- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Just to be clear
Bears coach Lovie Smith did not seem to appreciate being asked a question about Tommie Harris prefaced with those words Thursday. Nope, didn't like it at all.
But the Harris situation is anything but clear, and hasn't been for the better part of the past three seasons now. That's when his knee and hamstring went bad, his play went south and his attitude went the way of general distraction.
But it was never really clear what was happening.
The first time Smith benched Harris, two years ago, it was called a one-game suspension for conduct detrimental of the team. The Bears said the punishment was handed out for being repeatedly late for therapy treatments. But Harris had also reportedly argued with the head coach after his good buddy, receiver Mark Bradley, was released.
Harris later was repentant, saying he was under stress after his first child was born out of wedlock, all of which detracted from the big question, which was whether he would ever be the same player again after three Pro Bowls, the third, in 2007, arguably earned more on reputation.
Last season, the relationship between Harris and Smith unraveled further, with Smith telling reporters at the start of the 2009 training camp that Harris was 100 percent, only to have Harris miss most of it. Two weeks later, Harris offhandedly mentioned that he actually had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee three months earlier, which had not been made public.
But things really came to a head when Smith held a healthy Harris out of Game 6 of the 2009 season, a 45-10 pasting by the Cincinnati Bengals and the worst Bears loss under Smith.
Smith came clean the following day, saying Harris was healthy but didn't practice all week and the team had better options, though "better" is a relative term after a 45-10 loss.
Harris did the old "Ask them" routine when questioned about his demotion. And he rolled it out again Thursday after practice at Halas Hall, three days after being inactive for the Bears' victory over the Packers. (ESPNChicago.com's Jeff Dickerson is reporting that Harris will be active this coming Sunday.)
Saying he had to go along with what was "best for the team," Harris was asked if he thought it was best that he not play.
"You have to ask Lovie that question," he said.
Same answer when asked if he was given any reason for not playing, and again when asked if he knew he wasn't going to play before Monday's game.
Harris did say he did not want to be traded.
"I love Chicago, man," he said. "I love my team, I love my teammates and I play hard for this team. I play hard for my players and that's what I do every time I'm out there."
Harris contradicted himself, saying at one point it was "not a big deal," and that he was "not frustrated" about being deactivated, but then let down his guard in the very next sentence.
"It's just that it's 'Monday Night Football,' you know?" he said. "It was very disturbing when I found out the news but what can you do? You have great vets, Lance [Briggs], [Brian] Urlacher, guys talked to me and just told me to be ready when it's my time again, so that's what I did
"It's not disappointing, it's how you come back from it. That's all that matters. I'm used to it."
Yes, that he is. And if he was Matt Toeaina, solid though Toeaina has been, this would not matter. But Harris was given a $40 million contract extension three offseasons ago, and roster bonuses of more than $8 million the past year and a half. And after his healthy scratch on Monday night, you figure his trade value is not the best with the Oct. 19 deadline approaching.
The Bears are not likely to trade him and they're unlikely to cut him, at least not before the next roster bonus is due in June. And with the team at 3-0, neither his play (one tackle in two games) nor his absence has appeared to be detrimental to the Bears. But the last thing a team on the rise needs is a distraction like this one.
"I think I did all right," Harris said of his play in the first two games this season, "but I didn't do Tommie Harris good -- my standards that I feel like I'm used to, at a Pro Bowl level."
Clearly, that train has left the station, whether Harris realizes it or not.
Asked if the situation would be a motivating factor, Harris responded, "I'm a grown man, I don't need to be sat to be motivated. I just come to work and that's what I do and I'll be ready when my number is called."
Whether Smith will call it this Sunday night in New Jersey is not a given.
"He had a good practice today, we'll see how it goes," Smith said.
And when will Harris find out if he's going to play? You know, just to be clear.
"Well, just to be clear, I kind of know the situation," Smith said. "I'm clear with what the situation is. We tell all of our players a little bit before the game. You don't have to tell anyone until then, so all of our players knew exactly who was going to be up before the game. Just to be clear."
If only it was.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com
It's unclear how Tommie Harris will respond to his well-earned benching.