The one question Bears general manager Ryan Pace couldn’t answer even if he wanted to: Will the Bears be healthier in 2016 than they were in 2015?
Pace is loading up for major upgrades of the roster in his first full offseason as the Bears’ GM. But if they don’t have any better luck with injuries in 2016, they’ll have a tough time making a playoff run. Only four players started every game last season — right tackle Kyle Long, left guard/center Matt Slauson, safety Adrian Amos and cornerback Kyle Fuller. Playoff teams generally have double that: The Seahawks (12), Vikings (11), Steelers (10), Panthers (10), Bengals (9) and Broncos (8) among them.
The Bears’ virtually never-ending run of injuries was a particular disappointment, considering that Pace revamped the Bears’ training staff, including the hiring of a team dietician. It was almost as if the harder they tried the worse they got. Or it could have been one of those years — perhaps an adjustment to coach John Fox’s physical approach to conditioning and game preparation.
“We have a lot of confidence in our sports science team,” Pace said. “We’re going to think outside the box and be proactive in our injury prevention approaches.”
Maybe it takes that department a year to adjust as well. Pace seemed to intimate that Monday.
“We’ll get that under handle,” Pace said. “A new season together … as you’re evaluating your team, even individual players — what’s their ideal body weight?; what’s their ideal workload?; what’s their ideal hydration levels? We’re finding out more about each individual player more and more, then we can kind of fine-tune their plans going forward.”
The Bears also struggled with managing existing injuries. Pernell McPhee, Antrel Rolle and Eddie Royal were among those who were never the same once they were injured. Bothered by a sore knee, McPhee sat out the Rams game. He had limited playing time and effectiveness against the Broncos, Packers and 49ers before sitting out again against the Redskins. After getting five sacks in a five-game span from Weeks 3-8, he had just one sack in the final nine games of the season.
Pace said the Bears “talked about” shutting down McPhee at some point in the season but made a point of saying that McPhee did not aggravate the injury by playing through. “It was just something he had to fight through,” Pace said. And I think he showed a lot of toughness in doing that. His production dropped some, but I still think he was an asset for us.”
Rolle had played in 158 of 159 games in the previous nine years, but suffered a high ankle sprain against the Raiders in Week 4. He missed two games but played just three games before suffering a knee injury that put him in injured reserve. He acknowledged that he came back too soon.
“Just trying to bounce back as fast as I did kind of put stress on the knee,” Rolle said, “and it was just an unfortunate situation.”
As unfortunate as it might be, coming back too soon from an injury is arguably a preventable error. Nobody’s perfect. But somehow, someway, the Bears are either going to have to find a way to get better luck with injuries next season.
And therein lies the challenge for Ryan Pace. Even more so than the draft or free agency, keeping a football team healthy is literally an inexact science. Signing a Von Miller (albeit an unlikelihood) solves a pass rushing issue. But as the Bears learned with Kevin White and Pernell McPhee, there’s no sure-fire solution for the injury bug.
1a. On the other hand, one positive sign on the injury front — a credit to the training staff — was the performance of defensive end-turned-outside linebackers Willie Young and Lamarr Houston after undergoing surgery for season-ending injuries.
Players returning to form after major surgery had been a rarity at Halas Hall until Houston (ACL) and Young (Achilles) excelled in 2015. Houston led the Bears with seven sacks, despite playing just 40.5 percent (425 of 1,050) of the defensive snaps. Young had 6 1/2 sacks in 50.7 percent of the snaps. So the two combined for 13 1/2 sacks in 91.1 percent of the defensive snaps.
That bodes well for White, coming off surgery for a stress fracture and wide receiver Marquess Wilson, who had surgery for a broken foot.
2. Houston and Young made it a three-way battle with tight end Zach Miller for the unofficial Comeback Bear of the Year award. Miller, who missed the entire 2014 season with a foot injury, had not played in an NFL regular-season game since 2011 with Jacksonville. But he played in 15 games (missing only the regulars-season finale with a toe injury) and had 34 receptions for 439 yards (12.9 yards per catch) and a team-high five touchdown receptions.
In back-to-back weeks he had a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch to beat the Chargers and an 87-yard touchdown against the Rams, when he ran the final 85 yards and out-sprinted the Rams secondary to the end zone.
“Fun and frustrating,” Miller said when asked to sum up his season. “It’s fun to be able to do what you love and play this game with this group of guys. Frustrating as far as the record we put together.”
2a. Miller will be a free agent in the offseason and figures to have some options after a mini-breakout season. But he clearly prefers to stay with the Bears, who resurrected his career — Phil Emery signed him in 2014 when Miller had not played in two seasons; and Pace re-signed him sight unseen after Miller missed the 2014 season.
“I don’t know, man,” he said when asked if he was intrigued by the likelihood of having other opportunities in free agency. “I’ve been in different places. The grass is not always greener on the other side. I know the grass is green here.”
The Bears might not have the best offer, though.
“You can always make money,” Miller said. “I know this is an ascending organization, from ownership on down. It’s a special franchise that’s owned by great people and run by great people. I want to be here.”
