LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- The Chicago Bears’ most scrutinized offseason storyline rests on the right foot of Eddy Pineiro, the former undrafted kicker who enters Week 1 with a tenuous grip on the starting job.
Tenuous being, perhaps, an understatement.
The Bears’ much-publicized, and sometimes unorthodox, search to replace Cody Parkey (he of "double-doink" fame and eight missed field goals in 2018) ultimately led them to Pineiro, whom Chicago acquired from the Oakland Raiders in May.
Pineiro ended up as the last man standing in a nine-kicker derby that began at the post-draft rookie minicamp, but Chicago’s problem isn’t necessarily solved. Pineiro said on Sunday, after Bears coach Matt Nagy named him the starting kicker for Thursday night's Green Bay Packers game, that “a big stress has been lifted off my shoulders.”
In reality, having never attempted a field goal in a regular-season game, Pineiro’s stress level is about to get worse.
The second-year kicker, who turns 24 on Sept. 13, is assured of very little beyond Week 1, and that’s the difficult balancing act for the Bears.
“In the end, for all of us, it’s about production,” Nagy said. “When are those kicks coming? How often are they coming? And he knows that. We’re real with him. We’re honest with him. But we try not to think of the glass-half-empty-type deal.
“Hopefully it’s the arrow-up deal where he hits a few early and he gets his confidence going, and before you know it, he’s on a nice streak. ... And if it starts out a little slow or there’s inconsistency, that’s where the challenge of being able to ... the frustration of how much it hurts you comes into play.”
The Bears were exceedingly patient with Parkey only to get burned at the worst moment. Most people remember the 43-yard playoff miss against the Philadelphia Eagles, but Parkey, astonishingly, bounced four missed kicks (two field goals, two extra points) off the uprights in a regular-season home game with Detroit.
Chicago stuck with Parkey, who went 3-for-3 on field goals the next week, but the veteran’s accuracy again began to wane as the regular season drew to a close. The Philadelphia disaster made an already uncomfortable situation untenable. Parkey’s ill-advised appearance on a national morning television show days after the Bears’ season ended expedited his departure, which was inevitable.
The Bears cannot let history repeat itself, but they have to be fair to Pineiro.
“Otherwise, we’re just a cat chasing its tail,” Nagy said.
But just how much leeway can a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations afford an unproven kicker?
“You look at a lot of good kickers around the league, you’ll see ebbs and flows sometimes earlier in their career -- not that that’s our expectation. We also understand sometimes that you have to have patience with this position,” Bears general manager Ryan Pace said. “Eddy has the right demeanor. He’s got the right leg talent. The team has really embraced him and we’re happy with the way the whole process played out.”
Bears special teams coordinator Chris Tabor added: “There have been some other players here that have been really good that missed two of their first four kicks. So the hard part is, if it does happen, when does that take place? ... I like how he’s preparing, because he keeps growing, each and every day. And that’s our job to help him with that.”
Pineiro spent Sunday morning kicking at Soldier Field before returning to the team facility (approximately 38 miles north of the stadium) for practice.
Navigating the unpredictable winds off Lake Michigan is essential for kickers in the stadium. The best kickers in team history -- Robbie Gould and Kevin Butler -- routinely practiced at Soldier Field during game weeks. Parkey never seemed to embrace the idea -- until after the dreadful performance against the Lions -- but Pineiro is all about it.
“The wind can be a little tricky,” Pineiro said.
Tabor said Pineiro passed an important test when he nailed two field goals at Soldier Field in Chicago’s preseason finale.
“The other night as we kicked, I thought I heard a commentator as I watched the TV broadcast say, 'Mild wind,'” Tabor said with a smile. “They had to fix the goalposts two times during the game, and the winds got up to 37 mph. I actually laughed in pregame and said, ‘Wow, this is a kicking competition and we’re at the end of August and this thing is howling. This is perfect.’ I think what he has to know is, he finds his line, he trusts his fundamentals and he strikes a good ball. If Mother Nature plays with it after that, we’ll have to talk to mother nature.”
Pineiro made eight of his last nine kicks in the preseason, but Thursday night's season opener will have an entirely different feel. At Florida, Pineiro made a fourth-quarter kick against LSU that propelled the Gators to the SEC championship game. Pineiro routinely kicked in college in front of 100,000 fans at the Swamp, but not even that can prepare a kicker for the glare of the national spotlight.
“Eddy is a great story. He really is,” Tabor said.
How the story ends could define the Bears’ season.