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The Truth on Allen Robinson: How it went south in Chicago & what's next...
Power is shifting to the players. Will the Bears' wide receiver be the next NFL star to seize control? Robinson speaks to Go Long about how everything got to this point in Chicago and what's next...
This makes absolutely zero sense.
Allen Robinson should’ve been handed a blank check long ago.
Anybody who has watched a millisecond of the Chicago Bears’ offense the last three seasons can draw one indisputable conclusion: It’s Allen Robinson and everybody else. The veteran wide receiver has been the one source of hope for an offense taking a nosedive back into purgatory. Wherever you look, the employment of just about everybody else at Halas Hall seems precarious. The general manager. The head coach. All of the draft mistakes.
But the one constant? The one sure thing? “A-Rob” making the best of a wretched situation.
Which brings us to today, to Feb. 18, 2021, and Robinson hasn’t heard anything from the Bears since season’s end. Not a peep. And, miraculously, this ascending 27-year-old does not sound like a player who’s been wanted by the Bears for a while now. Free agency is one month away. Very, very rarely does a talent like this ever reach this point.
Let alone one this franchise so clearly, so desperately needs.
Let alone one who insists, repeatedly, that he loves the city of Chicago, the fans and genuinely wanted to make this work before last season even began.
Yet, in many ways, this star receiver’s plight represents everything wrong about the NFL.
Players have been told for years that, hey, if you zip your lip and play hard, there’s a big pot of gold waiting on the other end of the rainbow. This is often a lie. Rarely does it pay to be a good soldier so, now, the players of today are starting to take action. They recognize the extremely small window of opportunity they have to maximize their value and are doing everything in their power to seize control. Tradition be damned.
Star players are requesting trades more than ever.
That’s why a guy like Deshaun Watson, the most unselfish superstar you’ll ever meet, is doing everything he can to flee Houston. Before him, Stefon Diggs and Jalen Ramsey and Jamal Adams willed their way out of bad situations.
This could go down as the offseason we witnessed a quantum shift in the power dynamics of the sport and Robinson is the guy who could really swing that pendulum to the players. Consider who he is. Up to this point, Robinson hasn’t said much at all. He’s been the man of Zen, calmly controlling what he can control through all the chaos. One day, last September, he asked for a trade. Moments later, he went back to work. You heard Robinson here in this space — he was following those three magical words from Kobe: “Get over yourself.” Robinson busted his ass all season long to finish with 102 receptions for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns… and his reward? His pot of gold?
No phone calls from the Bears.
Only the high probability he’ll be slapped with the franchise tag.
Through seven seasons and 90 games of footballs sailing over his head and harebrained playcalls in the red zone and losing (God, all the losing), Robinson didn’t scowl. Didn’t throw his arms up. Didn’t curse. He always jogged back to the huddle and lined up again.
Yet, this is also true: Robinson knows his worth and he is ready to put his future in his hands. This is a column of truth and, sometimes, the truth hurts. Robinson knows the team could tag him, and he is fully prepared for that unfortunate scenario. One way or another, this offseason, he will finally speak his future into existence because, to him, his future is crystal clear:
A new market-value contract
The Super Bowl
The Hall of Fame
With his future hanging in the balance on the eve of free agency, Robinson spoke at length to Go Long.
And, first, he makes it abundantly clear he wanted this to work in Chicago. Not one bad word is uttered about anyone personally at Halas Hall, but he’s also blunt. Robinson’s camp initiated multiple conversations with the Bears last offseason alone to get a deal done. The market rose. And rose. Robinson did his part and, now, Robinson doesn’t sound like someone who’ll be a Chicago Bear in 2021.
“I do have a lot of love for the city of Chicago,” Robinson begins. “I think that gets skewed in the talks — my feelings for Chicago. For me, it’s really about evaluating what’s best for my career. For myself, I’m always a team guy and always have been a team guy. Once you get to these points in your career where you’ve played out your contract and you’re becoming a free agent, you have to sit back and think about what’s best for you not only on the field but for your family.
