Forget Roquan Smith missing almost every practice in the month since Bears rookies reported to training camp in Bourbonnais. Forget Smith’s two missed preseason games, one which of being an extra in the Hall of Fame Game. Forget the subtle public relations battle held in the media between Smith and the Bears. And forget the hair-pulling and ludicrous trade scenarios rooted out of frustration over the course of the last four weeks.
None of that matters now. And it won’t matter in the future either. Smith has finally signed his standard four-year, $18 million dollar contract with the Bears and it’s back to business as usual before any of this holdout mess evolved. What happened over the last few weeks of July and early August is a small blip on what happens in Smith’s career. If you could even characterize it as a blip when all said and done.
When the Bears drafted Roquan Smith at No. 8 overall in April, they were taken aback by his football acumen, instinct, and quickness at traditionally the most intelligent defensive position in inside linebacker. They thought of him as a natural leader for their defense and one of the final pieces to one of the NFL’s most promising units.
The Bears never thought Smith would holdout and miss his rookie training camp to slightly set him back from learning their complex defense: the only true concern regarding Smith missing his practice time. But then again the Bears underestimated Smith’s wherewithal to fight for protections he believed he deserved. In the end, it was just business between two sides. Nothing personal and no harm, no foul.
The challenge with Smith’s official return is getting him up to defensive speed with a little under a month before the Bears visit the Packers in Week 1 at Lambeau Field on Sunday Night Football. Judging by how highly Matt Nagy and the Bears have already spoken highly of Smith, they don’t seem worried about him being prepared to take the field in a meaningful capacity. If anything, they’re delighted they have enough of a timeline to get their prized rookie linebacker back up to speed.
“It was probably pretty close, yeah,” said Nagy Tuesday of how much more time Smith could miss before regular season games were in jeopardy. “If it would have stretched out any more, it would’ve been difficult.”
Instead of having important action up in the air, early reports have Smith slated to join the Bears for joint practices with the Broncos this week and potentially participate in a preseason game against Denver on Saturday. That’s a quick turnaround for someone who just joined the team in Smith to immediately jump into full speed football.
But Smith has assuredly been training while away from the organization. It’s not as if he’s been eating Cheetos while sitting on his couch for a month and taking a load off. Smith’s a professional and he knew he had a lot to lose by metaphorically and literally crossing his arms at every turn.
“I was training pretty hard down at Athens, back at school,” Smith said of his conditioning in his first public comments in months. “That’s on the coaching side,” Smith maintained of how ready the Bears deem him to be to throw into the fire quickly.
This is a delicate balance the Bears have to toe if they want Smith to make as much of an impact as they believe he’s capable of. This is a challenge they were prepared for, whether a holdout occurred or not.
“I have full confidence in Vic (Fangio) and his staff that when he does get here, they’ll get him up to speed and whenever that is, we’ll see,” Nagy said of Smith’s progression back at the close of Bears camp. “But again, that’s why we all get paid as coaches is to try to help our players out as much as possible.”
Nagy kept that same learning stance, with a little more ambiguity once Smith’s addition was made official a couple of days later.
“He’s only been here an hour and a half, so we’ll work through that,” Nagy reiterated of Smith’s potential availability against the Broncos. Being ready for the Packers, while also acting as the proposed defensive signal caller, was more of a firm statement.
“Now, where we’re at, it’s realistic,” Nagy said. “But he’s (Smith) got to put in the work, as do all the other players.”
“I think we’ll still ask him to do all that (calling plays) because you’ve got to test the waters a little bit and see what he can and can’t do,” Nagy continued.
That doesn’t sound like a coach erring on the side of panic over Smith’s missed practices.
It’ll be up to the Bears to take the proper precautions with their main defensive pupil. The Bears have continually stated “the goal is the opener” this summer, so only much of the preseason actually counts as a solid warmup. There’s no need to rush Smith back into full pads if that’s the end goal. They, though, aside from Smith himself, know his limitations better than anyone.
If Smith gets injured at any point over the next few weeks, it won’t be due to his holdout keeping him off the field. He’s not going to be pushed past his parameters before he’s in game shape. Football players get injured all the time as the very nature of the sport is brutally violent. Smith, or any Bears player, could get injured at any moment. If it happens to Smith, it’s merely a coincidence that he held out beforehand.
In the grander scheme, Smith won’t be a Bears bust just because he held out like Cedric Benson or Curtis Enis in the past. For that matter, previous historic Bears holdouts weren’t busts because of their holdouts either. Busts don’t occur due to missing some practice time in the preseason. They occur because a player wasn’t talented or good enough to last in the NFL, and because of their environment. If Smith’s career does end up going in the tank, it won’t be due to three missed weeks of practice, but because he couldn’t play in this league, and or the Bears couldn’t properly develop him: as was always the case.
One thing’s for sure, the Bears and Smith have already each forgotten their contentious tug of war. The ink is dry on the dotted line and it’s back to football. In due time, none of this needless drama will even sit in the back of anyone’s mind. That’s how little value this will have had on whether Smith ends up being a success in Chicago.
“I left that up to my agent and Mr. (Ryan) Pace,” said a calm and unbothered Smith of whether he had say in ending his Bears holdout. “So it’s great that we have it done now.”
Since Smith’s gripes with the Bears are finally out of the way, now’s the time to focus on what really matters: Mitchell Trubisky’s interceptions in preseason practices.
Robert is an editor, writer, and producer for Windy City Gridiron, The Rock River Times, The Athletic Chicago, and other fine places. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.