Column

How keeping Wims after punching incident hurt Bears in playoffs

Column

The Chicago Bears talk a lot about their culture and setting standards.

Unfortunately, one standard they set earlier this season ended up hurting them in a playoff game.

When reserve wide receiver Javon Wims sucker punched Saints cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson back in Week 8, he was suspended two games by the NFL, but the Bears kept their own team discipline in-house. They could have cut him, but they didn’t, which raised a fair question about accountability.

“The day that (Wims) came back, the first thing I told him is, ‘You're lucky, you're very lucky. I'm just going to be absolutely honest with you -- guys like this and what you've done and how privileged you should be to be in this league, you're lucky to be here,” Bears wide receivers coach Mike Furrey said last month.

Wims was particularly fortunate because the incident was not his first. In Aug. of 2019, Wims lost his cool in a training camp practice and threw multiple punches at former Bears cornerback Prince Amukamara. Amukamara, a nine-year NFL veteran at the time, did not throw any punches back, later citing that he learned his lesson in college not to punch someone in the helmet.

Wims did not learn that lesson, as he struck Gardner-Johnson in the helmet twice on Nov. 1 and was ejected. Worse, he had just been warned about the agitating cornerback right before the incident.

 

“The most disappointing thing that occurred from that event was the fact that I just sat there on the bench prior to that play and I told every single one of (them), ‘Do not get involved with 22. Do not retaliate. Don’t put your hands on him. Don’t head-butt him. Get back in the huddle,’” Furrey said back in November. “So the way I handled that, the biggest thing, was the communication to learn a lesson that when someone’s trying to protect you from maybe ruining your career, you need to listen.’”

Which brings us to this week. With a playoff rematch against the Saints and Gardner-Johnson looming, Bears head coach Matt Nagy took time on Wednesday to address this exact situation.

“We spent time literally showing and explaining a particular player’s actions in games and teaching it. That’s taking 10 or 15 minutes out of your day, which is precious,” Nagy said.

It didn’t help. Amazingly, third-year wide receiver Anthony Miller was ejected at almost the exact same part of the third quarter for punching Gardner-Johnson. And you know Miller was one of the prime targets of the coaches’ pregame messages, because he was also highly involved in the jawing with Gardner-Johnson in the first meeting. At one point, Gardner-Johnson even poked Miller in the face through his facemask.

But that was over two months ago. In Sunday’s incident, Gardner-Johnson was just talking – which he apparently does very well – and Miller turned around and earned his ejection.

“Guys like that do what they do, but your bark can’t be louder than your bite and it’s hard to bite, so I’m not worried about that,” Miller said Thursday.

Wims may have learned his lesson this time, but his teammate obviously did not. And it makes you wonder, would Miller have hit Gardner-Johnson had Wims lost his job in November?

It’s a fair question – and frankly, considering all the coaches did to warn Miller leading up the game, you can certainly make the argument that he still would have done it.

But accountability matters in football and players notice when someone in their locker room throws punches in two separate incidents in two years – including at their own teammate – and keeps their job. Especially when that player only has 28 catches in three seasons, as Wims does. If he can get away with it, Miller certainly can.

Cutting Wims in November would have been understandable under the circumstances, but it also wasn’t surprising to see the Bears keep him around because -- outside of those two incidents -- he is widely considered a great teammate that fits the culture. But it’s more than fair to raise questions about that culture when players are still throwing punches when they’ve been repeatedly warned not to.

 

Wims’ mere presence in Sunday’s 21-9 loss to the Saints had a big impact on the game. It led to a week’s worth of talk from both teams that undoubtedly resulted in heightened concerns from an officiating crew that couldn’t wait to react. At one point, tight end Cole Kmet was flagged for tossing the ball to an official, because one of the officials thought he was tossing it at a nearby player.

“That was a big play in the game, and for us to have that field position we had, now it’s 3rd-and-20. I was confused as to what happened,” Nagy said.

You could even argue that Miller would not have been ejected if tensions had not risen to the point that they did. Former NFL referee and current NBC rules analyst Terry McAuley pointed out on Twitter that it was a questionable ejection, but under the circumstances it was not surprising.

Nevertheless, the Bears lost their No. 2 wide receiver for the rest of the game.

And then there was the drop. The biggest play of the game. Like it or not, on-field performance is always part of the equation when it comes to releasing players for disciplinary reasons and Wims has done very little in three seasons to earn the benefit of the doubt in that regard. Sunday, he dropped a sure 40-yard touchdown on a play the Bears had been working on for a while. And it came on a perfect throw from Mitch Trubisky that hit Wims right between the numbers.

“I’d be sitting here lying to you, if I told you it didn’t hurt,” Nagy said. “That hurt.”

The Bears knew they had to play a perfect game to beat the Saints and even though Wims’ drop happened in a 7-0 game with 3:42 left in the first quarter, it sure felt like the ballgame.

This is not to suggest the Bears would be playing another playoff game next week had they cut Wims in November. That’s hardly the point. The incident points to flaws in the culture the Bears love to promote and reflects poorly on the entire organization.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson has quickly earned a reputation for baiting opposing players and getting under their skin. He may even cross the line sometimes.

But the Bears seem to be the only team that can’t handle it.