“For myself, as a person and a player, I think the city of Chicago has an outstanding fan base. The best fan base I’ve played for in the NFL. I am thoughtful of that through the process because — for myself — I never want to feel like I don’t enjoy the city of Chicago. They’ve embraced my foundation in the community. I built a ton of relationships. But, unfortunately, those aren’t the things that weigh the most in a situation like this.”
The last time Robinson was a free agent, he was recovering from a torn ACL. Now, he’s fresh off three straight fantastic individual seasons.
He wants to maximize his worth.
He wants to join a contender.
“I’m still on the hunt to be a Hall-of-Fame receiver,” Robinson says. “That’s definitely important to me, as far as being able to play my best this next part — the prime of my career. That’s what it’s about. It’s about being able to play your best, being able to play meaningful games, being able to compete for a Super Bowl.”
Asked if he can realistically get both — the contract he seeks with a contender — he doesn’t hesitate.
“I definitely think I can.”
Now, the games begin.
How it got here
A full 365 days ago, there is no way Robinson or his agent, Brandon Parker, expected to be here.
Start there. Around the Combine. That’s when Parker started to extend “the olive branch” to Chicago and he says he extended that olive branch through the course of last offseason to maintain an open line of communication. Which, frankly, goes against the conventional wisdom of negotiating. As other receivers inked mega deals elsewhere, Parker figured he’d swallow his pride and do the Bears a favor in giving them the chance to get ahead of this rising market.
Robinson wanted to be a Bear, after all.
The talks were awkward and went nowhere. The Bears, to him, did not seem remotely interested in re-signing Robinson.
One week before the regular season began, like clockwork, dialogue was then initiated by the Bears. Such is a go-to tactic used by teams every single September. The thinking is essentially, Let’s get Player X to take less money because, now, Player X will not want to risk injury. The tactic often works, too. Teams are able to save a million bucks here, a million bucks there. But this conversation in Chicago, like the previous ones, went nowhere.
The Bears played Detroit in Week 1. Robinson had five catches for 74 yards.
Then, Robinson — as we all know today — asked for a trade. He and his agent now jokingly refer to the moment as “D-Day.” And in our convo here, Robinson takes everyone through “D-Day.” It was Monday night. He was taking his routine Epsom Salt bath. He started to think… and think… and think… and Robinson simply could not shake the idea of catching passes from multiple quarterbacks and playing for multiple playcallers yet again. The impending dread weighed on him. So, he called up his agent.
“All these different things, I tried to look at it and say, ‘If we can’t get a deal done, this hill for me to climb to be able to perform at my best? It may be even a little greater than I thought it was,’” Robinson says. “That’s when it came about. If we are going to have to play on a contract year, is this the best situation to be able to show our value and bring our value to the table?
“It’s like… Do you guys even need our services?”
Because if not — if he was this unwanted — he figured the Bears would want something in return.
Looking back, Robinson assures the whole ordeal was a lot less emotional than everyone thought. He describes himself as an extremely practical person. Honestly, it was simple: He looked at the “mountains” he’d need to climb to even put himself in position for a new deal and was concerned. Any bead of sweat, any anxiety he felt then would be totally understandable, too. The last time Robinson entered a contract year, of course, he tore that ACL. He lost millions. He started to wonder if he was about to lose millions again.
So, down came all Bears content off his social media.
So, in came another call from the front office. The Bears reached back out to Robinson’s camp, tried to get a deal done quickly and, no, Parker did not believe it was realistic to strike any deal in one week after the two sides were soooo far apart the previous eight months. There’s probably a good chance the Bears knew this, too. But at least by reaching out they could sell a message to the top of the organization (and the fans) that everything was under control, that all parties involved were grinding out a contract. At which point, those in the Bears front office cross their fingers that Robinson won’t detonate.
The team banked on a couple things.
First, on Parker’s strong working relationship with the franchise. (More on that later.)
Secondly, on the type of guy Robinson was. They knew Robinson would never, ever be a cancer in the locker room. Parker is absolutely right when he says you won’t find anyone who’s ever played with Robinson or coached Robinson that’d call him anything but “respectable” and “hard-working” and “fair” and “loving” and “appreciative.” His reputation is sterling. His serenity those years in Jacksonville downright freaked teammates out — they couldn’t understand how he was able to stay sane through such an offensive malaise, through so many L’s.
