Bears in last year of contract can’t afford to play scared
BY PATRICK FINLEY Staff Reporter October 12, 2013 12:37AM
Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman (33) warms up before an NFL football game against the Minnesota Vikings, Sunday, Sept. 15, 2013, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Bears whose contracts expire at the end of the season:
1. QB Jay Cutler
2. CB Charles Tillman
3. KR/PR Devin Hester
4. K Robbie Gould
5. C Roberto Garza
6. DT Henry Melton*
7. CB Tim Jennings
8. DL Corey Wootton
9. LB Blake Costanzo
10. LS Patrick Mannelly
11. LB D.J. Williams*
12. S Craig Steltz
13. S Anthony Walters
14. LB James Anderson
15. CB Kelvin Hayden*
16. WR Joe Anderson
17. QB Josh McCown
18. G Matt Slauson
19. OL Jonathan Scott
20. TE Dante Rosario
21. OL Eben Britton
22. DT Landon Cohen
23. DT Nate Collins*
24. OL Taylor Boggs
25. DT Christian Tupou
26. CB Zack Bowman
27. CB Sherrick McManis
28. S Major Wright
29. FB Tony Fiammetta
* Out for the season with injury
— Source: Spotrac.com
Updated: November 14, 2013 6:33AM
Before the first regular-season game in 2012, the family packed its things in boxes and sent them to what it called its ‘‘Forever Home,’’ a little Nebraska farm between Lincoln and Beatrice.
It left its New Jersey place and headed for a sort of pro-football purgatory: the Extended Stay America hotel, three miles from New York Jets headquarters in Florham Park, N.J.
Matt Slauson was in the final year of his contract with the Jets last season and was convinced the team would trade — or maybe even release — him.
So he, his wife and his young son lived out of the hotel all season, getting clean linens whenever they wanted.
‘‘I knew I was going into the last year, and I didn’t know how things were going to shake out,’’ said Slauson, now a Bears guard. ‘‘It was rough, but I felt that was the best thing to do.’’
When this season began, more than half the players on the Bears’ active roster were in the last year of their contracts — from quarterback Jay Cutler to cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings to Slauson, who signed a one-year deal and moved his family to Chicago.
Despite a lifetime of football mantras pounded into their heads — to worry about the game and not the future, about performing and not the threat of injury — it’s hard to ignore the uncertainty off the field.
‘‘Outside of here,’’ Slauson said, looking around the Bears’ locker room, ‘‘I have to handle things differently.’’
The Bears have 29 players in the last years of their deals, counting the four — defensive tackles Henry Melton and Nate Collins, linebacker D.J. Williams and nickel back Kelvin Hayden — lost for the season to injury.
NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, so signing bonuses and up-front money are the surest path to financial stability. It would be easy for players in the last year of their contracts to wonder whether similar injuries would cost them future earning power.
‘‘It could cost you a lot,’’ Slauson said. ‘‘But if you play scared, then you aren’t going to be able to play at all.’’
Safety Major Wright, who is in the last year of his deal, said injury risks are inherent to the game.
‘‘It’s always in the back end of your mind, but you can’t let that affect your play,’’ he said. ‘‘You have to go out and just play, y’know? Put it all on the line for your teammates and your family.’’
Some concerns are more practical. When long snapper Patrick Mannelly tore his anterior cruciate ligament in 2011, he was grateful he wasn’t in the last year of his deal. He wanted to know there was a place he could rehab during the offseason.
‘‘You learned as a kid you play to have fun,’’ he said. ‘‘The minute you lose that fun aspect of it is when you worry it’s a job. You’re gonna get hurt.’’
From Pop Warner on up, players are taught the surest way to get hurt in a game is to fear injuries and play tentatively.
Be that fact or fiction, players didn’t reach the highest level of the sport by having fear.
‘‘If you don’t go out there and give it everything you’ve got, that deal might not come anyway,’’ said linebacker Blake Costanzo, who is in the last year of his deal. ‘‘That’s just the nature of the business. There’s injuries all the time.’’
Even with perfect health, the Bears’ locker room won’t look the same next season. Whether it’s a total overhaul likely depends on the rest of the season.
‘‘The focus for me is there has to be a sense of urgency with our football team, and we all know why,’’ coach Marc Trestman said. ‘‘This team will not be the same the next time around. It can’t be. It never is.
‘‘Whether you have 20 guys who are free agents or four, next year’s team will not be this year’s team. So let’s make the most of what we’ve got while we’re together.’’
The situation won’t change much for the rest of the season. General manager Phil Emery isn’t inclined to give many in-season extensions, saying in an online chat this week that he views his pending free agents ‘‘as a 2014 challenge.’’
He praised Cutler, though, and said Slauson, who understood salary-cap concerns made a one-year deal necessary, will be approached about an extension at ‘‘the appropriate time.’’
Trestman said he doesn’t think about players’ contract situations on a daily basis.
‘‘But we do know . . . that this locker room will be a locker room that will not be together again,’’ Trestman said. ‘‘Because if there’s one guy missing, it will be a different locker room.’’
Compartmentalization is as much a part of football as blocking or tackling — from focusing on game plans to pushing out the realities of a looming contract.
‘‘It’s not like you’re going to call up Phil and start having a conversation about that,’’ said safety Craig Steltz, whose deal is up after this season. ‘‘You go out there and make plays, and that gives you an opportunity to continue to play.’’
It’s a truth of the business that players — from stable stars to players in the last year of their contracts — came to grips with a long time ago: Injuries happen, and so do extensions.
‘‘And sometimes,’’ Slauson said with a smile, ‘‘we have to live out of hotels.’’