Injury woes: Bears changing direction, and it’s not going well

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Ryan Pace has made a lot of promising changes to the Bears’ roster since he was hired as GM in 2015. But injuries — including Hroniss Grasu’s torn ACL on Saturday — are threatening progress. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)

Center Hroniss Grasu’s knee injury — a  likely season-ending torn right anterior cruciate ligament — is a problem for the Bears, but a bigger one for general manager Ryan Pace. Every first-time GM needs a break, but Pace doesn’t seem able to buy one.

You can learn how to evaluate talent, manage people and hire and fire in GM school. But there’s no class on how to avoid random injuries like the one that felled Grasu in Saturday’s scrimmage at Soldier Field. “He was changing direction and it didn’t go well,” said coach John Fox, perfectly capturing the random nature of the non-contact injury.

Not that Pace hasn’t tried. He has made a concerted effort to upgrade the Bears’ training and medical staff since being hired as GM in January of 2015. He hired a “sports science coordinator and dietician,” Jennifer Gibson, to help avoid injuries and enhance rehabilitations.

But no matter how well that’s working, the Bears have injury issues again this season — and it’s only nine practices into training camp. And almost surely to Pace’s frustration, the source of some of those injuries might be out of his control.

Alshon Jeffery, who used a personal trainer in the offseason instead of Bears’ personnel to try and avoid the soft-tissue injuries that cost him dearly last season, has missed the last three practices with a hamstring injury. Grasu, for all we know, could be a victim of the dreaded Soldier Field turf. (It will be interesting to see if Pace has the gumption to consider that possibility — and the power and authority to do something about it if he sees a problem.)

Tight end Zach Miller and wide receiver Eddie Royal suffered concussions in training camp — where contact is at a minimum and ball-carriers are not taken to the ground. (As fate would have it, the biggest hit in camp — Sam Acho’s illegal hit on tight end Greg Scruggs — appears to have been costly. Scruggs was hospitalized with a bruised lung.)

The way things are going for Pace, maybe he should feel lucky that nobody else was hurt Saturday. In the NFL, it can always be worse. As it was, 11 players did not participate in the Family Fest scrimmage at Soldier Field — including Jeffery, Miller, Royal, Marquess Wilson (broken foot) and linebackers Danny Trevathan (knee) and Pernell McPhee (offseason knee surgery).

Bears coach John Fox, who already has had to trot out a “Wally Pipp” reference a week into camp, will downplay the injury situation and lean on the “next-man-up” philosophy — a flawed rationalization that implies that replacing any player is like changing a light bulb. In reality, the next-man-up often isn’t as good as the man he replaced — that’s why he was the “next man” in the first place. And the next-man-up philosophy isn’t as effective on re-building teams trying to upgrade their roster. Next-man-up generally works well for teams like the Packers and Patriots, who have Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady to make the existing hole that much easier to fill.

The Bears aren’t there yet. And while offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains and offensive line coach Dave Magazu will find an able replacement for Grasu, the Bears will be losing what could be a key year of development from a player who has a lot more room for growth than Ted Larsen.

That’s where the loss of Grasu hurts the most.  Though veterans such as Danny Trevathan, Akiem Hicks and Jerrell Freeman will help push the Bears toward respectability, the key to the Bears’ growth from six-win team to perennial playoff contender is development — players such as Grasu, Charles Leno, Adrian Amos, Kyle Fuller, Deon Bush, Jonathan Bullard and others from this year’s rookie class transforming from question marks to building blocks.

In training camp in 2003, second-round draft pick Charles Tillman looked like a reach and third-round pick Lance Briggs was no sure thing. A year later they were locked in as part of the foundation and headed toward greatness. The following year, Nathan Vasher was just another fourth-round draft pick with a chance. Two years later he was in the Pro Bowl.

This years rookie class — including nine drafted players — gives Pace plenty of opportunities to get that kind of growth. But still, the nature of Grasu’s injury is cause for doubt. Who will go down next? That’s a legitimate question barely two weeks into Year 2 of the Fox/Pace regime. Even if the Bears get healthy, they have to stay healthy — which is becoming the biggest challenge of all for Ryan Pace. As earnest as he clearly is, his fate might not be in his hands. 

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