CHICAGO — It doesn't get more dramatic in the NFL in May than the kicking battle royal the Bears hosted at their rookie minicamp.
Eight men entered Friday and a ninth joined Saturday. Through three practices, more than 300 field-goal attempts were tracked and analyzed with the help of Doppler radar technology. A few juicy, high-pressure kicks were contrived, the final one ending with a backflip.
By Sunday night, when the thuds of shoes hitting pigskin finally subsided, only Elliott Fry and Chris Blewitt remained under contract at Halas Hall. And the roster churn didn't stop there.
On Monday, the Bears acquired Eddy Pineiro from the Raiders for the low, low price of a a conditional 2021 seventh-round draft pick.
Does all that action qualify as progress? How much closer are the Bears to finding their Week 1 kicker? What are the important takeaways from the weekend audition? Where does the kicking competition go from here? Tribune reporters Rich Campbell and Dan Wiederer sound it out in this edition of Real Talk.
Rich Campbell: We could cover the NFL for 30 more years, Dan, and never experience anything like what unfolded at Halas Hall over the weekend. It was entertaining and exciting at times; farcical and kind of depressing at others. I suspect we all came down with a case of kicker fatigue, coach Matt Nagy included.
I appreciate the Bears pulling the curtain back for us. We now have a much clearer sense of how painstaking this kicker search is. Seeing nine rookies in a competition overseen by their new kicking consultant, Jamie Kohl, brought to life the Bears' determination to fix this problem.
But after watching such an ordinary group, and after a trade for Pineiro that amounted to little more than a waiver claim, there's one adjective I'd use above all others to describe this search: ongoing.
Dan Wiederer: Ah, yes, kicker fatigue. It's real, it's out there and the hysteria surrounding it could make it this summer's swine flu. Count me among the first wave of documented cases in the Chicago area. And if I have kicker fatigue and you have it and we suspect Nagy and some of his Halas Hall counterparts may have it, doesn't that mean we have to show a map of the United States with Illinois turned neon red?
For what it's worth, I started experiencing my first symptoms in the 1 o'clock hour Sunday as I was craning my neck to see whether a Spencer Evans 42-yard field-goal attempt had snuck inside the right upright. Were we really doing this? Charting kicks from eight relatively unknown dudes at a rookie minicamp on the first weekend of May? Yep. Yes, we were.
And the Bears were too. Over three days, we received a decent snapshot of just how challenging this kicker search is, has been and will continue to be. Of the eight kickers the Bears had on hand, none jumped out as elite to the naked eye. Unlike the Bears' decision-makers, we didn't have the benefit of video review or Doppler technology to study the velocity, trajectory and get-off time for each guy. But I'm not sure we needed it to come to this conclusion: this search is a long, long way from being over. The trade for Pineiro reinforced that notion, So buckle in. And if your kicker fatigue feels severe, consult a physician.
Campbell: Amid all the neck-craning, hand-signaling and charting we did, the most significant development in the kicker search is the addition of Kohl. It makes a ton of sense for the Bears to hire a coach who specializes in one of the team's main deficiencies. He's widely respected in the kicking world. His camps serve as one of the biggest recruiting platforms for college prospects, and he has worked previously with some of the Bears' candidates.
Exiting the weekend, I can't help but think the Bears need to widen their competition to include a kicker with NFL experience. Of course, I mean more than Pineiro's 2018 preseason with the Raiders before he went on injured reserve with a groin injury. The Raiders, after all, were willing to part with him for just about nothing in return.
Adding an accomplished veteran might simply be a matter of time. It wouldn't surprise either of us if the Bears' Week 1 kicker is somewhere other than the Bears' roster right now. And, no, I'm not thinking of Robbie Gould. The 49ers have said they won't trade him, and the Bears haven't given any indication they want him back. Put that name on the shelf for the time being.
For now, at least it's only early May. Fry, Blewitt and Pineiro aren't finished products. There's time to see how they respond to Kohl's guidance and some of the ball-flight data.
At some point -- maybe the start of training camp -- the Bears must lean harder into the production side of the production/development balance beam they're walking. For now, though, I can understand why they're focusing on two youngsters. Especially now that it's two instead of eight.
