Whether it will prove to be a wakeup shot for an underachieving rookie or not, the announcement that rookie defensive end Jonathan Bullard was inactive for Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers is noteworthy for multiple reasons.
The deactivation was surprising if only because so many of Ryan Pace’s draft choices have been getting on the field and doing reasonably well. Telling Bullard to take a seat was a statement by coach John Fox, coordinator Vic Fangio and line coach Jay Rodgers, all of whom were involved in evaluations leading to the Bears using a third-round pick on the defensive lineman, that this staff is not going to simply and stubbornly stick with a player because they picked him.
Bullard was the only one of the Bears’ top seven picks in the 2016 draft, other than injured cornerback Deiondre Hall, who did not start against the 49ers.
Bullard, expected to challenge for a starting at one D-line position because of his pass-rush potential, did get one start (against Tampa Bay) but played just 14 snaps against Tennessee and was credited with just one (assisted) tackle. Bullard has one sack and two quarterback pressures in 212 snaps played. The sack came at Indianapolis. In the six games since then ... crickets.
Playing time is the ultimate cudgel coaches have this side of the transaction wire. Not saying that Bullard comes under this umbrella, but he would not be the first NFL player who treated their high draft selection as having achieved something when it actually was the beginning, not the finish.
But while coach John Fox cited “ability” first as the reason for Bullard being deactivated, a lack of motivation appeared to be involved based on Fox’s subsequent explanation.
“I think there's a variety of ways to motivate young people,” Fox said. “He's a player that we do like, that we're trying to bring the best out of like we do all our players. He gets to practice all week just like the other players, then how they perform in practice sometimes is reflective on what kind of opportunities they get in the game, so they have to earn it.”
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This approach has worked. Many drafts ago, the Bears used the No. 5 pick of the 1998 draft on running back Curtis Enis, who held out for most of training camp before signing following one of the more bizarre negotiating processes ever. Enis arrived in camp but had decided that he was a runner and didn’t see himself as a blocker, even though no one less than center Olin Kreutz, who knows something about blocking, would later say that Enis was far and away the greatest blocker at running back that Kreutz had ever seen.
Joe Brodsky, the crusty old running backs coach under Dave Wannstedt, had zero tolerance for Enis’ attitude, which included insulting at least one assistant coach. Brodsky privately got squarely in the face of the rookie and informed him that until he made protecting his quarterback as important as running the football, Enis would not start for the Bears.
Enis watched Edgar Bennett start until Brodsky’s message sank in, which was midseason. Enis finally started — one game, against the Rams — and was having the best game of his season when he unfortunately tore his left ACL and his career was all but finished.
But it took tough love from a coaching staff that needed him for its survival (which subsequently did not happen, losing six of the next seven games and costing Wannstedt and staff their jobs) to get through to Enis.
Bullard is not Enis, but the organization invested a Day 2 draft pick in him to be more than fill for the depth chart. Now the burden falls to Bullard to demonstrate that he got the message.
“It's like anybody, from adversity they respond, and that was one of the things I was impressed with our team (Sunday),” Fox said. “Things didn't go well early in the game, defense got put in a couple tough spots because of some special-teams errors and then how we responded as a team, so I would expect the same from any individual player, whether it's due to injury or maybe coaches' decision.
“We want guys to prove us wrong.”