For nine minutes Saturday night, Chicago Bears linebacker Roquan Smith met with reporters inside the PNC Center at Halas Hall, trying to neatly summarize what has been a messy few months.
On the plus side for Bears fans, Smith’s contentious contract battle with the front office is over – for now – enough that the two-time All-Pro returned to the field on Saturday after missing the first 15 practices of camp. training as part of its “maintenance” strategy.
The Bears’ focus now is on getting Smith ready to play in their season opener Sept. 11 at Soldier Field against the San Francisco 49ers. But for Smith, the end results of his back and forth with general manager Ryan Poles and the Bears’ negotiating team over a potential contract extension left a sour taste in his mouth.
Now Smith must play out his contract year without any security beyond the season.
In short, the Bears are still unwilling to pay Smith what he thinks he’s worth, standing firmly behind the Poles’ vision to rebuild the team while aggravating one of their most established players.
“To get into the (negotiating) process, I thought was very unpleasant, to say the least,” Smith said. “It wasn’t what I had expected.”
The most unpleasant, Smith said, was “not reaching a deal when I feel like I’ve been busting my ass for so long here and not being rewarded with something I thought was rightfully deserved. “.
A second-team All-Pro in each of the past two seasons, Smith has sought to be paid as one of the best defensive players in the NFL. In league circles, there was buzz after a deal worth a total of more than $100 million over five years.
Smith was the team’s first draft pick in 2018, selected No. 8 overall and quickly became one of the most productive contributors on defense. In his first four seasons, Smith recorded 524 tackles, 43 tackles for loss and 14 sacks to go along with five interceptions, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one touchdown.
Still, the Bears still held most of the leverage in this situation with Smith under contract through March. And amid all the tension and drama, the team held the right cards to stay in control.
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The massive extension Smith was looking for? Well, the Poles just didn’t want to meet one of the best players on his roster at Smith’s price. Thus, the first-year general manager held firm.
“I see myself at a certain number, and they see me at a certain number,” Smith said. “And we couldn’t agree (on the number). We can agree to disagree. But hey, I would never take a bad deal.
Regarding the Smith exchange requested On August 9 in a moving 346-word statement he sent to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport? No dice either.
“It was denied,” Smith noted. “So I think my focus has to change.”
So Saturday signified a pivotal point in this saga, with Smith essentially having only one pick. Back to practice. Power up to play as soon as possible. And pushing to be ultra-productive in the final year of his rookie contract with $9.735 million in salary coming his way.
“I have a contract to fulfill,” he admitted. “And I’m just going to go out there and be the best teammate I can be.”
With Smith eager to be rewarded financially as one of the most elite linebackers in the game, his next move will be to master the weakside linebacker role in Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defense and produce in a way that deserves a huge salary.
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Eberflus, who has made a point of staying out of Smith’s contract business, is considering an opening for Smith to thrive in the new defense. Eberflus’ system, after all, positions the linebacker on the weak side for all sorts of playing opportunities.
“It’s just a matter of experience, of gaining experience in this role,” Eberflus said. “It’s a hot spot. There will be a lot of action in there. And again, I think he’s going to like it.
Eberflus also stressed on Saturday that he had little concern about Smith’s contract dissatisfaction affecting his play or his attitude.
“He was engaged,” Eberflus said. “He’s been in the meetings – thoroughly there, mentally there. He asks questions during meetings, helping young players when he is away. So he did all that. He was a pro that way.
To his credit, Smith seemed willing to quash his displeasure with the Bears front office and replace it with on-court efforts.
“Hey,” he said, “I’ll do it the same way I always have: 100 miles an hour and I won’t let go.” … My full intention is to play this season, and whatever happens, happens. Whatever I have to go through this season, I will do it, head held high, chest out. The sun is going down, no regrets, baby.
The nine minutes Smith spent answering questions on Saturday wasn’t enough to get to the bottom of the contract dispute that has been the main storyline of training camp. Pressed for details of what he was looking for financially in his contract demands, Smith declined to give a figure but insinuated he was looking for record money with pressure for strong guarantees.
Alas, he said, “my number and their number were not the same. And that’s about all I can say.
When Poles was first asked about Smith’s future with the Bears in March, he expressed confidence that Smith would have “a really good year” and acknowledged his hope in determining the future of the forward linebacker’s contract. the start of the regular season.
“Obviously the sooner you get there, the better,” Poles said at NFL owners’ meetings. “But also with new staff, we can also wait a bit.”
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Just over four months later, the Poles were at Soldier Field reacting to Smith’s written trade request with obvious frustration and confusion.
“I think he’s a very good football player. I love this kid,” Poles said on August 9. “I love what he’s done on the pitch. Which makes me really disappointed with the current situation. I thought we would be in a better situation, to be quite honest.
Apparently little has happened since then to bring the parties closer to a compromise or to help replace acrimony with harmony.
“The talks haven’t gone too far,” Smith said. “And it didn’t end the way I wanted them to end.”
Urged to remember his last conversation with the Poles and where things had left off, Smith bristled.
“I just know the conversations are over,” he said. “So there is nothing more to say.”
Smith also hit back at critics who suggested his decision to represent himself in contract negotiations rather than using an NFLPA-certified agent was a miscalculation.
“Times are changing,” he said. “And I feel like the players want to be at the (negotiating) table to have full transparency, to know what’s really going on and what’s being said. Because a lot of people can say a lot of different things , but when you are yourself, you see it with your own eyes. You know full well what is going on.
In this case, Smith knows he’s only been shown one way: to prove to the Bears or some other team that he should be paid as one of the best defensemen in football.
“Betting on myself,” he said.
As for how he will find the right mindset in the coming weeks to dedicate himself to an organization he feels has disrespected him?
“Wow,” Smith said. “Great question. I would say my loyalty is to the city of Chicago, to the loyal fans here, to the guys in the locker room that I put my blood, sweat and tears into every day. I’m more focused on those guys there and about being the best guy I can be for them.
The turmoil of the situation will likely take time to dissipate. On Saturday, at least, a page was turned and a new chapter began.