At the time the Bears hired general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox in 2015, Kyle Long was the biggest foundation piece — a two-time Pro Bowl guard entering his prime at 26. Pound-for-pound, he was their best player.
After taking one for the team and moving to right tackle on a moment’s notice at the beginning of the 2015 regular season — and playing all but one offensive snap that year — Long was rewarded with a third Pro Bowl berth and a four-year, $40 million contract extension that included $30 million guaranteed.
Two arduous, frustrating seasons later, with nearly as many injuries as victories, a beleaguered Long exemplifies just how problematic the Bears’ rebuilding process has been and how uncertain the future of the Pace-Fox regime is. After battling all season following a laborious recovery from a severely broken ankle, Long was put on injured reserve with a shoulder injury Tuesday — his 29th birthday — ending his 2017 season.
It’s the second consecutive season in which Long has ended up on IR. Last year, while playing through a torn labrum, he broke the ankle against the Buccaneers in Week 10 and missed the last seven games while on IR.
Long’s injuries have been particularly frustrating because he knows he has to be patient with his recovery, yet he only knows how to play at one speed. He had planned to have surgery on his shoulder last offseason in addition to the ankle surgery, but he put off the shoulder because of the difficult nature of the ankle surgery.
He returned in Week 3 this season against the Steelers and didn’t ease his way in. In a midseason evaluation, Bears offensive line coach Jeremiah Washburn called Long “a force of nature” who hit the ground running.
“I was surprised how high of a level he played at right out of the gate,” Washburn said. “I thought there was going to be a little more of, ‘Hey, we’re going to feel his way out.’ But with Kyle, there’s no feeling his way through anything.”
The wear-and-tear of another tough season obviously was going to take a toll, though, and Long’s shoulder finally gave during the second quarter of the Bears’ 15-14 loss to the 49ers on Sunday at Soldier Field. Veteran Tom Compton replaced Long in the second half and figures to start at right guard for the final four games.
This is the third time this season and the fifth time in the last two seasons that Long has been unable to play because of an injury. Since starting 48 consecutive games and playing 98.3 percent of the offensive snaps in his first three seasons with the Bears, he has started and finished just 13 games and played 61.7 percent of the offensive snaps the last two seasons. He played every snap in five of 12 games this season.
The Bears and Long certainly hope that taking the rest of the season and a full offseason to recover will finally prepare his body for the rigors of a 16-game schedule. But no matter what, the five-year veteran will enter 2018 as more of a question mark than anything — having to show he not only can stay healthy, but that he can regain his Pro Bowl form at 29.
Note: The Bears also put defensive end Mitch Unrein, who hurt his knee in the 49ers game, on injured reserve Tuesday. They promoted offensive lineman Cameron Lee and linebacker Howard Jones to the 53-man roster.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.