The Bears bet on the fact that Robinson wouldn’t outright quit the next 15 games.
Still, it was obvious to the wide receiver right then that the two sides were miles apart. Robinson’s camp felt that the Bears were not willing to budge from their offer, an offer that the receiver says was below market and would’ve locked him into Chicago for the remainder of his career. Thus, also zapping another opportunity at the market as it keeps on skyrocketing.
Says Robinson: “For myself — as much as I wanted a deal done — I wanted a fair deal.”
Reports of what Robinson sought surfaced then and he had no clue where they came from. Neither he, nor Parker, have talked numbers with anyone. Then or now. It’s possible the Bears have tried to shift public perception to frame an argument, another common practice in NFL front offices.
The Bears didn’t respond to an email request to discuss this negotiation.
It’s true, the team’s gamble back in September paid off in the short term. Robinson would only work and work and work because he only knows one hellbent speed. Unlike other elite receivers have done when they’re unhappy, Robinson didn’t milk an injury or rip a quarterback or cause any sort of scene whatsoever. Simply, he points out that there’s a difference between “getting a deal done” and “getting the best deal done.” As much as he wanted to re-sign with the Bears, he also wanted a deal that was comparable to his equals.
What should be most maddening to Bears fans is the fact that, through this all, management had no problem throwing money around to the likes of Robert Quinn (five years, $70 million), Tarik Cohen (three years, $17.25 million), Jimmy Graham (two years, $16 million) and of course that $21 million guaranteed to Nick Foles while playing this game of hard ball with their best player.
What happened next was fairly predictable.
The Bears stumbled to 8-8. The offense finished 26th in total yards and 22nd in points. Crossing the 50-yard line — for a good two months — was a Magellan expedition in itself. Questions at QB continue to linger on, too, with the Bears currently scrambling to lock in a new starter for 2021. The musical-chairs tune has only just begun and multiple reports indicate they’re pushing hard for Carson Wentz. Tracking the team’s decisions sure can give you a headache. Star power on offense has been lacking in the NFL’s third-largest market for most of the last half-century.
And here was Robinson, a glimmer of hope, willing to stay in Chicago despite massive unknowns at GM, head coach and quarterback into 2020.
Paying up for Robinson a year ago would’ve been one hell of a first step toward wooing a new franchise QB right now.
Nobody has a clue who’ll be throwing and catching passes in Chicago next season.
Allen Robinson doesn’t want to publicize the contract he desires this offseason but it’s fairly easy to figure out what he’s shooting for.
Just take a gander at the top five annual salaries at his position:
DeAndre Hopkins: $27.5 million per year (two years)
Julio Jones: $22 million per year (three years)
Keenan Allen: $20.025 million per year (four years)
Amari Cooper: $20 million per year (five years)
Michael Thomas: $19.25 million per year (five years)
This is realistically what Robinson can ask for right now because a.) Four of these five players never came nearly as close to sniffing free agency, meaning they actually had less leverage at the time of signing their deals; and b.) Robinson has the statistics to back up a deal in this ballpark. Hopkins and Diggs are the only wideouts with more yards than Robinson the last two seasons and, let’s not forget, Robinson wasn’t exactly catching passes from Kyler Murray and Josh Allen.
His 61 contested catches since 2018 lead the NFL.
He was essentially ignored in the red zone last season with only seven targets inside the 20 in Chicago’s first 10 games.
He took that enormous injury risk.
He has every damn right to now hold firm because this is the market and Chicago allowed the market to get to this point.
It’s kind of funny to Robinson. Despite the fact that his numbers actually ticked up in 2020, he feels like a lot of fans have been turned against him. That’s the nasty side effect of free agency. The moment star players do precisely what fans would in their own lives — look to advance their career, look to capitalize financially on a skill — a large segment of those same fans are pissed off.
He sees it, daily, in his Twitter feed. It’s inescapable.
