Kyle Long noticed the difference in his teammates at Bears practice Monday, coming off the team’s bye week — there were more of them.
“With our numbers, we were like a nine-man football team there for awhile,” said Long, who himself missed the Bears’ previous game against the Vikings with a strained triceps. And it was clear that we’re an 11-man team today [Monday]. There were a lot of people out there.”
The Bears emerged from their bye week still 2-6, following the 20-10 victory over the Vikings on Oct. 31. But they head into the second half of the season with legitimate momentum to at least consider the possibility of making a run at something: they are coming off a convincing victory over the division-leading Vikings; the Packers (4-4, with back-to-back losses) and Vikings (5-3, with three consecutive losses) are more vulnerable today than they were two weeks ago; and perhaps most of all, the Bears are healthy — virtually at full strength as they began preparations Monday for the Buccaneers on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium.
Bears coach John Fox only provides an injury report when the league forces him to — not until Wednesday this week. But even Fox subtly acknowledged the team’s improving injury situation Monday. “No updates on injuries, other than we’re getting healthier,” Fox said to open his Monday press conference.
That’s hardly insignificant for the Bears. Based on the portion of practice open to the media, the Bears could have every player available in practice this week who is not on injured reserve. Nose tackle Eddie Goldman returned to practice after missing the last six games with a high ankle sprain. Wide receiver Marquess Wilson practiced for the first time since suffering a broken left foot in mini-camp in June and is eligible to come off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Long, guard Josh Sitton, wide receiver Eddie Royal and cornerback Bryce Callahan — all of whom missed the Vikings game — were back on the field.
All except Wilson are likely to play against the Buccaneers. That’s a boost for a team that has played without five or more starters in each of the last six games, including quarterback Jay Cutler (five games), Goldman (six), linebacker Pernell McPhee (six), wide receiver Kevin White (five), linebacker Danny Trevathan (two), outside linebackers Leonard Floyd (two) and Lamarr Houston (six), guards Sitton (two) and Long (one) and running back Jeremy Langford (four). (White, Houston and cornerback Kyle Fuller are on injured reserve.)
“It’s a huge boost,” Fox said. “If you look at what’s happened to us in the first half — just at the quarterback position [Cutler and Brian Hoyer suffered injuries], it’s enough to cripple a lot of teams.
“Obviously, getting two Pro Bowl guards back [Sitton and Long] is helpful. The receiver position gets a little deeper [with Royal and eventually, Wilson] as well as the punt returning. I think Bryce Callahan’s been kind of hit-or-miss through part of the first half. [His return] makes us healthier in a lot of spots.”
The playoffs remain a longshot and unlikely. But at full strength, the Bears have a manageable second-half schedule: the Buccaneers (3-5), Giants (5-3), Lions (5-4) and Vikings (5-3) on the road; the Titans (4-5), 49ers (1-7), Packers (4-4) and Redskins (4-3-1) at home.
“We’ve got a whole lot of a season left. A lot can happen,” Fox said. “There’s not as big a difference [between winning teams and losing teams in the NFL] as people on the outside think. It’s there for the taking. It’s just a matter of being a little more fortunate injury-wise and the way the ball bounces, and how we do our job.”
The biggest challenge will be staying healthy. When the Bears face the Buccaneers, they will have played one game in the previous 23 days. The wear-and-tear of an NFL season usually takes an even bigger toll in the second half. Not much the Bears can do about that, except hope for better luck, Fox said.
“I think without the bad luck we had, we’d have no luck,” Fox said. “Hopefully that can turn for us moving forward. A lot of it’s just being fortunate in the second half then we were in the first half.”