Showdown with LB Roquan Smith is a big victory for Bears GM Ryan Poles
The rookie general manager didn’t flinch when his best player held out and stood his ground after Roquan accused him of negotiating in bad faith. Now Poles has to earn the respect of a player he feels has disrespected him. “My loyalty lies with the City of Chicago,” Roquan said.
There’s a new sheriff in town, and his name is Ryan Poles.
A stranger in these parts who barely was settled in after being hired in January to clean up the mess at Halas Hall, the Bears’ first-year general manager faced a tense public showdown with star linebacker Roquan Smith in a contract dispute.
Smith was a formidable foe, a two-time second-team All-Pro linebacker with credentials, a reputation and most of the townspeople on his side. A lot of eyes, not only in Chicago but throughout the NFL, were on Poles to see how he would handle this high-profile test of his GM capabilities.
As it turned out, Poles didn’t blink. With Smith still on his rookie contract, Poles had all the leverage and knew how to use it. He held his ground, and Smith — after missing the first 25 days of training camp, including 15 practices and two preseason games — did the only thing he could do: He backed down and will fight another day.
It’s very likely Smith’s day will come. For now, however, Poles is the big winner, establishing himself as a GM who — rightly or wrongly — has definite ideas about the discipline it takes to do this job and is going to do it his way.
With plenty of salary-cap space, making his best player happy might have been an easy move to make for a first-year GM who didn’t need the headache of a contract holdout. Instead, Poles set a tone that surely won’t go unnoticed at Halas Hall.
If we’ve learned anything about Poles so far, it’s that he is more unflappable than he is green and is willing to go his own way. With the Bears in dire need of an offense — any offense — he hired a defensive coordinator as his head coach and used his first two draft picks on defensive players.
And when Smith put the pressure on by holding out of practice and later issuing a public trade request in which he accused Poles of negotiating in bad faith and called on the McCaskeys to help get the deal done, Poles bristled a bit but didn’t flinch.
And now that the dust has settled, Poles has one of the best inside linebackers in football back on the field, motivated to be ‘‘the best Bear I can be’’ and very likely to do that in a defense he should be able to thrive in.
Poles still has work to do, such as gaining the respect of his best player after a difficult — and too personal — contract dispute. With Smith acting as his own agent, his dealings were face-to-face with Poles, a process that didn’t end well for him.
“I thought it was very distasteful, to say the least,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Wasn’t what I anticipated, nor . . . what I expected from the situation.’’
Smith spoke with candor in his news conference — but not when it came to his dealings with Poles.
‘‘The conversation, it’s over,’’ he said when asked about his most recent conversation with Poles. ‘‘There’s not conversations. I can’t think back to then. I just know that the conversations are over. So it’s nothing more to be said besides just going out and being the best player I can be for myself and my teammates.’’
Disrespect often leaves a scar, and Smith’s hard feelings after losing this battle with Poles won’t heal quickly. Over time, maybe. But Smith surely is conflicted about playing for an organization he feels doesn’t respect him. And Poles is the face of that organization.
‘‘My loyalty lies with the city of Chicago, the loyal fans here, the guys in the locker room who I put blood, sweat and tears on the line with every day,’’ Smith said. ‘‘I’m more focused on those guys and being the best guy I can be for [them] because that’s what matters at the end of the day.’’