Bears' locker-room culture passes first off-field test


The Bears dealt with the biggest off-field issue of Matt Nagy's young tenure as head coach last week when star second-year linebacker Roquan Smith was deactivated just hours before Week 4's showdown with the Minnesota Vikings. Nagy called Smith's absence a personal issue and has maintained that explanation throughout the last several days. Smith's teammates and the rest of the coaching staff have followed suit.

Naturally, speculation about the 'why' ran wild on social media. It still is. And whenever off-field matters like this become the primary talking point surrounding a team, the concern turns to whether it will become a distraction. 

According to defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano, the locker room is stronger than that.

"It's our culture, it's our locker room," Pagano said Wednesday from Halas Hall about the team's next-man-up approach. "It's our environment, it's everything (Nagy's) preached since Day 1. We always ask everybody to come in, I don't care if you're a backup guy or a practice squad guy, it doesn't matter. You come in here and you prepare as a starter so when your number is called, there's an expectation here throughout this whole organization, this whole building, for all of us. And we all understand that and we all get that. Everybody prepares and works accordingly."

The most obvious example was last Sunday's performance by Nick Kwiatkoski. The reserve linebacker was thrust into the starting lineup against a potent Vikings rushing attack and thrived. He had a season-high nine tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack. 

Nagy, who said this week that this was the first real challenge he's faced as Bears coach -- the team was relatively injury-free and distraction-free last season -- has handled the Smith situation well. And that doesn't surprise Pagano.

"It's not that difficult," Pagano said. "It's not that hard. You're going to have stuff. So when stuff happens, you deal with it. Again, credit the guys that stepped up and filled in."

Part of what's made this episode easier for the Bears than other organizations who've struggled with distractions in the past is the culture GM Ryan Pace has worked diligently to build.

"This is a really good roster that they built," said Pagano. "There's talented guys, but they all got character. Talent only gets you so far. It's what you got inside. So credit Ryan and (Nagy), they built a hell of a roster."

It's true that talent only gets a team so far; we've seen talented Bears teams in the past fall short of the ultimate goal because something was missing. In 2019, that doesn't seem to be the case, especially with a guy like Khalil Mack on the roster.

Barring injury, Mack is on a Hall-of-Fame trajectory and has turned jaw-dropping performances into a weekly expectation. Just don't tell that to Pagano.

"We're not just gonna say ho-hum, it's gonna happen. Nobody's gonna ever take it for granted," he said of Mack's impact on the field. "But the great thing is he doesn't. Because he comes in and it's just groundhog day for him. He just continues to work and study and work and study and practice. "

Pagano compared Mack to Ray Lewis, who the defensive coordinator thinks aside from personality, is a very similar player.

"From a football standpoint, instincts, athleticism, talent, passion, love for the game, check all those boxes."

The freakish talent Mack possesses is almost superhuman. Is he a superhero-in-waiting?

"He's just rubberband man. I don't know, he's just a freak. If you look up freak in the dictionary, it's probably Khalil's picture going to be there."

Mack, and his approach to his craft, is what leaders are made of. And a locker room with leaders like Mack is more than equipped to deal with any distraction that comes its way.

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