Kevin White didn’t sound like a wide receiver.
As he spoke to reporters at the Auditorium Theatre at Roosevelt University shortly after getting drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2015, it quickly became apparent that White was a somewhat quiet, reserved, humble kid. He didn’t sound like the flashy wideout that was going to be yelling at his quarterback if he didn’t get the ball.
“I don’t really spend a lot of money,” he said. “I buy my earrings at Claire’s.”
That first impression was confirmed the next day when I spoke to White at my cubicle at Halas Hall.
“Sometimes I can be (flashy), but I’m not really into the whole money thing and showing off too much,” White said.
A week later, White easily stood out as the best player on the field at rookie minicamp. But a month later, White was already dealing with a small stress fracture in his leg that would end up costing him his entire rookie season. It was the first of three straight fluke injuries in three years for a player with almost no injury history prior to entering the NFL.
That’s why it wasn’t surprising to hear White – now completely out of the league – tell NBC Sports Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz in a lengthy interview that he feels cheated by football. It’s completely understandable.
“People can say bust or whatever the case may be, and it is attached to my name by default,” White said. “So I think for me, okay, you can say Kevin White’s a bust because it didn’t work out. Absolutely.
“But you can’t say Kevin White can’t play this game or Kevin White can’t get open or Kevin White’s dropping passes. You couldn’t say any of that. Not at practice, not in the little bit of games that I did play.
“You could say injuries, you know, held me back but you can’t say I was out there and just pissed it all (away) — you can’t say that. So that’s how I deal with it.”
Having covered all four years White spent with the Bears, I would agree that he didn’t piss it all away. None of the injuries were a result of poor training or work habits. He battled through three grueling rehabs. Work ethic didn’t seem to be a problem and if it ever became one, you could certainly understand why he would question why it was worth all the work. In his conversation on the Under Center podcast, White expressed frustration that other players who partied and smoked marijuana didn’t get hurt. You never heard anything about White being a distraction off the field. He just had some awful luck.
So we can agree on all that, but I don’t agree with his own assessment of his play – especially in 2018. I would argue White was given plenty of opportunities to prove himself that year and didn’t take advantage of them.
White described himself as playing the best football of his career that summer. I have notes from OTAs that year that suggest otherwise, although in fairness, reporters only get to view one practice a week during OTAs. During training camp, when the pads went on, I remember a few splash plays, but I also remember White struggling to get open. On Aug. 10, 2018, I wrote in my “10 Bears Things” column:
I’m less focused on whether or not White can stay healthy and more focused on whether or not he can actually play wide receiver at the NFL level. We’re now three weeks and two preseason games into training camp and I’m still waiting for some kind of answer.
That was written after White dropped an easy third down completion from Mitch Trubisky in a preseason game against the Bengals. In his interview with Stankevitz, White said he was trying to duck away from a hit on the scapula he broke in 2017, causing the drop. That may have been the case, but it was an enormous missed opportunity in a preseason game when plays like that carry a lot of weight. Also noticeable in that preseason game? Rookie Anthony Miller was pulled before halftime to make sure he didn’t get hurt. Taylor Gabriel didn’t even play. Those are glaring depth chart clues and it was apparent White was, at best, the No. 4 option at wide receiver. Worse, he was clearly behind Gabriel at the “X’ spot, which was the only position White played. He didn’t have a lot of versatility in new coach Matt Nagy’s offense.
White described his spot on the depth chart as “business,” repeating that word to Stankevitz seven times. Of course, the most obvious objection to that claim is that if the depth chart was being determined by “business,” White should have had the upper hand because he was general manager Ryan Pace’s first draft pick and he was failing to live up to expectations. It would have looked better if White was playing.
Instead, it was obvious that Gabriel was quicker in-and-out of his breaks. He simply got open more. And his hands were better.
Contrary to what White said, drops and mental errors were an issue in 2018. White would occasionally have a great practice and shine, but he failed to stack good days together. Confidence – or lack thereof – was always a talking point with the coaches throughout his career. In 2017, White wasn’t pleased when wide receivers coach Zach Azzanni said they watched some his old West Virginia tape to help boost his confidence.
“It’s just a matter of him mentally, right now, seeing it happen and stacking them play by play in each practice,” Nagy said in 2018.
By White’s own admission, he eventually checked out. Things appeared to come to a head in Weeks 8 and 9 when Allen Robinson was out with an injury. Against the Jets in Week 8, White played a then season-high 29 snaps. He caught just one pass for six yards on three targets. On one particular route down the left sideline, White failed to get open and he wasn’t able to make a play on the ball as Trubisky’s pass landed a foot or two out of bounds. But White also caught a big third down pass for a 20-yard gain right before halftime. With a roughing the passer penalty tacked on, the Bears would have been in position to score. But as things tended to go during White’s career, the completion was called back because Kyle Long took linebacker Darron Lee to ground after the whistle. Long was reacting to something that happened earlier in the game, but Nagy was incensed. Not only did the penalty wipe out a play that could have set up a score in the two-minute drill, it also wiped out a confidence-booster for White.
The next week, White was inactive in Buffalo, which was peculiar because Robinson was still out. After the game, Nagy confirmed White was a healthy scratch, saying discipline was not a factor.
“Kevin and our coaching staff and myself, we’ve had some talks and (it’s) just the direction we decided to go for this game,” Nagy said. “Nothing by any means is permanent.”
But White didn’t play again until Week 17 when the Bears already had the NFC North wrapped up. Now we know why.
“Nagy talked to me,” White said. “And it was kind of like, Nagy, man, I’m done with y’all. It’s whatever. Y’all got it.”
White isn’t the first or last player to feel slighted by a lack of playing time. But the evidence suggests 2018 had very little to do with “business” and everything to do with performance.
The entire Kevin White saga is unfortunate. No player should have such poor injury luck – including a rare broken scapula. It’s commendable that White has kept such a positive outlook and that came through as he opened up to Stankevitz.
But the reality is that Kevin White was given a fair shot in 2018 and didn’t take advantage of the opportunity.