By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) You really understand what a 365-day juggernaut the NFL is when you’re hearing about ACL injuries in May. Poor Domenik Hixon barely had the ink dry on his one-year contract with the Chicago Bears before suffering his third ACL tear by the age of 29.
It’s really unfortunate for Hixon, obviously, but injuries in football create opportunities for other guys, some of whom are just hungry for a roster spot. Hixon was expected to compete for the No. 3 wide receiver spot for the Bears along with returning some kicks. Now comes the inevitable cry in the dark.
“Why not let Jordan Lynch return kicks?”
You will hear it. Just wait. And so it starts.
I have been impressed since the NFL Draft a few weeks ago in how fans around here have handled the signing of the undrafted Heisman Trophy finalist out of Northern Illinois who’s also a South Side of Chicago native. Admittedly, my initial reaction was excitement for the guy and that sort of “he’s one of us” pride we all tend to get when someone we’re even remotely associated with makes good.
Lynch and I are both graduates of Mt. Carmel High School, we both reside in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood and we have several mutual acquaintances. So by the transitive property of sports fandom, his success is felt as exponential of most NIU fans/alums, Mt. Carmel Caravan loyalists, Catholic League football enthusiasts, South Side tribalists and those who romance hometown people playing for hometown teams.
Illogical as it is, fans crave any greater association with their favorite team’s players they can get, and a local hero provides just that. Lynch signing with the Bears to many equates to “we made it,” even in a subconscious way.
Realizing that is where my excitement for the Lynch signing turned into fear. Bears fans’ restraint on letting loose the Lynch love into a cocktail that already includes a sad loathing of Jay Cutler and a fascination with gimmicky football like the Wildcat formation can only last so long. And even if in the back of the meatballiest of fans’ minds lies the knowledge that they will never hear “Chicago Bears quarterback Jordan Lynch,” any glimmer of hope that he can fulfill a heroic narrative they so want to exist makes those fans all the more twitchy to start comparing Lynch to Matt Forte.
“Isn’t he a free agent after next year? Jordan would be cheaper with less tread on the tires. Just saying.”
Or, if it means getting him on the playing field, equating his athleticism to an automatic ability to return NFL kicks and/or punts.
“Have you seen him in the open field with the ball in his hands?”
I’m not saying Lynch can’t field a kick and elude tacklers in the highest level of football, but I doubt it crosses the coaching staff’s minds as Chris Williams is already the safe choice to stand back there and has a potential for the spectacular. And it’s an example like that which shows where fans need to be fair to both Lynch and the Bears decision-makers as OTAs are upon us and the gears for the 2014 season are in motion.
Fair to Lynch is understanding and accepting what he is. That’s a very athletic, possibly versatile player on the NFL level who is making a transition from quarterback to running back. Remember how smoothly that went for former Michigan freak show Denard Robinson last year with the Jaguars?
No, you don’t, because it went poorly for him, and he was actually drafted. Robinson may improve with a year under his belt, and his and Lynch’s are not the same exact situations, but the perspective bears having.
Fans need to divorce themselves from any direct or remote connections they have with his localness and assess him solely as an undrafted football player granted for now the opportunity to show if he can help the Bears. Maybe that means the opportunity to have the ball in his hands once in a while. Maybe that means being a special teams contributor without the ball. Maybe that means first learning how to block and run routes, which are not easy to undertake at the age of 23.
The odds are very much against Lynch making the 53-man roster, but he is also a player who will do everything he can to surmount those odds and is also a man who will be just fine if he doesn’t stand on the sidelines on Sunday. Folk heroes aren’t superheroes, though, and asking Lynch to be the latter is unfair.
Fair to the Bears means not holding a lack of Chicago-bred loyalty against them. Being influenced by narratives gets coaches and front offices fired. Lynch’s biography means next to zero to Marc Trestman, Phil Emery, et al at Halas Hall. They may throw out reporter-friendly sound bites about what a nice story he is, but they don’t even know or care where Mt. Greenwood is, I promise you.
“Can he contribute positively and make us better?” is the question that they will ask themselves the entire time they are analyzing his practices. But if they determine he can’t, then fans need to respect their professional judgment and their lack of concern for fans’ feelings. Winning football games will always trump winning scripts for made-for-TV specials and uplifting feature stories.
Thinking different makes you a foolish fan, if a fan at all. There needs to be fewer of those — to be fair to the rest of us.
You can follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.