Bears general manager Ryan Pace didn’t want to blame injuries for the Bears’ plight, but he couldn’t ignore their debilitating impact either.
“I’ve been thinking about that constantly. It was a significant thing for us,” Pace said.
The injury situation, in fact, was the first issue Pace addressed in his prepared remarks at the season-ending “state of the Bears” press conference Wednesday at Halas Hall — before the quarterback situation, Alshon Jeffery, the secondary, the draft, free agency and the coaching staff.
Unfortunately, the injury predicament could prove to be the most vexing for Pace. You can add a playmaker with the No. 3 overall draft pick, shore up the secondary in free agency, build depth in the draft or trade for a quarterback. But avoiding the injuries that put 19 players on injured reserve this season is likely to be more than a matter of throwing money at it or keeping your fingers crossed. And Pace knows it.
“I think the wrong thing to do is for me to put our heads in the sand and say, ‘Oh, man, it was bad luck. Maybe better luck next year,’ ” Pace said. “We’re not going to do that.”
It was likely a difficult admission for Pace. When he was hired in 2015 he made a determined effort to avoid season-crippling injuries — revamping the training staff and hiring a sports science coordinator/dietitian. Instead, the Bears’ rebuild has been short-circuited by a slew of injuries that have proven problematic.
Among the 19 players on injured reserve were 13 players who started at least one game, including quarterback Jay Cutler (five games played in 2016), Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long (eight), nose tackle Eddie Goldman (six), tight end Zach Miller (10), inside linebacker Danny Trevathan (nine) and wide receivers Kevin White (four) and Eddie Royal (nine) — plus cornerback Kyle Fuller (zero), who started every game in 2015.
The Bears, in fact, have had 32 players on injured reserve in two seasons under Pace and coach John Fox. That’s more than double the number of players on IR in two years under GM Phil Emery and coach Marc Trestman in 2013-14.
And some injury issues raised red flags. Pernell McPhee tried to play through a knee injury last season, ended up needing surgery and spent the first six games of this season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. Goldman missed games three different times this season (10 games in all) with the same high ankle sprain. Eddie Royal suffered a toe injury in practice, returned for three games but missed the final five games with the same toe injury.
In November, wide receiver Marquess Wilson suffered a broken foot for the third time in less than 12 months. Center Hroniss Grasu suffered a torn ACL planting his leg on the turf at Soldier Field. Fuller missed the entire season after arthroscopic “clean-out” procedure.
“We’re going to research and analyze,” Pace said. “We have meetings set up. We’re going to look at othe teams, other sports, everything — from the training room to the strength-and-conditioning room, to what we do on the field, the practice schedules. Everything’s going to be analyzed.”
The Bears had more cap space invested in players on injured reserve — $32.3 million — than any team in the NFL, according to spotrac.com. How much of a difference does it make? The Bears had 12 players with cap hits of $1 million or more on IR. Six of the 12 playoff teams combined for nine — the Cowboys (zero), Seahawks (1), Patriots, Packers, Raiders and Lions (two each). No other playoff team has more than five players with $1 million-plus cap hits on IR this season.
Those numbers were too much for Pace to ignore.
“Whenever you lead the league in something, or close to leading the league — I mean, jeez, you better pay close attention,” Pace said. “And there’s a lot of valuable assets that were on IR. I don’t want to make excuses for that. But I also understand the importance of getting that right.”