CHICAGO - The Bears arrive at their third preseason game Saturday still wandering through the forest in search of a reliable kicker.
Their map - questionable to begin with - is tattered. Their canteen is dry. All the thorny bushes, poison ivy and dead ends on this seven-month trek have taken a toll.
But the Bears cling to hope because there is no alternative and because the Packers come to town in two weeks.
In this wilderness, they've committed their fate to one compass for the time being: Follow the ball off Eddy Pineiro's strong right foot. That will lead them either to the big red "X" on the map - or right back to where they started.
"He has never kicked in an NFL (regular-season) game before, so that could go a couple different ways," coach Matt Nagy said Sunday. "It could go really good. It could go really bad. We don't know that answer."
That ambiguity is, to some extent, an indictment of a search that has brought more than a dozen kickers through the front door of Halas Hall since Cody Parkey's 43-yard double doink Jan. 5.
Shouldn't there be more certainty by now?
Given the hiring of kicking consultant Jamie Kohl and their use of gimmicks such as "Augusta silence" and tools such as Doppler radar technology to track ball-flight data, shouldn't the Bears be closer to the thumbs-up emoji than the shoulder-shrug one Nagy personified when the Bears made Pineiro the sole survivor?
The answer is yes. But is anyone surprised they're not? The Bears didn't exactly begin this search with a glowing record of evaluating kickers over the last three seasons. They're here by their own doing, now on their 11th kicker under contract since cutting Robbie Gould in 2016.
In the absence of an obvious solution, outside skepticism and criticism remain deeply rooted in soil fertilized by the unconventional and extraordinary methods the Bears have folded into their search.
A Sports Illustrated report Wednesday quoted some of the kickers who attended the nine-man rookie minicamp tryout in May, criticizing the Bears for elements of their process.
In some anonymous quotes and others on the record, kickers bristled at Nagy's fixation on 43-yarders, accused Kohl of favoring kickers who have attended his camps and chastised the Bears for placating the media.
"Is it exactly the perfect science?" Nagy said Wednesday of the search. "I don't know that, maybe not. For the most part, I just really like how we're going through this thing."
If Nagy should second-guess anything about that rookie minicamp, it's that the Bears brought in a bunch of guys who ended up being ungrateful for an opportunity they didn't deserve. Over three days, only two of the nine made more than 73% of their field goals, by the Tribune's count.
The gimmicks, the technology, the emphasis on Parkey's kick (Nagy ceased the latter after the offseason program) - it all amounts to a mental test that is easy to grade as each football sails past the uprights.
Have the Bears created an oversized, unnatural test?
So what if they have? Tune it out and make the kick.
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General manager Ryan Pace was clear from the outset. After cutting Gould and then swinging and missing on Parkey, Connor Barth, Cairo Santos, et al., he would explore every avenue this time. He would leave no stone unturned.
His extensive due diligence has been guided by dozens of examples, past and present, of NFL teams finding young, cheap kickers who either weren't drafted, did not stick with their first team or both.
As recently as Friday's game against the Giants, Pace could look across the field and feel assured about that premise.
Giants kicker Aldrick Rosas was the NFC's Pro Bowl representative last season. In 2016, he signed with the Titans as an undrafted free agent before getting cut at the end of the preseason and spending that season out of football.
Is Eddy Pineiro the next Aldrick Rosas? Pineiro's body of work since May suggests no. He's strong-legged but too inconsistent. He made 84.1% of his field goals in training camp (58 of 69) and is 3 for 4 in preseason games with a miss from 48 yards.
For argument's sake, though, let's consider the Bears' best-case scenario.
Let's say Pineiro takes ownership of the job now that he's the only kicker on the roster. He nails every kick in the last two preseason games, carries that consistency into the season and becomes a reliable scorer, helping the Bears' quest to repeat as NFC North champions.
Would that outcome - however improbable - justify the intensity, obsessiveness and wackiness of the kicker search?
I'd argue yes. As Nagy has reiterated, place-kicking is about production. And if Pineiro produces, it would not be a blind squirrel finding a nut.
The Bears were compelled to trade for Pineiro because most of the kickers at rookie minicamp flat-out stunk. In fact, none of them is on an NFL roster.
That's how a search works. Look one place and let that outcome dictate the next move. Fortunately, place-kicking offers an ultimate outcome. Make or miss. Miss and move on.
Meanwhile, in the three months Pineiro has been with the Bears, he says Kohl has helped him be more precise with his steps and better align his body with his target.
Now, those improvements haven't been enough to win the job. The last two preseason games will determine whether Pineiro's trial extends into the season. Nagy said Sunday: "We feel good with where he's at. We want him to keep kicking like he has been."
That would entail flashes of potential mixed with erratic inaccuracy. In that case, the Bears would have to decide whether to keep following that path or pick a new trail with no idea where it leads.
That's an unnerving proposition as the sun sets on the preseason. The woods are a scary place after dark.
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