It didn’t take long for Roquan Smith’s absence to show.
Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs methodically shredded the Bears defense on the first drive in the preseason opener Saturday at Soldier Field. They drove 72 yards on 11 plays for a too-easy five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Blake Bell for a 7-0 lead. The Chiefs gained four or more yards on eight of the 11 plays.
Bears fans would pay more for the thought bubble over Roquan’s head at that point than they did to get into the game. The reality, though, is that it won’t alter the state of negotiations between the Bears and Smith for a long-term contract extension.
The Chiefs’ opening drive was hardly a surprise. The Chiefs are a well-oiled machine, with Mahomes, all five starters on the offensive line from last season and tight end Travis Kelce. The Bears were missing Smith, but also defensive ends Robert Quinn, Mario Edwards, Jr. and Angelo Blackson, plus rookie cornerback Kyler Gordon and cornerback Kindle Vildor.
The defense figures to be the Bears’ most immediate strength this season. But even if it continues to be leaky, that’s not going to push their hand on the Roquan issue like it might for an established team with Super Bowl aspirations.
Smith has the upper hand in the public relations game. He’s a productive All-Pro player on pace to join the lineage of great Bears linebackers from Bill George to Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. And Roquan adroitly expressed his appreciation for Bears fans and the franchise’s history in his trade-demand letter, while Ryan Poles keeps referring to Roquan as “the player.”
But fan sentiment is no match for the leverage Poles has and seems politely willing to use to the hilt. Roquan’s under contract. The accumulating fines if this extends into the regular season — and the freeze of his contract — make a regular-season holdout prohibitive.
A trade is unlikely. Even if a team would give up a first-round draft pick for Smith, most of the teams that figure to be interested likely will be in the bottom 10 of the first round rather than the top 10. (That’s one reason why the Bears were able to acquire Khalil Mack from the Raiders in 2018 — the Bears’ first-round picks figured to be higher, even with Mack, than other teams, including the Packers.)
In the NBA, where player empowerment is king, Roquan would have been traded in the offseason. But in the NFL, where management still holds the power, all Poles has to do is stand his ground and wait for Roquan to return.
Poles’ biggest job will be managing an unhappy star player who doesn’t have certified representation — something Poles probably wasn’t taught in GM school. Does he grow weary of Roquan’s attitude and get what he can for him so the Bears can move on? Can he convince Roquan that proving his value in Matt Eberflus’ defense will earn him the contract he desires? Or can he give in a little and come up with a long-term deal that keeps Roquan happy and still gives the Bears an early out if he’s not the next Shaquille Leonard?
It’s a tough call, no doubt. But Poles seems content to work at his own pace. Nothing that happens on the field is going to change that.
2. That said, overpaying Roquan Smith likely will be one of the most low-risk calls Poles makes on a high-end player. Smith is highly likely to equal the production of his first four seasons in the next four — and seems like a prime candidate to exceed them in Eberflus’ defense.
Contrast that to safety Eddie Jackson, who became the NFL’s highest paid safety after the 2019 season based largely on big-play production — five return touchdowns — he was unlikely to replicate, and has not. Roquan is a much safer investment.
3. In 2017, I lauded Mitch Trubisky for showing a glimpse of the “it” factor by rising to the occasion in the preseason opener against the Broncos (18-of-25, 166 yards, one touchdown, 103.1 rating) after looking like a rookie in training camp, so you always have to be careful about snap judgments.
But two training-camp narratives are looking good — that Darnell Mooney will be better in an NFL offense than he was under Matt Nagy; and that safety Jaquan Brisker is NFL ready as a rookie.
4. For what it’s worth, Justin Fields’ 26-yard pass to Mooney was the longest completion by the presumed Week 1 starting quarterback in the preseason opener since Jay Cutler’s 33-yard pass to Johnny Knox in 2010. Knox, like Mooney a promising former mid-round draft, met expectations with 51 receptions for 960 yards (18.8 average) and five touchdowns.
5. Mooney’s catch and an even better, one-handed, grab along the right sideline by Tajae Sharpe for a 25-yard gain were the highlight plays for the offense against the Chiefs. But if the Bears have to depend on wide receivers making fabulous catches, this offense is going to struggle. Higher on the checklist: a consistent run game (seven rushes, 20 yards for Khalil Herbert with the first-team offense), getting receivers open and a screen game.
6. Though Chiefs safety Juan Thornhill made an effort to avoid direct contact with a sliding Fields in the first quarter, he still should have been penalized. Maybe the NFL should make a distinction between egregious and incidental contact with the quarterback — like it does with roughing the kicker vs. running into the kicker — and have a less-punitive penalty for incidents like the Thornhill-Fields play, which will never be totally eliminated because of the speed of the game.
7. Speaking of late hits, kudos to Jets first-year coach Robert Saleh for a sports rarity — acknowledging his own player’s culpability for a late hit, when linebacker Quincy Williams unnecessarily hit Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts as Hurts ran out of bounds.
“Egregiously awful from Quincy and he knows that,” Saleh said. “Those are plays he has got to get out of his game for him to be the player we think he can be.”
8. Defensive end Dominique Robinson, who went from quarterback to wide receiver to edge rusher at Miami of Ohio, came to the Bears as a project, but seems like a quick learner. He had a sack in his first NFL game Saturday.
“Just reading my keys,” Robinson said when asked what he was most proud of. “When you do things right, things happen. So I read my key. The play came to me and I made the play on the sack.”
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week: Steelers quarterback Mitch Trubisky completed 4-of-7 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown for a 126.8 passer rating against the Seahawks to stay on pace to be the Week 1 starter.
Trubisky scrambled to his left and found a wide receiver Gunner Olszewski wide open (!) in the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown.
10. Bear-ometer: 6-11 — vs. 49ers (L); at Packers (L); vs. Texans (W); at NY Giants (L); at Vikings (L); vs. Commanders (W); at Patriots (L); at Cowboys (L); vs. Dolphins (L); vs. Lions (W); at Falcons (W); at NY Jets (W); vs. Packers (L); vs. Eagles (L); vs. Bills (L); at Lions (L); vs. Vikings (W).
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