Before he began his greatest season to date, Akiem Hicks shared a secret. The Bears defensive end said in August that he had a “goal board” in his bedroom that listed, among other aspirations, a Pro Bowl appearance.
He was reminded of the board Saturday after the Bears’ 20-10 loss to the Lions.
“I also had 10-4,” he said.
The Bears, alas, are 4-10.
Hicks’ Pro Bowl goal was dealt a blow Tuesday night, too, when, along with the rest of the Bears, he was left off the 43-man NFC roster—at least on the first pass. Roster spots often open up for injury replacements, and both Hicks and running back Jordan Howard could be chosen between now and the Jan. 29 all-star game in Orlando, Fla.
Bears coach John Fox, who once said he preferred Super Bowlers to Pro Bowlers, will likely leave Chicago at the end of the season with none of the former and only few of the latter. In three seasons together, Fox and general manager Ryan Pace have had a grand total of zero players named to the Pro Bowl on its selection night. Three eventually got in as injury replacements — then-tackle Kyle Long after the 2015 season and guard Josh Sitton and Howard last year.
Of the three, Pace can take full credit for only one: Howard, whom he stole in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. Long was selected by GM Phil Emery. Sitton had reached three Pro Bowls with the Packers before signing as a free agent the first week of the 2016 season.
Mired in last place in the NFC North for the past 35 weeks of the NFL season—with at least two more guaranteed—the Bears have become a perennial doormat. Such rosters deserve little all-star attention. Injuries have only added to the Bears’ drought. After making three-straight Pro Bowls, Long finished the last two seasons on injured reserve. He’s joined on this year’s IR by two Pace first-round picks: wide receiver Kevin White and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd.
If Hicks and Howard aren’t promoted as alternates, the Bears will miss the Pro Bowl entirely for the first time since February 1999.
Pace signed Hicks to a two-year contract in March 2016 and was so impressed by the first season that he gave Hicks a pre-emptive contract extension —worth $48 million over four years —on the eve of this year’s opener.
Hicks has proven it to be a wise investment; in addition to his on-field dominance, Hicks’ ebullient personality fits the team’s preference for locker-room harmony. He seemed the most likely player to be voted in by the equally weighted triumvirate of fans, players and coaches as a reward for his breakthrough season.
Appearing in every game this year, Hicks has recorded a career-high eight sacks — an impressive figure considering his run-game responsibilities in a 3-4 scheme. He has two fumble recoveries and 48 tackles.
The Rams’ Aaron Donald, the Eagles’ Fletcher Cox and the Buccaneers’ Gerald McCoy were the three interior defensive linemen chosen. McCoy has been fighting a biceps injury — a potential way into the game for Hicks.
Howard, the first Bears player ever to start his career with consecutive seasons of 1,000 or more rushing yards, ranks third in the NFC with 76.4 yards per game.
Despite his quiet demeanor — Howard is a begrudging interview —his workmanlike performance has earned at least some respect around the league. He hasn’t missed a game since he was —amazingly, in retrospect — rendered a healthy scratch in the 2016 season-opener.
The Rams’ Todd Gurley and the Saints tandem of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara made the team. They all figure to make the playoffs. Super Bowl participants don’t play in the Pro Bowl. Howard, like the rest of the last-place Bears, will certainly be available.
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