Pernell McPhee came to the Bears as a big-ticket free agent in 2015, representing all the fresh hope of the Ryan Pace era. He was the supporting player producing in the shadows with the Ravens who would blossom into a pass-rushing star and marquee player with the Bears. It sounded good at the time.
Three years later, McPhee seems destined to leave Chicago with a legacy that points to a much bigger challenge for Pace: Can the young general manager learn from his mistakes? If the Ravens — who have a pretty good record of identifying and developing defensive playmakers under GM Ozzie Newsome — were letting a player with that much potential go, there might be a reason.
There was, and it wasn’t a big secret. Despite all of McPhee’s potential, the 6-3, 273-pound outside linebacker was considered a health risk who was susceptible to the wear and tear of a 16-game NFL season. And that’s how it has played out.
In 2015, McPhee wore down in the second half, missing two games and playing just 35.3 percent of the defensive snaps after playing 80.5 percent of the snaps in the first half. In 2016, he missed the first six games while recovering from offseason knee surgery related to his 2015 breakdown.
And this season, he predictably has worn down again as injuries to Willie Young and Leonard Floyd necessitated higher snap counts. After suffering a shoulder injury that limited him to seven snaps against the 49ers last week, McPhee is doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Bengals. That means he’s out. And it’s very likely his season and his Bears career are over. The “dead-cap” number on his five-year, $38.75 million contract drops to $1 million next season — an affordable hit to drop a player the Bears can’t count on.
The only other solution is to find a way to manage McPhee’s season so he doesn’t break down. Is that even possible?
“That’s a good question. I think it’s a fair question,” coach John Fox said. “But it’s hard to manage football reps, unless you just put him in bubble wrap. [But] football is not that kind of game. And it’s not that kind of game at his position. That’s tough.”
It’s tougher for some than for others. The Ravens seemed to manage McPhee more efficiently in his formative years. When he was slowed by thigh and knee injuries in 2012 after averaging 54 snaps in the first six games, his snap counts dropped precipitously — 19 a game in 2013 and 32 a game in 2014, when he had 7½ sacks and became an enticing free agent. He played 16 games in both seasons, but the snap counts told the tale.
The Bears bit, but they didn’t heed the red flag. McPhee averaged 51 snaps in his first eight games in 2015 — and had five sacks in a five-game span — before pulling himself out late in a victory over the Chargers because of a knee injury. That was the beginning of the end. McPhee has nine sacks in the Bears’ 36 games since, including four in 12 games this season.
At the end of last season, Pace refuted the notion that he wasn’t getting his money’s worth from McPhee.
“There might not be a player I’m more proud of than Pernell and the way he’s responded from this injury,” Pace said. “Pernell is a leader, and I think he’s going to get healthier and healthier.”
It’ll be interesting to see if Pace changes his tune this time around. With misjudgments on free agents piling up, he needs to learn from his mistakes. Acknowledging them is the first step.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.