At an emotional level, and in his heart of hearts, can you really blame Kevin White for not having the rosiest outlook during his third comeback attempt with the Bears? Aside from previously praised “change-of-culture” head coaches (cough), no one has had a steeper fall from grace with the Bears in the last three years than White. Originally seen as the “Brandon Marshall” replacement, White never had a chance at attaining that status.
First, came a stress fracture on White’s leg that ended his 2015 season - what should’ve been his rookie year - before it started. Then, another broken leg after planting his foot in the Soldier Field turf four weeks into 2016. Finally, a broken clavicle two receptions into the Bears’ season opener against the Falcons last year. Three straight injured reserve appearances. Three straight opportunities to quell his critics, both in and outside of Halas Hall, gone in the blink of an eye.
Reacting calmly is easier said than done.
One of White’s most obvious critics, is general manager Ryan Pace: the man who chose to invest in White back in 2015. No, Pace hasn’t vocally said anything harsh about the 25-year-old receiver with five starts. He’s shown his lack of faith with the contingency plans he’s put in place to move on.
Playmaking contingencies known as Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, and Anthony Miller: three guys all acquired in the 2018 off-season, and three guys all decisively ahead of White on the Bears’ receiver depth chart through lack of effort of his own.
When you’ve had three season-ending injuries in succession that have robbed you of showing your worth on a football field, you’re going to be frustrated. Any time your livelihood looks like it’s slipping through your grasp without any of your say, you’ll be annoyed.
So when White tersely and dejectedly interacts directly with the media, as he did during Wednesday’s Bears organized team activities, it’s not surprising. He has every right to act that way. If that’s his prerogative in reaction to the adversity heaped onto his plate, it’s understandable.
At this point, all White has is words, because even the Bears are prepared for life without him. He, nor anyone else, needed to see an official declaration of that, like Chicago declining fifth-year option. The writing has been on the wall for awhile.
“Ah, don’t know. Really don’t bother me at all,” said White about the Bears’ waning belief in him. “I believe in myself.”
Believing in yourself is one thing. Actually making good on that faith is another. White has always believed in himself. It’s how he became a first round pick in the NFL. It’s how the Bears first fell in love with his potential. Confidence has always been the name of the game for White, but it’s shaken and consistently been chipped away.
Those that should support White aren’t any different. Extended belief from the outside, like from Matt Nagy or fans, is coach speak and rose-colored optimism, respectively.
It’s Nagy job to put out the question of “how cool would that be to be able to get this kid to come back and be a dominant player?” as he did at the NFL annual meetings in March. He’s supposed to believe in everyone on his roster, because you never know what could happen. Him instilling a fresh face for White in the spring means little from that perspective.
Meanwhile, anyone not involved directly with the Bears objectively holding out hope on White becoming a major contributor is misguided. Sports fandom is rooted in optimism. Fans come back because there’s something to believe in, because each year offers the prospect of a new start. White, as he has been through his career, is again one of the pieces of that start. The main one this time being Nagy’s arrival in Chicago.
Yet, for whatever reason, it feels as if White is being unfairly swept up in that rightful optimism and energy Nagy presents. If Nagy is going to make the Bears’ offense elite, “why can’t he get White to be a star?” is the general logic. Those two ideas aren’t mutually exclusive but don’t play on each other. Nagy can only do so much with the hand he’s been provided. He’s obligated, as a quality communicator, to keep White in the loop.
However, Nagy can’t control injury. Nor can he control how White responds to his coaching and teammates. The first part, thankfully for White’s sake and health, hasn’t happened again yet. The second, based off off White’s demeanor this early in May, looks like it’s already being muddled. You can only get swept in the wave if you believe in it. White doesn’t look like he does.
The main focus here is that belief only takes White so far without proper credence - meaning play on the field - to back it up. For as much as he’ll put on a smile. For as much as he’ll defiantly note his “haters” and critics on social media and in the media landscape: White’s will to make something of himself has undoubtedly waned.
That’s where White has lost this battle no longer being fought: he’s lost his confidence.
There are five well-known stages of grief. Grief can be synonymous with intense professional failure.
First is denial.
White has been through this phase on multiple occasions through his injury recoveries. Back when he had more of a malleable opportunity to make something of himself as an NFL player. He denied the fact that these injuries and lack of developmental time were going to detract from his career. They did anyway.
Second is anger.
Anger can be perennial and fluid, as evidenced by how White is acting now, which according to some reports, isn’t just with the media. Not how you want to save your playing days. He’s angry that he’s had to go through the ringer. He’s angry that he’s constantly put to task in front of a microphone and questioned about his predicament. He’s angry that he could largely foot none of the blame.
Third is bargaining.
This is more of a private thought, but every athlete goes through it. Athletes are human beings, and human beings ask “why” when something of catastrophic misfortune happens to them. Every time White has had an injury, he surely asked “why him?.” He definitely began piecing togethers scenarios for his rebound years, even as his own expectations dwindled. “I was going to be a No. 1 receiver. But now I can contribute in the slot. I was going to be the No. 2 receiver, but now I’ll be a good depth target.” Who knows where he sees himself now.
Fourth is depression.
When the Bears were pushing their hand in on offensive playmakers this off-season, what would make anyone think White was satisfied or pleased? A competitor that’s been through less might have embraced the challenge his organization was putting out in front of him, but White was already defeated. When a new coaching staff is making plans for some of those guys like Robinson to essentially take his role, White can’t have taken that well. His emotional outlet is seen through these first few practices of 2018. He might still be stuck at this stage.
Finally, we arrive at acceptance.
I don’t know if White understands that his Bears career is likely over.
He probably does, at least in a featured sense where he’s a major part of the offense, that’s for certain. If he doesn’t know now, he’ll soon come to that conclusion. If he does end up latching on to another team - where there’s a minimal shot of him showing out with star ability - perhaps he’ll understand then. Time heals and unveils everything.
For now, it’s best White continue to process where his Bears’ outlook went wrong, and maximize whatever minimal he does have left. If he’s up for it. Something unfortunately says he isn’t.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.