“It would be like if I told somebody, ‘You are qualified for this job. And this is what the other people at that job are making. But you can’t make that,’” Robinson says. “Nobody in America would even do that. You see people go from job to job on an everyday basis in America. They get a job, they fill out another resume because, now, they have the experience. They go from company to company to company, at the same time, increasing their salaries. But for players, when you get in that situation where you’re even up for a contract, it’s almost a lose-lose between the fans and — for a lot of players, not just myself — even the organization and teammates.
“The narrative of the story is so muddied up for no reason at all, when players just want what their value is.”
The projected franchise tag for wide receivers is well below market, at $16.4 million for the one season.
So, it’s time. After everything — after all of those one-hoppers landing at his feet in Jacksonville to Chicago to balling out on as a lame duck — Robinson is ready to join Hopkins, Julio ‘n co.
There’s just one minor problem: The franchise tag.
The fans spamming Robinson’s social media accounts probably aren’t aware of how the tag even began, too. Few are. Few know how disingenuous this loophole truly is, which is why both Robinson and Parker absolutely feel sympathy for those same fans using every penny of their savings just to see a Bears game or buy his jersey. As Parker puts bluntly, fans are the victims here, too.
Central to the modern NFL player’s fight for independence is this fight against the franchise tag.
Long story short, the tag was hatched during CBA negotiations in 1993 because Broncos owner Pat Bowlen wasn’t sure he’d be able to keep John Elway. After some jostling, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to allow each team to designate one player it’d pay top money to in exchange for a longer bargaining window. It became known as the “Elway Rule.” As NFLPA lawyer Jim Quinn told SI, he never imagined this would apply to any other position other than the QB because this rule was all about the QB.
It was universally understood, Parker explains, that you did not tag a linebacker or a wide receiver or anybody else.
Sure enough, that changed. The tag became a poison pill used against all players set to test their worth on the open market. Now, the loophole is the norm. Now, the tag is a strategic tool used by teams to essentially tell players they’re so unbelievably valued they cannot lose ‘em yet, uh… well… you know… not quite valuable enough to warrant a deal in line with the actual market.
Translation: It’s BS.
The tag also puts players seeking a new contract in a lose-lose position because if they do express displeasure about this archaic system? They’re interviewed about it. They’re put on the stand. They’re typecast as selfish by fans. Meanwhile, team owners and general managers rarely ever have to answer questions from the media.
Which only creates more of a wedge between player and fan.
Which only upsets more players like Robinson who harbor a genuine love for those cheering him on. Repeatedly through this conversation, Robinson feels a magnetic pull to address Bears fans directly and part of me wonders: Who cares? Slam the mute button, man! But that’s clearly what makes Robinson different, too. He sincerely does care. He’s sensitive to their feelings and loathes how the narrative around his contract has twisted and turned the last 365 days. Of course, that’s also what happens, Parker adds, when the sport is whittled to its core of “millionaires vs. billionaires.”
The agent says the CBA’s fine print been manipulated for a good three decades to put athletes in this vice.
“You’re constantly being pushed like a pinball between doing what’s right,” Parker says, “and being politically correct.”
It’d be much easier for Robinson to do the latter, to keep plugging along. The tag essentially exploits players like him, players who get in line, work hard, do what they’re told 24/7, and never think about ruffling the slightest feather. Everyone in the game, however, is quickly realizing that times are changing.
Now, if you’re good enough, the smarter play is to push back.
Says Parker: “To stand your ground when things aren’t fair and things aren’t right is the only way we’re going to get closer to changing the landscape of the NFL. … We have the platform and we believe we have the responsibility to at least get what we’re worth.
“At the very least.”
So, that’s the good news for Robinson. This doesn’t need to be a black hole of negotiating.
More players are doing exactly what Parker describes as, “what’s right.”
More players are taking a look at this system and deciding to speak up.
Because the more players speak up — the more they will themselves out of what used to be a dead-end street — the more that becomes the norm. It no longer pays to be the quintessential “good guy” like Robinson and, cheerfully, go with the flow. What happened in Chicago is proof of that. Torn ACLs, shoddy QB play, Father Time can all shrink any star player’s window faster than he ever expects. And to all those screaming that players should honor the contract they sign, let’s also not forget that teams shred up players’ contracts all the time.
