Enigmatic DE Robert Quinn finds his fit amid Bears’ rebuild

Robert Quinn is unconventional, and understanding him requires you to abandon any assumptions. He isn’t going to fit neatly inside any typical framework.

He lives peacefully amid the tension of various contradictions.

As a defensive end, Quinn is one of his generation’s elite pass rushers and set the Bears’ single-season record with 18.5 sacks last season. But his style defies fundamentals. Quinn is known for bending his body almost parallel to the ground as his legs churn around a blocker, earning the nickname Gumby for his rubbery flexibility. It can’t be taught, nor should it be.

He is fervent about his work, but his tone is understated. He’s chasing the Hall of Fame, but that ambition is balanced by the fact that he’s just happy to be alive — something he often mentions — after doctors told him at 17 that he had a brain tumor that would take his life in a week.

There are many more paradoxes within Quinn, but the most perplexing thing about him at the moment is that he’s still here.

With the Bears opening the season Sunday against the 49ers, Quinn seemed certain to have been traded by now. He is the most accomplished, most expensive player on the roster at a salary-cap hit of $17.1 million and could bring in a nice return.

Furthermore, it’s perplexing that he wants to stay. Why would a 12-year veteran want to stick around for a season that everyone expects to be a grueling first step of the rebuild when he could press the team to trade him to a contender?

Quinn can’t answer that because he rejects the premise. As usual, he doesn’t see this the way everyone else does. He values stability. And he doesn’t buy the commentary that this is a bad team.

“It seems like we’re the underdogs this year, but don’t count us out just yet,” he told the Sun-Times. “We’ve still got 17 games to play and we’ll see what happens… We’ve got pieces. Will we be gelled together like we should when the season comes? I sure hope so.

“And I play football with the guys in this locker room, but I also have a family. You’ve gotta find happiness in the middle somewhere. I’m in one spot and I know my family is settled — it’s just peace of mind knowing where you’re gonna be and what to expect when you walk in the building.”

Quinn craves consistency, and it has been hard to find. Including the Rams moving from St. Louis to Los Angeles, he called five cities home from 2015 through his arrival with the Bears in 2020.

Ah, 2020. That was a tough year for everyone, Quinn included. He loves routine and togetherness, and the pandemic brought the opposite of both. He eventually dreaded going to Halas Hall, but said that probably would’ve been the case anywhere.

That first season with the Bears, fresh off signing a five-year, $70 million contract, was a downer. His inability to produce — a career-low two sacks in 548 snaps — compounded his gloom.

Last season was much closer to normal, and Quinn played more like he normally has. He made his third Pro Bowl and finished second in the NFL in sacks. He put up 13 in the final 10 games without Khalil Mack.

Speaking of Mack, there were so many veterans of Quinn’s caliber when he joined the Bears. It was “definitely shocking” to see veterans like him, Akiem Hicks, Danny Trevathan, Kyle Fuller and Allen Robinson exit.

“There’s been a few guys where you look at them like, ‘How do you let them go?'” Quinn said. “But again, that’s the beast of this game. Nothing is really promised to anyone.

“I’m not gonna change who I am regardless of how the locker room is shaped. I just try to lead by example and be myself, and if people like it, I love them. And if they don’t, oh well, I’m gonna be myself regardless and try to make fun and happiness in the locker room. Any of us can be gone at any time, so we might as well try to enjoy it as best as possible while we’re here.”

In many aspects, this season should be in Quinn’s comfort zone.

The NFL rolled back coronavirus-related restrictions. Coach Matt Eberflus shifted the Bears to a 4-3 defense, meaning Quinn will play his natural position after two seasons at outside linebacker. And he still has a friend in young defensive end Trevis Gipson.

Gipson is an upstart from Tulsa who aspires to climb to Quinn’s stature, and getting to be his understudy has been huge.

“He has so much experience and knowledge,” Gipson said. “We trust what he says. It reflects in what he does on the field. It’s hard to [ignore] what a guy says when he shows you results also. It’s credibility, mentorship, leadership.”

And that, in addition to Quinn still being a world-class pass rusher, is a big reason general manager Ryan Poles hasn’t wanted to trade him. Cap space and draft assets are valuable, but so is Quinn.

“He brings one of those examples of what Matt wants to see out of his defense in being relentless,” Poles said. “Another leader in the room that can show the young guys the way. And he’s been doing a really great job at that.

“There’s this misconception: ‘Tear this down and rebuild it all.’ It’s not that. There’s also a feel for the room. How can you stay productive and win ballgames? He helps us with that.”

It also helps that Quinn, 32, keeps striving. He has 101 sacks and $100 million in earnings, but he’s looking for more.

If there’s one thing he cares about in terms of stardom, it’s his legacy. He spoke reverently of Bears great Richard Dent when he broke his sack record and measures himself against Hall of Famers.

“I want to play at a high level as long as I’m playing,” Quinn said. “I could be home just living life, but if I’m going to sacrifice that to play this game, I might as well make it worthwhile.

“I love what I do. I want to make sure I have a strong career like some of the Hall of Famers. They gave me something to reach for. Now I’m just trying … to get to the numbers of Hall of Famers. That means I’m doing something right.”

He is 35th all-time in sacks, ahead of a handful of Hall of Famers already, and if he hits double digits again this season, it’d be the sixth time in his career and likely would propel him into the top 25.

He’s not in the conversation for Canton yet, but a late-career charge would make it interesting.

Quinn, of course, might have to do that somewhere else. He knows he might not stay with the Bears all season, but said he isn’t stressed about that possibility. He hopes his production persuades Poles to keep him, but that’s also what entices other teams to call.

He’d love longevity with the Bears, and the $35.5 million in cap hits over 2023 and ’24 would be well worth it for them if he plays like he did last season. That’d be perfectly enigmatic for Quinn — a player nobody thought would fit, but inexplicably he does.

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