Before Jeremy Langford got hurt, he was the Bears’ starting running back.
Now? John Fox isn’t so sure.
“Earlier in the season I mentioned that, way back in the day, there used to be a rule that if you were the starter, when you were hurt, it was yours when you came back,” the Bears coach said Tuesday at Halas Hall. “Well, that’s not really necessarily the case as much anymore. It can be.
“You’re going to play the best guy, and there’s competition to be involved in that.”
Langford returned to practice Tuesday for the first time since suffering a high-ankle sprain in Week 3 against the Cowboys. Fox said the Bears will ease Langford back, in terms of carries — perhaps as soon as Monday against the Vikings — but made no effort to christen him the immediate, or eventual, starter.
Instead, the Bears might finally be able to unveil the “wave” of running backs that they touted in the offseason. They’ve had three different single-game rushing yards leaders this season, but have never platooned more than two healthy rushers at once.
Langford’s return changes that.
“To have that three-headed monster coming back into one,” running back Ka’Deem Carey said. “We’re all starting to find our rhythm.”
It’s easy to see Langford, who declined comment Tuesday, as the Bears’ third-down back immediately upon his return. He’s widely acknowledged as the best pass-blocker in the running back room, and, despite leading all NFL rushers in drops last year, might be its best pass-catcher.
His role will be more specialized than it was at the beginning of the season. Langford took 96 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps in the season-opener, in which rookie Jordan Howard did not play. Carey split carries with Langford early in the Eagles game before leaving with a hamstring strain.
Six days later, Langford suffered a high-ankle sprain against the Cowboys. Howard, the last man standing, proved a terror in his first two career starts, running 23 times for 111 yards against the Lions and 16 times for 118 against the Colts.
Since then, Carey has gone from playing 3 percent of the Bears’ offensive snaps against the Colts — his first game back from injury — to taking the majority of them. Howard led the split, 69 percent to 31, against the Jaguars. Against the Packers, though, Carey played 54 percent to Howard’s 46.
Carey outgained Howard in each of the last two games, too; combined, he ran 19 times for 98 yards, while Howard had 22 for 56.
“I think it was kind of just circumstances and stuff,” Howard said. “I feel like I gotta step my game up more because people find out about me a little bit, so they’re definitely planning on stopping the run.”
Both Carey and Howard said they were happy to see Langford, who has run 31 times for 116 yards this season, back in practice — even if they’re not sure what that means for their workload.
“I really don’t have a feel,” Howard said. “But just having another back in the stable, another added element with his speed, will definitely help us out a lot.”
Fox said that there’s “no doubt” he knows more about Carey and Langford than he did at the start of the season.
“They had a chance, as weird as it was, to see all the backs and what we all have,” Carey said. “I’m pretty sure they liked what we all bring to the table.
“Now that they see it in full action, they can put all the pieces together.”