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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The midterm exam in NFL Business 101 came on the last day before the Bears' fall break.
Here's the essay question: If a veteran safety in the last year of his contract asks for a trade after being benched then returns with a whimper, how long until he's cut?
The answer was "Thursday."
Chris Harris, locker room spokesman and social media titan, was unceremoniously cut from his second stint with the Bears just before the team's last practice before its bye-week vacation.
|Chris Harris' play fell off dramatically in 2011.|
Apparently his fast-twitch reflexes weren't as in demand as his fast-tweet abilities. As Harris, a second-team All-Pro safety last season, told it to ESPN 1000's "Waddle & Silvy," he came in to work at 7:30 a.m., only to be approached by equipment manager Tony Medlin. That meant one of two things: Harris had stiffed Medlin on his coat drive requests or he needed to see coach Lovie Smith for "The Talk."
It was, of course, the latter.
As Harris recounted, when a trainer also told him he needed to see the coach, he really knew he was done. This was just a final confirmation of his status with the team. When he didn't get a contract extension done, and the team drafted safeties high in the last two drafts, he could read the writing on the chalkboard. When he got benched before the Vikings game, he might as well have put an ad on Craigslist.
While the early-morning move snuck up on people, in another sense, it was just another day at Halas Hall, where safeties are always in danger.
"We're trying to win a championship," Smith said after practice on Thursday. "The guys we're keeping here I feel like give us our best chance to do it."
I believe Smith believes that. But I'm not sure the Bears do. Pretty much every locker room distrusts management in the NFL, but the Bears have a long history in this regard. Much has been written and discussed about a divide this season. The Harris move did nothing to bridge it.
"If you look at the tape, [Harris] was doing what's he supposed to do," Bears defensive back D.J. Moore said. "Like everybody you make bad plays and whatnot, but like everybody you could probably tell it was bad blood somewhere, I would think. If you go from starting to not starting and then all of a sudden, you're just gone, there's got to be ego somewhere."
Now Moore's grasp of Harris' play doesn't mean much in the scheme of things. Harris looked hobbled against Detroit, after returning from a couple games off with a hamstring injury. He was inactive against Minnesota and started in London, giving up a big scoring play in the fourth quarter that made it a 3-point game. Harris later described the problem as a "little dead spot in Cover 2."
No, Harris hasn't been playing like an All-Pro, but can you honestly say you're confident Major Wright and Chris Conte and Brandon "Helmet-First Hitman" Meriweather are reliable for a playoff push?
Especially considering Harris went from inactive to starter in London because Wright was injured. That wasn't a surprise either. Wright is always injured.
But Wright is ready, all things being constant, for Philadelphia in two Mondays, and the Bears seem confident with their future at the safety position, Wright and Conte, each a third-round pick in the last two drafts. Of course Smith would've acted confident when the Titanic was going down.
"Just a little water," he would've said. "Water never hurt anybody."
I can't judge Smith and the Bears' brain trust's eye for specifics, but I can agree that Harris hasn't looked good. Was that enough of a sample size to cut him with half the season left and two young starters? If Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo could decide on a course of action at safety that has any degree of continuity, this Harris news would be a non-story, a "nice guy gets cut" situation. But since they're stuck in their own Samuel Beckett homage, "Waiting for John Lynch," I just don't have much trust in this team's decision-making process.
"It's a combination really of a lot of things," Smith said. "We based things on play on the field. Chris played the first game. I know he had an injury there that knocked him out of a couple of the games. But it's the body of work, not just one thing. And then it's just a gut feeling as a head football coach, a gut feeling for me. I felt like we needed to go in a different direction. Again, I like our options we have here right now."
Here's the thing about Harris: I'm sure his outspoken nature grated on his bosses at times, especially when he asked for a trade after being placed on the inactive list before the Vikings game. You can say whatever you want when you're still playing at a high level. See Briggs, Lance. But was he unsustainable as a reserve? Smith said Harris can't play special teams, which hastened his demise.
But count Moore as one who thinks that Harris' trade demand after the benching might have expedited his release. Obviously he was benched before the demand, but it's not hard to get an NFL player thinking about politics.
"I don't know," Moore said. "Once you say you want a trade, somebody feels like 'he's trying to one-up me' or something like that. I'm just guessing like y'all are guessing, trying to figure it out."
When we first approached him for comment, Moore went further off-script, wondering if the Bears would now address Matt Forte's contract situation. While players will grumble about Harris' exit, the Forte story has become a joke. It's the business of the NFL, sure, but that doesn't make it sensible.
As everyone knows by now, Forte wants a multiyear deal and guaranteed millions. The running back is still playing out his rookie contract while Angelo remains calm, knowing he can place the franchise tag on the running back.
It just so happens Forte is having an MVP campaign, and the recurring theme of the season is how the Bears won't pay the best player on their team. It's a weekly embarrassment and a shining example of how skewed the economics of the NFL still are.
"It's always a business," Moore said. "They letting go of Chris, they need to just pay Forte. It's pointless. If I'm the best player on the team, I wouldn't even play. It doesn't make sense for you [the front office] to wait to pay him and you make all kind of other moves and stuff. And the most important thing [should be] to make your best player on the team feel like he's the best player on the team."
Moore wasn't angry or accusatory. He was just speaking the truth. He was heading out of town without a care in the world.
"I don't worry about nothing but my girlfriend, make sure she isn't cheating on me," he said. "Other than that, I'm good. That's the only thing that would dent my ego."Jon Greenberg is a colunist for ESPNChicago.com.