What on earth are the Bears going to do without Jeremiah Ratliff for the first three games of the regular season — against the Packers, Cardinals and Seahawks, no less?
Get better, probably.
The bright side to a massive rebuild the Bears are undergoing with general manager Ryan Pace and head coach John Fox is that bad news doesn’t hurt quite as much. And in the case of Ratliff’s suspension for violating the NFL’s policy on substance abuse, it presents opportunity.
The Bears are likely to start 0-3 with or without Jeremiah Ratliff at nose tackle. They’re likely to miss the playoffs with or without Kevin White. Given the history of Fox and Vic Fangio, it’s possible that the Bears could be one of the surprise teams in the NFL, but so far this looks like a lot of work even for them. Despite discernible progress in beating the Colts on Saturday night, Jordy Nelson’s season-ending injury probably impacted the Bears’ chances of making the playoffs more than anything else that happened over the last three days. And even that’s kind of iffy, with Aaron Rodgers still around.
Once upon a time — like two years ago —losing Ratliff for three important games might have been the difference between making the playoffs and not. Not now. But while times have changed for the worse, they also might have changed for the better.
The precipitous demise of the Marc Trestman era (hard to believe his first team was 3-0 after a 40-23 prime-time rout of the Steelers at Heinz Field in 2013, but it was) began when Henry Melton suffered a knee injury and was replaced by fringe reserve Nate Collins, who suffered a knee injury himself and eventually was replaced by off-the-street Landon Cohen.
The Ratliff suspension should give the Bears an opportunity to develop a difference-maker in second-round draft pick Eddie Goldman rather than plug a hole until the 33-year-old Ratliff returns for Week 4 against the Raiders.
Fox wasn’t about to announce this opportunity as Eddie Goldman’s Moment — saying only, “he’ll be one of the next men up. When a door closes for somebody it opens for somebody else. A lot of players are discovered through those opportunities. I can’t predict the future and I don’t want to try.”
But Goldman, the 39th pick in the draft, would be the best-case scenario. At 6-4, 336 pounds he was hand-picked to play the nose in Fangio’s defense. And with first-round pick Kevin White out indefinitely after undergoing surgery for a stress fracture in his leg, it would be nice for Bears fans to know that Pace — a first-time GM — can strike oil that high in the draft and find the right guy for the right job. Pace isn’t going to make a living off the middle of the draft.
Though Fox did not anoint Goldman, his praise of him — coming from a guy who says he doesn’t like to evaluate players in the media — said plenty.
“I think he’s had a good camp,” Fox said. “He’s still learning. It’s a new level, like going from JV to varsity, kind of like that going from college ball to pro football.
“But I like what I’ve seen. He’s stout; he’s learning to transition faster, recognizing the run and pass, the difference; He’s a big body that pushes the pocket. I like where he’s headed.”
If Goldman shows even a glimpse of being ready, it would behoove Fox to give him every opportunity to realize that potential. Though the Bears took a step forward in their second preseason game, their 2015 prospectus hasn’t changed much —they’re a rebuilding team likely to struggle at the beginning, improve in the second half and lay the foundation for 2016, when Kevin White is healthy and Eddie Goldman has a year under his belt. When they have a chance to get younger and better, they should probably take it.