Unlike the NBA and MLB, these deals in the NFL are not guaranteed.
If the market dictates as such? If your stats back it up? Hell yeah, you should draw a line in the sand and play a little poker. We’ll see what Robinson does if/when Chicago does indeed use the tag. He won’t go there yet, but Robinson actually uses the “poker” analogy himself. Last September, the three-card flop was set on the table and both sides presented their hands.
“Now, a season later,” Robinson says, “we’re sitting here with the hand that we have and they have the hand they have — which is being able to franchise tag me.”
And Robinson knows for a fact that his hand only strengthened through the 2020 season.
The Bears let this game of poker get to the river and it sure feels like Robinson’s camp may be sitting on a straight flush.
“To our credit,” Robinson says, “we were much more willing to be able to get something done that’s much more reasonable for the team (in the past) and everything like that. Every week, I go out there as I’m talking to Brandon, I’m risking injury. I’m risking so much more for — not only my future financial gain — but my career as well. One of the biggest things that hurt me the most about my ACL injury was not the possible contract I missed out on. It was having to go a whole year without numbers. I want to be a Hall of Fame receiver. So, everything like that is huge. It’s a lot easier to swallow when you’re under a contract extension and you may not have the numbers. Or you may get hurt. But when all of that stuff is on the line — not just on Sunday, but each and every day when you’re going to practice and you’re doing all of these things, that is on the table each and every day.
“So once you overcome that stuff? It’s like, ‘Alright now. I’ve risked a lot.’”
And that is about as close as you’ll get Robinson to saying, No More Mr. Nice Guy.
When asked if the Bears could come to him with a number that works, Robinson left the door open.
“My personal opinion, if something could possibly work? Yes,” the receiver says. “I’m not opposed to being back in Chicago by any means. I’ve even expressed that over the last couple of years — wanting to be the all-time leading receiver in Chicago which, I believe, I’m under 2,000 yards away from that. With all that being said, unfortunately we’ve come to what seems to be a fork in the road. But not even a fork. We haven’t even been given a viable option to be able to do those things that we want to do without sacrificing a ridiculous amount pretty much for the rest of my career.”
Robinson was able to sign as the sixth-richest receiver off that torn ACL in ’17. Three years later, he’s the 17th-highest paid receiver. He knew that’d be the case, too, in recouping from major surgery. (He wasn’t even running routes yet when he signed that dotted line.)
But that’s why Robinson signed a three-year deal: To get back to this table again.
At no point have the Bears presented a deal that his camp deems reasonable. So, no, they’re not optimistic that a long-term deal can get done in Chicago and, man, what a colossal bummer that is. “A-Rob” should’ve gone down as another immortal legend here. “A-Rob” should’ve been the leader who brings the Bears back — once ‘n for all — and forever returns to the Midwest as a conquering hero.
There were signs of hope all along.
The 10-catch, 143-yard masterpiece of a playoff game against Philly in Year 1. He caught everything.
The 131-yard explosion against the Giants in Year 2. Inside. Outside. Short. Deep. He did it all that day.
The three-game stretch in Year 3 that clawed Chicago into the playoffs. He averaged 103 yards in each of those wins and, in those sleek throwbacks vs. Houston, Robinson put on a clinic.
There’s a reason his agent speaks so passionately on this subject. Parker is, of course, the son of the late, great agent Eugene Parker and cites former GM Jerry Angelo and Angelo’s entire front-office group as personal friends. His father represented ex-Bears like Devin Hester, Rex Grossman, Alshon Jeffery and Cedric Benson. He clearly has a deep appreciation for the McCaskey family, this Bears’ fan base and the team’s rich tradition. Bottom line? Parker reiterates that he works for Robinson and GMs work for teams. He’ll always fight for a contract “on the higher side of fair” for clients — that’s his job — and his tenacity sure would make his Dad proud.
Now, it’s go time. Robinson and Parker are ready.
The window to tag players begins on Feb. 23. Free agency begins March 17.
So, I ask Robinson, if the Bears do tag you, what’s going to happen? Will you follow the path of Diggs, Watson ‘n co?
His answer is short and sweet.
“It’s definitely an option.”
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