Wiederer: The good news, as you pointed out, is that it's only May. But the bad news is it's only May. And my biggest fear for the Bears evaluators is that what they are truly trying to find in their next kicker can't be learned until September when the lights go on and the stakes are real. So for now there's a risk of becoming so engrossed in this evaluation process that everything becomes overanalyzed and overthought.
I'm all for the enlivened competition Nagy has created and the pressure he is trying to manufacture. But as I've said for a while, nothing that happens at rookie camp or organized team activities or minicamp or training camp or even the preseason really will tell the Bears how their next kicker will respond when called into a game-winning situation against the Packers in the NFL opener Sept. 5.
Bright lights, big stage. Then what?
It's also impossible to definitively forecast how said kicker might respond to the wave of panic that will ensue if he, say, misses two kicks in a Week 3 game against the Redskins.
Doppler technology can't identify the clutch gene. Measuring mental toughness is oftentimes guesswork. So even with all this extensive research, the Bears will still start the season with great uncertainty.
Campbell: Sure. But there can be trust in a kicker despite that uncertainty. This competition is designed to be thorough (as GM Ryan Pace put it) so that Nagy will trust the kicker to make the first game-winning kick even though no one can be certain the guy actually will.
The Bears can't go into the Packers game compelled to go for two after every touchdown because they lack confidence in the kicker. Generating such belief without in-game production is a challenge, no doubt. But that's the predicament the Bears have created for themselves dating back to cutting Gould in 2016.
Without a proven NFL veteran in the mix, the Bears are left to conjure pressure situations in practice for these youngsters. You saw it at rookie camp. Redford Jones, who was under contract, lost his head-to-head showdown with tryout kicker Casey Bednarski at the end of Sunday's practice. By Monday morning, Jones was back on the street.
Wiederer: To be clear, so, too, was Bednarski -- even after he finished a solid tryout at rookie camp. (By the Tribune's unofficial count, he was the most accurate of the eight kickers.) So there's obviously much more to this Bears kicker battle than just rising to the occasion in Nagy's end-of-practice pressure cooker.
Eventually we're going to need to hear much more from Pace, much more from special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, much more from Kohl to understand the details of this kicker competition and to see everything through the lens the Bears are using.
And while you fairly stamped the "ongoing" label onto this hunt and Pace continues to characterize his search as "thorough," I'll give you another adjective that fits: desperate.
The Bears are desperate, and that was clear from everything we witnessed at rookie camp. Desperation can be an incredibly mind-twisting emotion. So how can the Bears get through such desperation between now and Labor Day to build genuine trust in the guy they choose to lead them into Week 1?
Campbell: The options aren't all that compelling. As you said, there's no substitute for in-game pressure.
Volume is one way, specifically with contenders and practice reps. The Bears cast their net wide for rookie camp. They executed Monday's trade. At some point, they could widen the competition to include a veteran or two. And have them kick, kick and keep kicking. Those winner-take-all, loser-does-calisthenics situations? Keep 'em coming when Blewitt, Fry and Pineiro get back with the veterans this week.
Remember Nagy's diabolical grin as he teased the competition for us after the draft? The rookie camp structure didn't fully measure up to that. I mean, we reporters never got to rush on field-goal block. That curveball is still out there.
Wiederer: I know you've had your helmet and shoulder pads in the trunk for a week now just waiting for the call. (Stay ready, bro!)
But that's what I mean with all this. This push to get creative with the competition may add some spice to enliven things in the spring and early summer. But does it really get the Bears any closer to finding a reliable kicker who can help them chase a Super Bowl? I have no idea.
Right now, it feels like the Bears are grasping. Out of desperation. And all these bells and whistles are merely masking the anxiety that has infiltrated Halas Hall as they try to get this thing right.
This kicker storyline isn't going away for a long time. Inevitably, the anxiety will still be lurking into January 2020. Who knows if, at that point, kicker fatigue will be replaced by full-fledged kicker panic?
The Bears seem to have taken for granted what they once had in Gould. And they're still paying for the misstep, still looking to find a kicker they can trust. Fifteen months ago, they guaranteed Parkey $9 million and endorsed him as a proven veteran who had been to the Pro Bowl and had a healthy previous relationship with Tabor. Ultimately, none of that meant anything.
So what's next? Clearly, there's no easy answer.