- It's still hard to talk about the 2019 Bears without thinking about how 2018 ended.
Lake Forest, Ill.— The Bears are down to three kickers on the roster. Three kickers may still sound extravagant, but keep in mind Chicago tested eight at rookie minicamp the first weekend in May. Eight kickers.That’s more than would fit into a minivan comfortably, enough for two golf foursomes, or a large boy band or enough to stage a murder mystery party.
Safeties coach Sean Desai doesn’t think he’s ever seen that many kickers under one roof.
“When I coached in college we might have had that many on our roster, when you have 150 guys,” he said.
The reason for the the high volume of kickers is, of course, the double-doink, the final scene of Chicago’s 2018 season. Then-kicker Cody Parkey’s last-second 43-yard field goal attempt defied the laws of physics, bounced off the upright, then the crossbar, and sealed the Eagles’ one-point victory.
Though he wasn’t on campus for rookie mini-camp, quarterback Mitch Trubisky paid close attention to the news of the kicker carnival, especially when he heard head coach Matt Nagy had each kicker attempt the Cody Parkey: a 43-yard field goal. Trubisky spent the second day of rookie minicamp in Wrigleyville as part of a promotional appearance for Gone Rogue Hight Protein Chips, and he checked his phone for updates in between interviews and photograph sessions. “You've got to make it into a positive thing,” he said. “We're embracing this thing head on and that is something I love about Coach Nagy. You don't go around problems, you attack them head on. You embrace it, there's nothing to be scared about. We aren't avoiding a topic of conversation, like, we're going to hit this thing and we're going to get it right. We got a good competition going and the best man is going to win. I am interested to see how it is going to pan out.”
Just one of the Bears’ three remaining kickers has NFL experience. Eddy Pineiro, recently acquired in a deal with Oakland, was three-for-three in one preseason game for the Raiders last season before he was placed on IR with a groin injury. Pineiro, who is known for kicking an 81-yard field goal in college at Florida, did not participate in rookie camp. Chicago’s other two kickers, Chris Blewitt (real last name), and Elliott Fry, are the lone survivors from that crew.
For Chicago’s first OTA practice, the goal posts looked a little bit different. A second set of uprights were built inside the standard-width uprights, a method to narrow the target space for the kicker and increase the difficulty for each attempt. Bears kicker were two-for-three collectively on field goals using the extra-narrow uprights in full team situations. Pineiro missed the narrow uprights on his second and final attempt with the full field goal unit and defense from 40-something yards out (media were standing in the endzone, so was difficult to judge the distance), wide right.
“That was my first time seeing [narrow uprights],” said defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend. “It's great competition and that's what this game is about. Even in our room, we always talk about competing. That's the only way you can get better and that's all we're trying to do.”
“Definitely guys are going to pay a little more attention to it because of what happened last year,” linebacker Roquan Smith said. “But at the end of the day we just have to control what we can control.”
Nagy hinted that there’s a lot more going on with the kicker tryouts than what is visible at practice. “The word process sticks out to me the most,” he said. “This isn’t the only time, those three kicks that you saw us test ‘em out. We’re doing some different things. [Special teams coordinator] Chris Tabor and [kicking consultant] Jamie Kohl are doing a great job at presenting some ideas and thoughts as to how we want to go around it.”
The details matter, and Kohl spent several minutes at the end of practice measuring out Pineiro’s exact positioning in relation to the ball.
Nagy—a former quarterback at Delaware and in the Arena Football League—knows he’s not qualified to give an assessment on his kickers, so he leaves that to Tabor and Kohl. “I’ve got zero shot [doing that],” he said. “I just know you either make it, or you miss it. That’s what I work off of.”
Chicago is in the middle of an unseasonably cold spring, but sun emerged finally for a bright afternoon practice Wednesday. The energy was high, just as it was last season when the Bears were rolling towards an NFC North title and a playoff berth. New defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano caught onto the spirited team vibe immediately. “The culture around here, you’ve got to have energy and you’ve got to have juice,” he said. “If you don’t have energy and passion and juice, you’re going to stick out like a sore thumb and probably not going to be around long.”
Pagano hopes to stick around for some time. After a year out of football, players and coaches say the former Colts head coach has seamlessly filled the role of Vic Fangio, who left his top-ranked defense to take a head coaching job in Denver.
“You wouldn't even know we have a new defensive coordinator," safety Eddie Jackson said.
“My natural reaction is to compare him to who we had before, and I feel like he is very similar to Coach Vic and came in with a lot of intensity,” said safety Prince Amukamara. “He shows a tad bit more personality than Vic.”
Pagano got his first real taste of the fun-loving Bears culture on Monday, when Nagy canceled the scheduled lift and declared it Monday Funday instead. The team broke into smaller teams to compete in an obstacle course, and the top four teams from the obstacle course went on to compete in a dodgeball tournament.
This team culture, always keeping things fresh and fun, is how Jackson and Trubisky sold safety Haha Clinton-Dix, formerly of the Packers and Redskins, on signing with Chicago in free agency. The two walked into the office where Clinton-Dix was meeting with team brass, and pitched him on Chicago’s workplace environment.
“We just told him about coach Nagy, man, the type of coach he is,” Jackson said. “He lets us have fun. He lets us be us and play with swag.”
“Be You” is the Bears’ latest slogan, and Nagy knows the team is leaps and bounds from where they were last year during OTAs. “Now we have our own identity,” he said. “It’s a matter of how do you keep it and not get complacent?”
And it’s easier not to be complacent when they have so many reminders of how their otherwise successful 2018 season ended.
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