Even after losing wide receiver Kevin White and linebacker Jerrell Freeman to injuries last week, it’s possible the Bears could break even on player availability Sunday against the Buccaneers.
They lost two starters but could gain two if wide receiver Markus Wheaton and cornerback Prince Amukamara return from injuries.
But don’t count on it. While both practiced on a limited basis this week and are officially listed as questionable, it doesn’t look as if either of them is imminently returning. And let’s face it, the Bears haven’t had that kind of luck with injuries under general manager Ryan Pace and coach John Fox, no matter how hard they try to fix that chronic issue. Guard Kyle Long practiced on a limited basis this week, but didn’t even make the trip to Tampa and will not play against the Buccaneers, the Bears announced Saturday.
The Bears made a determined effort to address their injury problems after last season — when they had 19 players on injured reserve — and have little or nothing to show for it. In the last two games that starters have played, three starters suffered injuries that forced them to injured reserve. Wide receiver Cam Meredith suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the third preseason game against the Titans, and Freeman (torn pectoral muscle) and White (broken shoulder blade) went down in the regular-season opener against the Falcons.
So heading into Sunday’s game, the Bears are already in a familiar predicament: It’s not just a matter of who will start against the Buccaneers, but who will finish. And even then, you never know. Freeman played 56 of 59 defensive snaps in the opener and was even on the field for the Falcons’ game-ending kneel-down, but he apparently tore his pec on the first play from scrimmage.
The Bears, not surprisingly, are unbowed in the face of bad early returns.
“There were 29 torn ACLs just [through] the first three weeks of the preseason,” Fox said. “It’s just a reality. I don’t know how you avoid them. We make a big deal out of it because you try to adjust and do everything you can, but in our three guys’ cases, I’m not sure, really, [that] how you train helps that. It’s a tough, physical game.”
Every team has injuries, but the Bears seem to have more than most. According to footballoutsiders.com, the Bears led the NFL last year with 155.1 adjusted games lost, which measures not only the injuries but the importance of the players lost. That’s the highest total by their account since 2000.
The Falcons, meanwhile, went to the Super Bowl on the back of an offense that led the league in scoring — and not-so-coincidentally was one of the healthiest in the NFL. Of the 11 starters on offense, the Falcons lost just three games to injury: Julio Jones missed two games and Mohamed Sanu missed one.
Reserve guard/tackle Tom Compton played just 61 snaps on the Falcons’ offensive line last season because the entire line started all 19 games and played 98.0 percent of the offensive snaps. Compton already has played 67 snaps on offense with the Bears. He started for Long in the opener and figures to start Sunday with Long out again. Some teams seem to have it, and some teams don’t.
There is a solution, of course.
“The good teams have depth,” Wheaton said. “It’s just next-man-up, really. That’s all it is.”
But that’s the Bears’ challenge. They have better depth this season. For instance, the Nick Kwiatkoski who will start for Freeman on Sunday is an upgrade over the Kwiatkoski who replaced Freeman and Danny Trevathan as a rookie last season. But they don’t have enough to sustain another string of injuries like the one that accelerated the plunge to 3-13 last season.
Not yet, anyway. Therein lies the paradox that could define this season: To get better depth, they need better health.
Follow me on Twitter @MarkPotash.