BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — The Bears’ final practice before Thursday’s preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens came and went without the presence of Roquan Smith, whose absence from training camp continues to leave a noticeable void in Vic Fangio’s defense.
Fangio on Tuesday declined to elaborate much on Smith remaining unsigned, which coupled with Danny Trevathan’s gradual re-introduction to practice has left the Bears thin at inside linebacker during the early part of training camp.
“Obviously it’s not advantageous to anybody that he’s not here, and I’ll just leave it at that,” Fangio said. “Talk to Ryan (Pace) and his salary cap guys about that.”
At the heart of the stalemate between the Bears and Smith is language that would protect Smith’s guaranteed money in the event he were subject to discipline for on-field actions; to put it more accurately, if he were suspended under the NFL’s new rule governing helmet-to-helmet contact, his representation wants to make sure his guaranteed money remains guaranteed. Part of the issue here is that nobody quite knows how the NFL and its officials will enforce the rule as it relates to in-game penalties, fines and suspensions.
Preseason games will be sort of a testing ground for players and officials, and there’s an expectation there will be more helmet-to-helmet flags thrown during preseason games than there will be during regular season games. Ideally, by the start of the regular season, players, coaches and officials will be on the same page with what constitutes a violation and what doesn’t.
“The helmet rule is going to be difficult,” linebacker Sam Acho said. “I think it's going to be a judgement call for a lot of the referees — how are you going to be able to call if someone goes in with their shoulder, but their head is up? Is it a call? If their head’s down, is it a call? I think the NFL and referees will use the preseason as a time to figure out how we're going to make these calls. It's going to be difficult. It's going to be hard.”
It’s unlikely a few weeks of practice and a handful of games will completely change habits some players have had for decades. Fangio said he and his coaching staff have done their best to make their players aware of the rule, but the lack of live action during training camp practices means most of the trial and error with it will have to happen over these next five preseason games.
“I've shown them plays where I think we can definitely adjust,” Fangio said. “I think there are some plays that will be hard to adjust. We'll just have to keep working on it.
“One of the most non-football rules ever put into football was the five-yard illegal contact rule. If coaches from the 60's rose from the dead today they would want to go back in their grave with that rule. And we've adjusted. I think they'll eventually adjust.
“I don't know how it's going to look early. Traditionally with these types of rules, you might see more flags in the preseason, but I really do think it's going to be a hard rule to officiate.”
Even if most of the Bears’ starters don’t play much, if at all, on Thursday night in Ohio, a full 60 minutes of game film can serve as a good teaching opportunity. Eventually, Smith will get those teaching opportunities, too — just not on Thursday.
“This game’s been played a certain way for a long time and it’s going to be hard for some of these guys to naturally not do that,” coach Matt Nagy said. “That’s what they’ve done. We have to understand that there’s going to be times where in a crucial game there’s going to be something called and you’re just hoping you’re not on the wrong end of it too often. We gotta teach our guys right from wrong.”