If the Chicago Bears were looking for a negotiating trick that would save face for them and their first-round rookie, they came up with a doozy.
The Bears are in a contract dispute with No. 8 overall pick Roquan Smith, a linebacker out of Georgia who has missed almost two weeks of training camp because he and the team haven't agreed to contract terms. A team in this situation finds itself in a bind: wanting the player in camp but not wanting to do or say anything publicly that makes the player a villain in the eyes of the fans before he even plays a game for them. For that reason, the team almost* always swallows hard and refuses public comment.
The Bears might have found a way around it. Over the weekend, coach Matt Nagy let slip at a news conference that the league's new helmet rule -- the one that could subject players to ejection for initiating contact with the crown of the helmet -- was part of the reason for the holdup. Subsequent reporting indicates that the Bears and Smith's representatives are indeed arguing over contract language that would allow the team to void guaranteed money if Smith were to be disciplined by the league under the new rule.
Please understand this: Even if you take Nagy at his word that the new helmet rule is "part of the issue," the problem isn't that the Bears are worried about Smith getting ejected or suspended for newly illegal hits. The problem is that the Bears want to reserve the right to void his guarantees if he gets ejected or suspended for illegal hits.
That's a critical difference, and it isn't the only approach available to them. The Bears, if they're truly worried about this new rule and its impact on linebacker play, could say to Smith, "This is going to be a tough one for guys coming into the league at your position. But we're going to work with you on this, teach you the rules best we can and try to put you in a position to avoid a problem. And if you end up getting ejected or suspended for an illegal hit, we'll stand by you and keep working at it." Instead, they're saying, "If you get ejected or suspended for an illegal hit, we want to be able to take your money back."
That is why it's hard to take Nagy at his word and much easier to believe that his public comments are part of an organizational negotiating tactic. To wit:
If the Bears are indeed obfuscating, they've likely found an effective way to do it. Bringing up the new helmet rule attaches to this issue an easy handle for the general public and the opinion shows to grab onto. "Oh, no! Confusing new NFL rule is to blame for rookie not being in camp on time? The NFL can't get out of its own way!"
Don't fall for it. The Bills got first-round linebacker Tremaine Edmunds to camp on time without loading up his contract with any sneaky, nefarious language that allows them to void his guarantees if he gets suspended for an illegal hit. Buffalo didn't feel it was worth drawing that line with a rookie who plays the same position as Smith. The Bills are presumably no less concerned about the new helmet rule and its impact on linebacker play than the Bears are; they just didn't think that their right to eventually turn guaranteed money into non-guaranteed money was important enough to keep their rookie out of camp.
The Bears are making the opposite decision -- not because of some scary new rule that no one fully understands yet, but because of the same old dynamic that drives all of these NFL contract disputes: control. For the bulk of the calendar year, the NFL game isn't Bears vs. Packers or Bills vs. Patriots. It's owners vs. players -- always has been, always will be. The NFL's economic system favors the owners heavily, with its rookie wage scale and fifth-year options and franchise and transition tags and ongoing resistance to guaranteed contracts. Some teams and owners believe it's important to dig in on every one of these issues to avoid a slippery-slope situation that leads to a less team-favorable structure. Some just do it because they can.
Every rookie contract includes language that allows teams to void guarantees under certain circumstances, including some egregious ones that would be understandable, such as drug suspensions or legal entanglements off the field. But many teams go too far, inserting language that allows them to void guarantees for far less significant reasons, such as team-imposed fines. Last year, the NFLPA found this practice so widespread that it launched an internal investigation of rookie deals to determine whether teams were violating the CBA with such language, and they sent a letter to agents warning them to be vigilant against it.
A review of recent Bears first-round contracts finds that 2016 first-round pick Leonard Floyd and 2017 first-round pick Mitchell Trubisky can have their guarantees voided if the player in question "engages in conduct reasonably judged by Club to adversely affect or reflect on the Club" or "makes any public comment to the media that Club determines, in its sole discretion (1) breaches a material obligation of loyalty to Club and/or (2) materially undermines the public's respect for or is criticizing of Club, Player's teammates, Club's ownership, Club coaches, Club management, any of Club's operations or policies, or the NFL." Even after seven paragraphs of specifics, the "Default" section of each of these deals includes a "subsection H" that says the player is in default if he is "suspended by the NFL for any reason not otherwise specified above."
Now, both deals include language that specifies that the player gets a written warning for his first such offense and doesn't default until his second. But come on. You want a player to sign a contract that allows the team "sole discretion" over discipline that could result in the player having his guarantees voided? Is it not obvious how such a policy could be abused by a team looking to get out of a contract it no longer likes? It's crazy if players and agents don't push back on this.
Why don't they all, you ask? It's a good question, and the answer basically comes down to human variables. Just as not every team's policies on this are equally restrictive, not every player or agent is equally dug in against them. There are agents eager to get deals done who won't fight as hard as others, and even the agents who do want to fight sometimes give in because their clients decide they want the thing over with so they can get into camp and get started.
In the end, this isn't about which teams handle it one way and which handle it the other way. This is about players fighting for their rights against employers' attempts to nickel-and-dime them. Just because the Bears don't go so far as to void guarantees for fines doesn't mean Smith shouldn't push back on their attempt to void his guarantees for suspensions. This is a fight worth fighting, and winning it would benefit Smith and players who will find themselves in similar situations in the future.
Just don't get caught thinking it's about any new helmet rule. Because it's not. This isn't a new fight, and it isn't one that's likely to end once Smith inevitably signs and gets to camp.