Here’s Antrel Rolle, clapping and yelling and leading the back end of an NFL defense for the 11th year in a row. He talks about bringing the fuel and whatever else he must from a back-end spot, not giving a rat’s behind, going full-go because he knows no other way. He’s 800 miles from where he lived and played the past five years, but he’s still trying to be the guy he always was. He is living a contradiction.
The truth is, Rolle is trying to change, too. You just know it. He boarded a plane for a new region on a whim, turning down money and a chance to keep the status quo. He’s growing the family, stretching the boundaries of what he thinks he’s here to do.
And he joined the Bears of all teams, that iconic NFL franchise so ingrained in ‘80s montages yet doing everything it possibly can right now to turn over a new leaf. He’s in Chicago, which has long been a place to preserve history but is becoming one hell of a landing zone to start fresh again.
That’s what Rolle wanted in early March, moments before he lay down to sleep. He prayed to God that night, asking for a sign of where he should go. He woke up randomly hours later, compelled to check his phone and the email that pinged into it. It was a message from Orbitz about discount flights to Chicago. That was the sign he wanted.
The prayer, and the decision that followed it, was mostly about free agency. But with his first child on the way and the constant, nagging feeling from the outside that he might be on the downward slide of his 11-year career, the prayer addressed a little about life, too. Ever since he’s arrived in Chicago, he’s spoken in terms of purpose – both for him and for this place and the ways those two will intertwine.
And so the questions Rolle faces are the epitome of becoming a Bear under today’s regime: What do I change, and what do I keep the same?
He’s always been rogue. Those things he says about fuel and fire and bringing it every day might be clichés carefully selected by many players, but they’re an ethos he’s tried to live inside for 11 years now. He’s totaled 799 tackles, 34 forced turnovers on the way to three Pro Bowls and one Super Bowl. He’s made $57.5 million, and so far, it’s been one big building project of him and his style of play.
That is, until now.
Rolle’s first child came into this world at 7:09 a.m. on May 21. It was a boy, and his daddy gave him his love and his time, missing a week of Bears practice to be there with his new family. He also gave him his name, calling him Antrel Rocelious Rolle Jr.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Rolle says. “It’s the best feeling I’ve ever experienced. I don’t think words can really explain the joy that having a son brings you to this world, but like I said, the hardest thing was to leave him to come back to work.
“But once I get out here on the field, it makes it all worthwhile. When I’m on the field, that’s the only thing I focus on.”
How the changing motivation will spill out into who Rolle will be in this new role – a sure-fire starting safety with an undefined position on a 3-4 defense on a roster of turnover – is another game of wait-and-see. But what Rolle isn’t hiding is that he does have to change, somehow.
He says every year is a challenge to get better from the year before. Right now, in that regard, Rolle might have quite a bit to improve. Rolle finished last season with 87 total tackles, his lowest total since his first year with the Giants in 2010, and it wasn’t hard to spot some of the ones he missed. Pro Football Focus rated his play at a -13.9, including -10.5 against the run. It had 80 safeties rated higher. The Giants just so happened to have their worst season in his five on the team, the bottom of a downward slide ever since they won the Super Bowl in 2011.
He was a free agent at year’s end, and the team expressed interest in bringing him back, but he said he knew it was time to leave. He was quoted as saying he believed he had “four great years left,” a hefty personal challenge for a 32-year-old coming off such a difficult year.
And so he came to Chicago, signing a three-year, $11.3 million deal. It’s good money, ranking 15th among safeties in cap hit, according to Spotrac, but it’s a far cry from the five-year, $37.1 million deal he signed with the Giants in 2010.
So maybe the Bears don’t expect Rolle to be the Rolle of the past, and maybe he doesn’t either. What they are offering him is plenty of opportunity on a defense in need of players in an organization going through tremendous change. They have a wide-open starting safety spot opposite Ryan Mundy, a chance to fix a secondary that finished 30th against the pass. They have a new 3-4 scheme in need of players who can pick it up quickly, and they have a locker room that just shipped out some of its long-time voices – Brandon Marshall, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs – in search of something new.
Rolle feels he can check all the boxes. He started alongside Mundy in New York in 2013, when he notched the best season of his career with 98 tackles and six interceptions to go with a second-team All-NFL pick by the Associated Press. He studied Vic Fangio’s 49ers defenses before coming here, the career ballhawk falling in love with the freedom of movement he saw in the back end. And he’s always had the voice, the one that drew weekly headlines on a radio show in New York and has been said to put a teammate in his place a time or two.
He said he learned much of the vocal tactic at the University of Miami on those early-2000s teams known for swagger. Guys like Ed Reed, Ken Dorsey, Phil Buchanon and Mike Rumph showed the way with their pre-game speeches and on-field screams, and he followed.
“I just tell it like it is,” Rolle said. “Where I come from, it’s always been constructive criticism. You never lie to your brothers. You never lie to yourself. You never lie to your peers. That’s the way I like to approach it because when you do that, then you’re all getting better at the same time.”
It’s a tactic he admits doesn’t always instantly go over perfectly with every player, particularly sometimes with rookies. But he feels it’s one players adapt to – or maybe it’s that they need to adapt to it because at this point, that’s a little of who he is. But Mundy said it’s an attitude players generally learn to respect.
“He’s just like a natural, good-hearted guy and really authentic,” said Mundy, who left the Giants to sign with the Bears last offseason. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve. He lets you know exactly what he’s thinking, and you’ll know exactly where you stand with him. That’s one thing that I always appreciated about ‘Trel.”
Added Giants Coach Tom Coughlin at the NFL Scouting Combine: “I don’t think I was ever involved with a player who was more sincerely interested in how his team could improve.”
And so for now, Rolle will bank on what he knows to teach him what he doesn’t. He’ll poke and prod his teammates, pushing their buttons, seeing how they respond. He’ll command a voice in a locker room full of youngsters and a few veterans with something to prove. He feels like he understands their vices and wants to fill some voids where others cannot.
It’ll be different now, of course. That was part of the plan. The rest is what he’s waiting to find out.
“So far, our attitude has been great,” he said. “Everyone’s very enthused about what we have going on. New coaches, new players and new mindset. I haven’t been here before, but I’m not really concerned about what took place before. We’re going to worry about today and moving forward.”