, defenses don’t show anything,’’ Nagy said. ‘‘Offenses don’t usually [show anything], either. So it’s just a matter of seeing who can play and who can make plays.’’

Not sure what that last part means, but it sounds like Nagy’s way of saying the Bears aren’t going to show anything of substance in the preseason. Nothing to see here, people.

Until a kicker steps onto the field, that is. Fans at Soldier Field will be buried in their cellphones for most of the game but are sure to perk up — and look up — when Eddy Pineiro or Elliott Fry comes on to attempt a field goal.

Nothing will be real Thursday but the kickers. A touchdown pass by Tyler Bray against a third-team defense means little or nothing. A sack by Matt Betts against a third-string quarterback will mean zilch in the big picture. But a field-goal attempt will be as real as anything gets in the preseason for the Bears. When Fry or Pineiro steps onto the field for a field goal, it will be the biggest moment of the night. The place probably will go from Augusta Silence to high volume in a hurry.

And it will be interesting to see just how far Nagy goes to manipulate situations to get Pineiro and Fry opportunities to kick under some semblance of pressure. In the preseason opener last year at the Hall of Fame Game, Cody Parkey had one attempt, a 22-yarder that was good. It’s unlikely Nagy will settle for that in this game.

At this point of the process, I am 70 percent certain the Pineiro-Fry winner will be kicking Sept. 5 against the Packers. The Bears are determined to find their Justin Tucker, an undrafted kicker with a cost-efficient salary-cap hit who becomes a long-term solution. And both kickers have responded to the unorthodox process and awkward dynamic with solid camp performances. Both have kicked at least one 60-yard field goal in practice, including Fry, who doesn’t have Pineiro’s leg. So the Bears know each kicker has it in him.

But it’s almost uncanny how the process seems destined to be more excruciating than painless. Just when Pineiro appeared to establish himself as the leader by going 12-for-12 at Family Fest at Soldier Field, he stepped right back with a shaky performance in practice Monday. Not only did Pineiro miss three kicks out of nine, but Fry didn’t take advantage of the opportunity. He missed two kicks.

Just a bad day? We’ll see about that. The preseason games will determine the winner, if there is one. Even then, the Bears still won’t know for sure. Last year, Parkey made eight of his 11 field-goal attempts in the preseason, with two of the misses coming from 52 yards. His only miss from inside of 50 was his final kick of the preseason, a 39-yarder at the horn of the first half against the Bills. It hit the right upright, which didn’t seem like a harbinger of things to come.

But it was.