3. Martellus Bennett’s season coincidentally — or not — went dowhill as Miller established himself as a big-play threat. Bennett had eight receptions for 58 yards and no touchdowns after Miller’s game-winning catch in San Diego. A rib injury he suffered against the Broncos was a factor — he played through it against the 49ers, but was ineffective with three catches for 14 yards. But he didn’t do himself any favors when he said he didn’t even watch the Bears-Packers game that he missed after suffering the original injury.
Bennett’s future with the Bears is in doubt. But he’s more likely to convince Pace and John Fox he’s on board than Brandon Marshall did last offseason.
4. The Bears played the second most difficult schedule in the NFL this season. Their 16 opponents had a combined 140-116 (.547) record — 130-110 (.541) excluding games against the Bears. Thirteen of their 16 opponents were 7-9 or better. The 49ers (148-108, .578) had the highest strength-of-schedule in 2015.
On paper the Bears’ schedule will lighten in 2016. Their 16 opponents were a combined 118-138 (.461) this season, with only six games against teams that were over .500 (the Packers and Vikings twice, the Redskins and Texans).
That doesn’t always work out in the worst-to-first NFL. The “easiest” schedule almost literally could turn out to be the toughest. The Colts had the second easiest schedule this year based on 2014 records (106-149-1, .417). Their opponents ended up a combine 130-126 (.508) and they went 8-8, struggling with or without Andrew Luck.
5. It’s a familiar lament at this time of the season: if the Bears had won all the games they could have won, they’d have been 13-3 this season. But if every team won the games it could have won, even 13-3 wouldn’t have gotten the Bears in the playoffs.
Here are the mythical NFC standings if every team won the games they lost by a touchdown or less:
NFC North: Packers (14-2); Vikings (13-3); Bears (13-3); Lions (11-5).
NFC East: Giants (14-2); Redskins (12-4); Eagles (10-6); Cowboys (10-6).
NFC South: Panthers (16-0); Falcons (13-3); Saints (12-4); Buccaneers (10-6).
NFC West: Seahawks (15-1); Cardinals (14-2); Rams (11-5); 49ers (7-9).
6. Including the Redskins this season, 25 teams in the last 13 years have made the playoffs after finishing 6-10 or worse the previous season — including at least one in 12 of those 13 years. The Bears did it under Lovie Smith, winning the NFC North in 2005 (11-5) after finishing 5-11 the previous season.
7. The Bears and Jets were the only teams in the NFL that did not score a point on both defense and special teams this seasons. It’s the first year the Bears haven’t had a return touchdown since 1997, when they went 4-12.
7a. The Bears’ offense (22.3 points per game) and defense (23.3) both were 17th in the NFL in scoring this season. But the offense also gave away 26 points on Jay Cutler’s three pick-sixes and the lost fumble against the Chiefs. So their net average was 19.3 points per game, which ranked 24th in the NFL.
8. Jared Goff Update: The Cal junior was phenomenal in his final college game, throwing six touchdowns passes with no interceptions in the Bears’ 55-36 victory over Air Force. He announced for the draft two days later.
Goff was 25-of-37 for 467 yards — breaking the school record for passing yards in a bowl game set by Aaron Rodgers (349) in the 2003 Insight Bowl. Cal went from 1-11 to 5-7 to 8-5 in Goff’s three seasons as the starting quarterback.
9. Ex-Bears Player of the Year: Jets wide receiver Brandon Marshall closed another chapter to his star-crossed career with eight catches for 126 yards and a touchdown in a 22-17 loss to the Bills that cost the Jets a playoff berth.
Marshall finished with 109 receptions for 1,502 yards (13.8 per catch) and 14 touchdowns. He has made six Pro Bowls in his career, but has yet to play in the postseason. This was the sixth time he has missed by one game. His team’s are 0-5 in games in which they can clinch a playoff berth.
9a. For what it’s worth, Pace had no regrets about trading Marshall for a fifth-round draft pick in March. The Bears used the pick to acquire Adrian Amos, who started all 16 games this season.
“We’re really looking forward,” Pace said. “e’re happy for him. And I’m happy with the guys we have here too. I don’t regret any of those decisions. We’re just marching forward. I think when you make decisions like that — reflecting back on that, it seems like five years ago — but it’s always what’s in the best interests of the club at the time and that’s what we felt was best.”
10. The Bears’ 17 takeaways this season are the lowest in recorded franchise history — including 12- and 14-game seasons. The fewest they’ve had in a 16-game season prior to 2015 is 20 in 2000 and 2003. The Bears averaged 34.4 takeaways in Lovie Smith’s nine seasons, including 44 in his final year with the Bears in 2012. But even with Lovie, that gravy train was due to slow down, as Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman reached the end of their careers.
The 17 takeaways also is the fewest for a John Fox-coached team in the NFL. His previous low was 18 in his first season in Denver. The Broncos had 24 the following year (and 26 in 2013 and 25 in 2014). So when Fox confidently says, “It’ll get better,” at least he has history to back up his optimism. He’s been doing this for 27 years now, after all.