There’s a new sheriff in town — and his name is Ryan Poles.
A stranger in these parts who was barely settled in after being hired in January to clean up Halas Hall, the Bears’ rookie general manager faced an early, tense, public showdown with star linebacker Roquan Smith in a contract dispute.
Smith was a formidable foe — a two-time All-Pro linebacker with credentials, a reputation and most of the townspeople on his side. A lot of eyes, not only in Chicago but throughout the NFL, were on Poles to see how he could handle this high-profile test of his GM capabilities.
As it turned out, Poles didn’t blink. With Roquan still on his rookie contract, Poles had all the leverage and knew how to use it. Poles held his ground and Smith, after missing the first 25 days of training camp, including 15 practices and two preseason games, did all he could do –back down and live to fight another day.
It’s very likely that Roquan’s day will come. But for now, Poles is the big winner, establishing himself as a general manager who — right or wrong — has definite ideas about the discipline it takes to do this job and is going to do it his way.
With plenty of salary-cap space, making his best player happy might have been an easy move to make for a first-year general manager who didn’t need the headache of a contract holdout. Instead, Poles set a tone that surely won’t go unnoticed at Halas Hall — with wide receiver Darnell Mooney, cornerback Jaylon Johnson, running back David Montgomery, tight end Cole Kmet and quarterback Justin Fields surely paying attention.
If we’ve learned anything about Poles so far, it’s that he is more unflappable than he is green and is very willing to go his own way. With the Bears in dire need of an offense — any offense — he hired a defensive coordinator as his head coach and used his first two draft picks on defensive players.
And when Roquan put the pressure on by holding out of practice and later issuing a public trade request in which he accused Poles of negotiating in bad faith and called on the McCaskeys to help get the deal done, Poles bristled a bit, but did not flinch.
And with that dust settled, Poles now has one of the best inside linebackers in football back on the field, motivated to be “the best Bear I can be” and very likely to do that in a Matt Eberflus defense he should thrive in.
Poles still has work to do — like gaining the respect of his best player after a difficult — and too personal — contract dispute. With Roquan acting as his own agent, his dealings were face-to-face with Poles — a process that didn’t end well for Roquan.
“I thought it was very distasteful to say the least,” Roquan said. “Wasn’t what I anticipated, nor … what I expected from the situation.”
Roquan spoke with more candor in his press conference Saturday than he has in previous uncomfortable media settings. But not when it came to his dealings with Poles.
“The conversation, it’s over,” he said when asked about his most recent conversation with Poles. “There’s not conversations I can’t think back to then. I just know that the conversations are over. So it’s nothing more to be said besides just going out and being the best player I can be for myself and my teammates.”
Disrespect often leaves a scar and Roquan’s hard feelings after losing this battle with Poles won’t heal quickly. Over time, maybe. But Roquan is surely conflicted about playing for an organization that he feels doesn’t respect him. And Poles is the face of that organization.
“My loyalty lies with the city of Chicago,” Roquan said, “the loyal fans here, the guys in the locker room who I put blood, sweat and tears on the line with every day and every week. I’m more focused on those guys and being the best guy I can be for [them] because that’s what matters at the end of the day and that’s who you have when this is all said and done.”