In a Chicago Bears game of “Where’s Waldo?”, there’s a mystique of late surrounding the injured or not-so-injured cornerback, Kyle Fuller.
Fuller has practiced with the Bears for almost three weeks now after being activated off of injured reserve with a chance to make an imprint in December. It was originally assumed Fuller would have a bit of tune-up in Chicago’s final month of the season to work off rust from a “minor knee scope” in August, that turned into that injured reserve designation.
Yet somehow, Fuller’s done nothing but “progress” without actually playing a game, as the Bears have played their own roulette throwing everyone for a loop. On Tuesday, defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, and head coach, John Fox, finally decided to shed some light on the Fuller situation, and they don’t seem happy.
All the more contentious and peculiar, Fangio was asked whether he has any say in finally activating Fuller for game action (this week’s deadline is Wednesday afternoon) and he directly offered more than bit clarity:
“One, you’ve got to get medical clearance.”
“Two, the player’s got to say he’s ready to go and he feels confident and he’s chomping at the bit to go play. And then, the coaches get involved and see if he’s better than what the other choices are and if he really is back to being able to play.”
“‘A’ has happened. ‘B’ hasn’t, so ‘C’ is a non-issue.”
Let’s take stock and make sense of Fangio’s musings.
Seeing as how Fuller was activated off of injured reserve, technically, he was medically cleared to return to play, albeit while knocking off rust. Fuller himself might not feel comfortable enough to return, but the Bears certainly did to bring him back.
Is there a question of effort or courage or any of those football cliches here?
Higher up, Fox referred to Fuller’s heart or so to speak, as, “Hard to measure. Looking inside people is real easy.”
That would be affirmative.
So to keep track: the “player” Fangio so heart-warmingly vaguely referred to in Fuller is medically cleared, and the always transparent Fox worked around actual comment on Fuller’s “desire”.
And it’s now apparent, for whatever reason, the onus has been placed on Fuller to return whenever he feels apt - if he will at all in 2016. It’s difficult to force a player onto the field who either doesn’t want to play or doesn’t want to play at less than 100 percent with everything to lose.
As the Bears currently possess a secondary lacking in talent: it’s not a great look for Fuller. He could use whatever time available to audition - even the two games left in the 2016 season - with a staff now less than sold on his standing in Chicago.
With Fuller made unavailable to address his coaches challenging him on Tuesday - the gauntlet has been laid down for the former 2014 first-round pick.
It begs the question as to why Fuller wouldn’t want to play: does he know his future in Chicago is on shaky ground?
Fuller’s thought may be that if he steps on the field in a scheme less than ideal to his strengths in a 3-4 defense while hobbled, he hurts his value on the free agent market with the belief he’s not long for the Bears.
That sentiment logically wouldn’t make sense though, considering that for most of the second half of the 2015 season - he was a lockdown player. So while his strengths aren’t necessarily in man-to-man coverage, he proved able to live up to those expectations when asked. Still, if the guy that’s just 24-years-old, wants to protect his body, he’s free to do so.
And yet, general manager Ryan Pace and Fox haven’t been known to tolerate players working of this kind of fearful mindset lacking sacrifice in their new culture.
It’s why there’s been an atmosphere of frustration that has surrounded similarly reliability plagued receiver, Alshon Jeffery with Fox since 2015. Jeffery’s future is obviously greyed-out for the time being too.
To contrast, it’s why Tracy Porter likely has gained such favor with his head coach, as this a veteran leader who continually plays through injury - understanding availability is his best asset.
And it’s why to a greater extent, guys like Brandon Marshall and Martellus Bennett were jettisoned out of Halas Hall.
Patience has run thin with players who either don’t fit this culture of a locker room being built, or, refuse to play through injury that others will see as a simple obstacle. No one this time of year is 100 percent, after all.
Pain tolerance is a fickle figment of the human mind. But that fact doesn’t register with NFL personnel evaluators and coaches - nor should it. This is a business, and they want players with the best interest of their franchise in mind. A hint of selfishness - as Fox, and now Fangio have noted - and it appears you’ve soured your stay.
Remember too, that they didn’t acquire Fuller under their watch.
He was inherited from the previous regime, which correct or not, earns you less favor when new leadership attempts to shoehorn you to no avail in plans. Chicago needs Fuller and has given him the opportunity to shine, but if he doesn’t want to play, annoyance will only grow.
If Fuller’s deliberately withholding himself from play to save himself, when in turn they believe he’s ready - it’s not a good look, and it casts his entire Bears career into doubt.
Players acquired under current watch will always earn more patience as evaluators want time to validate their selections.
But inherited guys like Marshall, Bennett, and now Jeffery and Fuller?
Pace and Fox can easily dump the latter two as well, should they choose to do so, and place the brunt of that blame on the previous failed Bears brain trusts.
Fuller has played through injuries before, but that was under former general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman in his rookie season. Back then, Fuller was the light of the Bears’ world.
Flash-forward, he hasn’t convinced his new bosses of the same commitment to their ongoing vision, and that’s a problem.
Never forget that Chicago was but one slot away from selecting All-Pro Rams defensive tackle, Aaron Donald in the 2014 NFL Draft. Instead, the Bears ended up with Fuller at 14th overall. However, Donald was just a dream considering he went ahead of Chicago’s slot.
What hurts more is when you take a gander at the Bears’ current hapless safety situation, and cringe at their lack of evaluation in acquiring a player such as a ballhawk in Packers safety, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, who was named to his first Pro Bowl on Tuesday. He went after Fuller at 21st overall.
All pure but painful hindsight, of course.
So it’s only fitting that on a day where a guy such as Clinton-Dix was rewarded for his fit as an evolving game-changing the Bears could’ve possessed, they instead demanded outright accountability from their formerly highly touted prospect in Fuller.
A “player” as Fangio vaguely called, they may already have lost all faith in.
Such is the misfortune of the draft, and such is life in the league.
With only approximately $1.7 million guaranteed on the last year of his rookie contract (a $3 million dollar cap hit with a signing bonus) in 2017, the Bears and Fuller may well be on their way towards a divorce through a trade or release.
It’s difficult to confidently say either party would suffer from any separation anxiety in a fresh start.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.