There was once a magical time when the Chicago Bears had each of Brandon Marshall, Martellus Bennett, Matt Forte, and of course, Alshon Jeffery as the primary weapons in their offense. A physical freak of a wide receiver in Marshall. An outspoken vertical tight end in Bennett. A Pro Bowl all-purpose back in Forte. And a lanky kid out of South Carolina that could pull down the most ridiculous of circus catches in Jeffery.
Chicago in essence had it’s “skyscrapers” (its extremely regrettable this group never had a wide-ranging nickname).
That group never achieved much success due to a variety of reasons but nevertheless was incredibly talented and a picture of a misfortune in a lost opportunity. Now we sit here with none of those players on the current roster and the one homegrown guy the Bears truly developed all on their own amongst the lot in Jeffery, gone in a flash.
It isn’t easy to track where the relationship between Jeffery and the Bears soured or whether it was ever tumultuous to begin with. Jeffery himself said in a Player’s Tribune farewell to Chicago that he loved his time as a player with the team. That in the end, he appreciated what he became in his time at Halas Hall and at Soldier Field.
“I wanted to be the best receiver in Bears history, but even more than that, I wanted to bring a Super Bowl to Chicago,” glossed Jeffery in his final direct address to the city and whoever else was listening.
Of course, Jeffery never accomplished either in becoming the best the Bears have ever seen on the outside, or to an extreme, holding a Lombardi trophy on a silver platform. It also wasn’t totally his fault as but one man with what feels like now a short five-year tenure.
That’s football. That’s life. As painstakingly cliche as it sounds, there are things you can’t control.
“But despite that, I can honestly say that I loved every minute of my time there,” finished Jeffery, acknowledging his shortcomings while maintaing perspective.
Suffice to say, with Jeffery parting in free agency literal minutes after the new 2017 league year started, and Chicago squabbling with him over relatively minute contract differences (a few million isn’t a problem to give to a guy you see as foundational), the 27-year-old no longer felt he had a future with the Bears. He took a one-year $14 million dollar deal with promise to make good on his own talent elsewhere almost as quickly as he could.
As evidently as possible, he no longer believed in the message being reverberated by the Bears and from the opposite end, neither did they believe in Jeffery. The parting was mutual and where the two go from here, is anyone’s best guess.
In Jeffery’s perspective, he wasn’t obligated to explain to anyone on why he went to the Eagles (even though he technically did) as a professional. He could’ve been searching for a deserved payday or in what is his opinion, a better chance to win, it doesn’t matter. Only his own esteem comes into play here. Only his own ideal of an NFL livelihood factor in.
Moving locations for a job opportunity is something everyone goes through. The only difference when it happens in professional sports with a free agent such as the talented star wide-out in Jeffery, is that it’s magnified on a scale for all to see. Questions of professionalism, a “desire” and commitment, come into play for athletes no one knows personally, when they would never arise in real-life situations for fear of alienation, social exile, whatever. You can bet that doesn’t even cross Jeffery’s mind.
And really in the end, the only person Jeffery has to come to terms with any decision in his football career, is himself. He’s the only one that has to justify movement or belief in his ability to maximize his own potential earnings and future victories on the field. No one else.
Jeffery said as much about his coming journey in Philadelphia, “I’m going to work hard and I’m going to do whatever I can to bring a championship to the city of Philadelphia.”
It’s a sentiment almost every free agent acquisition expresses about their coming time on board with a new team, but it still rings true. A hard hat, a lunch pail, and a short-term lottery ticket in 2017 that he believes he can transform with his play into a long-term salvo to finish off his career riding into the sunset. From the outside, there’s deserved skepticism whether that happens for Jeffery. In his mind, there’s nothing but unrelenting confidence and the promise of hope that he doesn’t to divulge on anymore than he already has.
And make no mistake the Bears understood that core concept from their once shining and freakish pupil. In their minds, they no longer needed what Jeffery offered. Or better said, felt that over time, his absence may not hurt as much as it will in the very temporary short term. That in all essence, they can accomplish their rebuilding goal without a player they don’t see as “must-have”, even if it creates another gaping roster need for just the time being.
“You can always recover from the player you didn’t sign. You can’t recover from the player you signed at the wrong price,” said general manager Ryan Pace in a pre-Scouting Combine press conference.
In the Bears’ perspective, one of those “wrong” players in free agency was Jeffery. They didn’t budge on handing out more money to Stephon Gilmore, who is good, but not particularly elite, and they weren’t going to do it with their similar guy in Jeffery either. Essentially, it was a fear of hamstringing a team still a ways from winning long-term with guys who don’t move the needle on their own as true franchise changers.
It’s not a showcase of where the organization currently sits in futility. It’s not because this isn’t a desired free agency destination for a lack of a winning record or otherwise - even though that could be a reason. It’s a smart management of more valued assets in keeping a focus on the core goal of sustained contention and championships - how ever far off the Bears may be. Jeffery wasn’t going to help them towards their Super Bowl goal in the short term as evaluated, and kicking the can down the road to risk it with him just wasn’t something they were willing to do.
Jeffery staying in Chicago when he saw he wasn’t a priority, wasn’t something he was willing to do in response. This is a team in transition looking for investments in pieces in other more incremental spots that don’t fit a merely topping player in his prime such as him.
This wasn’t an epiphany of the Bears’ own, too. Much of the league didn’t see the receiver that way either, otherwise his market would’ve been much friendlier with more term. This was a move made on more than testing the waters of the free agent market out of the blue and letting Jeffery suddenly recede back to them. If the square peg doesn’t fit in the round hole, you don’t try and smash it in endlessly.
It was always in Pace and company’s idea of how they actually looked at Jeffery, and the descriptor is: Non-essential.
Ultimately, that’s their intuition. That’s the Bears organization exercising their own right and collectively betting on themselves that in the end, they’ll be the ones with the last laugh over Jeffery. We won’t know who won the “break-up” until years down the line, but for now, it was time to split in a growing unhealthy relationship.
Cold distance in business but in the end, a harsh reality that hit at the heart of both sides.
What no one tells you about divorce in football: You’ll likely be happier in your next marriage.
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.