This week the Bears report to Bourbonnais for training camp.
Yea, they do this every year; pack up their shit and invade the campus of Olivet Nazarene, a university that sounds like it should have Pontius Pilate as Athletic Director. Training camps used to be brutal, grueling tests of survival – a series of two-a-days in sweltering sun, with players completely cut off from their families and friends. Oh, and there used to be tackling. Tons o’ tackling. Way more tackling than not tackling.
Parcells, Walsh and Gibbs wore their teams out in the summer the way a good drill sergeant wears out recruits on Parris Island. They believed war was coming and the only way to properly prepare was to mirror those conditions. Players HATED it. Free agents would postpone signing contracts until the last possible minute if it meant missing a single day of camp.
Prior to the innovations of Bill Belichick, who introduced the idea that a game plan could be altered each week for that individual opponent, camp was when the entire system was installed. The great teams in NFL history were completely unsurprising before Belichick. Those coaches did what they did. If you beat it, you won.
Now training camp is simply part of the installation process. Practices are short. Contact is minimal. Time in the classroom is more important than time on the field (for the most part). And with starters seeing less and less preseason game action, teams won’t know if any of it is working until that first weekend in September when they print the scores in the morning paper.
But this training camp is pivotal for the Chicago Bears because it is hopefully about the establishment of the team’s leadership for the next decade at its two most essential gigs.
The first summer for a first-time head coach is about as important as any he’ll preside over during his tenure. Matt Nagy’s challenges in the lead-up to the 2018 campaign are many but a few stand out. (i) He can’t allow himself to become a one-sided leader, leaving the defense autonomously to coordinator Vic Fangio. (ii) He must get this collection of newly-acquired skill players on the same page to start the season. (iii) He must break the Fox Doctrine of refusing to allow young players to break into the starting lineup even after they’ve shown they’re ready to do so.
Which brings us to…
Mitch Trubisky was ready to be the Bears starting quarterback before the team even arrived in Bourbonnais last summer. Everyone around the club knew it, including the man who drafted him, Ryan Pace. Practice after practice, Tru outplayed Mike Glennon. (The latter was so awful during one practice session, the Bears were considering giving Mark Sanchez first-team reps.) The whole enterprise, including the preseason games, were no contest. But Fox refused to so much as grant Trubisky the courtesy of first-team snaps over the summer. He refused to give Trubisky the opportunity to become the team’s quarterback and leader. Until he got desperate, that is.
Trubisky is now a known commodity in the Bears locker room but this is still his first summer above the title. Any respect he earned over the second half of 2017 will have little impact on Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel, Anthony Miller and Trey Burton. Trubisky is as responsible as anyone else for bringing these new talents together with the established ones and forging a cohesive unit, ready to compete on that first football Sunday in September.
The play’s the thing…
If you’ve never been in the rehearsal room for a theatrical production, there are some universal truths. The director sets “the stage”. They lay out the schedule. They create the environment for which to work and guide every single detail of the pending production. But the star, always the star, sets the tone and the mood. Every supporting actor takes their cue from the top. If the star is an asshole, the swing chorus boy’s work will suffer. If the star is professional, if the star leads by example, the company will always reflect that behavior.
It is Nagy’s production. But Trubisky is the star. And now we’ll see if their summer rehearsal period can produce a winning production.