Roquan Smith mess spun out of Ryan Poles’ control; now he must clean it up

Smith went far enough to appeal to chairman George McCaskey to intervene, which only ratchets up the pressure on Poles to solve the problem.

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Poles has encountered his first big snag in the job, and the contract dispute with Smith has spilled into the public.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

This was the day no NFL general manager wants, especially not when he’s trying to gain credibility in his first six months or so on the job.

As the Bears went through all the theatrics of practicing at Soldier Field for their annual family fest, an event meant to stir up enthusiasm for the upcoming season, the celebration was undone by a contract battle between GM Ryan Poles and linebacker Roquan Smith.

Smith could’ve hit send on his trade request anytime while contract-extension talks fizzled the last few weeks but chose Tuesday to fire off a letter to Bears fans detailing why he was offended by Poles’ approach and wanted out.

He ramped up the pressure on Poles by mentioning that perhaps chairman George McCaskey could “salvage this,” but short of that, he couldn’t envision a path forward with the Bears. It was a savvy ploy by Smith that puts everyone else in a tough position.

McCaskey didn’t go anywhere near the podium, but the Sun-Times asked by text and e-mail if he intends to intervene, and he declined to comment.

Poles can’t let that happen anyway. If he’s afraid of setting dangerous precedents, the owner having to step in would be the worst one possible for him and the organization. It would undermine his entire role.

Every bit of Smith’s statement about not being valued and being offered a deal he’d be foolish to take left Poles to clean up a mess primarily of his own making — with Smith on hand in his practice jersey and sunglasses, watching from the sideline as a towering reminder of what’s at stake as the Bears dig in against their best player.

It’s one thing to have a contract dispute, but it’s another to have it spin this far out of control in public. Poles seemed blindsided by Smith’s move, perhaps not fully grasping the gulf between how he viewed their dealings and how Smith has understood them.

In a brief, unscheduled news conference, Poles admitted he was surprised that negotiations for a contract extension — once thought by both sides to be a sure thing — deteriorated to this point.

Poles hit the controversy head on but looked slightly dejected as he absorbed the reality of burgeoning tension with Smith pushing him to the brink of making a move that likely will hamper his rebuild.

“My feelings for Roquan haven’t changed at all,” Poles said. “I love the kid, love what he’s done on the field, which makes me really disappointed in where we’re at right now. I thought we’d be in a better situation, to be completely honest with you.

“We showed respect from a very early time frame, and . . . there’s record-setting pieces of this contract [offer] that I knew for a fact, I thought, were going to show him the respect that he deserves. Obviously, that hasn’t been the case.”

And as for an answer to Smith’s trade request? Poles didn’t rule it out.

“My intentions are to sign Roquan to this team,” he said. “We’ve gotta do what’s best for this organization, but my intentions are to make sure Roquan Smith’s on this team.”

There’s no doubt what’s best for the team is to keep a blossoming star entering his prime at 25. That’s also what’s best for quarterback Justin Fields, who is already playing on a stripped-down roster and can’t afford additional losses on either side of the ball. A shaky defense will only make it harder for him to prove he can be the answer the franchise desperately needs.

And this should’ve been one of the easiest things on Poles’ offseason to-do list.

He made clear he wanted a deal with Smith in March when he said, “If he’s the guy that I think he is, [an extension is] something we have to address.” Likewise, when Smith reported for voluntary spring practices, he “absolutely” envisioned himself being with the Bears long term.

“It’s a great opportunity to be the face of the new regime and do whatever it takes to make this the best regime in Bears history,” Smith said. “That’s my plan.”

Somehow, in the four months since Smith’s comments, Poles alienated one of his few remaining stars with what Smith viewed as “take it or leave it” offers intended to “take advantage” of him. In doing so, Poles is taking an enormous risk.

Since the day they arrived, Poles and coach Matt Eberflus have asked for patience and faith —a tired request around here over the last four decades. And, remarkably, people have mostly given it to them anyway.

Poles has mostly skated on saying early on that he wanted to get “as many players into the door as possible” who had “high character,” then saw three of them get arrested in the offseason. All three had pre-existing relationships with Poles or the coaching staff.

Still, fans have been understanding that every overhaul starts with the new general manager leveling what his predecessor had built, and given that Ryan Pace left Poles a team that went 22-27 the last three years, he was wise to walk in with a sledgehammer.

So when he used the offseason to sacrifice the 2022 roster in favor of fortifying future draft capital and salary-cap space, it was pragmatic.

When he bypassed wide receivers with both of his second-round picks, it was plausible that fixing the secondary was equally an emergency.

When he assembled a budget-friendly, relatively anonymous crew of offensive linemen and wide receivers and asserted that he had properly outfitted Fields with everything he needed, people winced but went along with it.

When he bailed on two of Pace’s prized acquisitions by trading star pass rusher Khalil Mack and demoting second-year offensive tackle Teven Jenkins, he got the assumption that the moves were prudent.

The public doesn’t know for certain whether Jenkins is good or whether late-career Mack at that price would’ve been sensible.

But Smith?

We’ve seen him. We know how good he is. Poles isn’t getting the benefit of the doubt if he ships off the best player on the team at age 25.

Chiefs assistant general manager Mike Borgonzi, Poles’ friend and former co-worker, urged trust when asked about the Smith situation Tuesday.

“[Poles is] calm and steady, so he’s going to make the right decisions,” Borgonzi said. “He’s going to take any information, he’s going to be patient, and I’m sure things are going to work out there.”

It’s easy to be so sure when it’s not your roster. And while Borgonzi has faith that Poles will figure it out, he has not earned such confidence from the outside. Poles is a first-time general manager. He has no track record. Actually, his track record is unfolding in real time as he takes on issues like this.

That being said, Smith has played his part in the fiasco. If Poles can state publicly there are “record-setting” details in his offer, it is fair to question whether Smith has been reasonable in his demands.

There has been drama throughout his time with the Bears, and this is a continuation. He held out as a rookie and missed the first three weeks of training camp. He no-showed for a 2019 game in a bizarre scene that was never explained.

Smith also fired his representation in 2020, including super-agent Todd France, and has proceeded to act as his own agent — hardly a small detail in this saga.

“It’s difficult,” Poles said of negotiating directly with Smith. “There’s emotions involved, and it’s tough. It’s a very unique situation that we’ve had to deal with, and I thought we’ve done a pretty good job, which again that’s why I’m a little disappointed we’re at this spot.”

Nonetheless, handling those challenges is part of the job — particularly when the player is this important.

Smith is essential, and there aren’t many players who qualify as such on this roster. The only surefire pillars of the Bears’ future at this point are Smith, cornerback Jaylon Johnson and wide receiver Darnell Mooney, and Smith is the best of them.

So as much as Poles hates the idea, he needs to make a concession.

It’s time for him to head this off and end the unnecessary spectacle of Smith continuing to show up for practice but standing on the side. Poles will have to lose this negotiation to win in the long run.

Patrick Finley contributed to this report.

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