The mysterious case of Trey Burton’s demise is the Bears’ 2019 season in a nutshell.
The Bears haven’t been the same team since Burton suddenly missed the wild-card game against the Eagles in January with a groin injury — after practicing all week with no indication of any problem. And the Bears’ fine touch in avoiding injuries and rehabilitating injuries through most of the rejuvenating 2018 season has betrayed them in 2019.
Burton’s recovery was problematic from the start. The Bears initially elected to forego surgery to allow the injury to heal on its own. And when that didn’t work, Burton had sports hernia surgery — a procedure that was announced in inexact terms in May (“a couple of months ago,” Matt Nagy said when asked about the inactive Burton after an OTA practice).
It was a constant struggle since then, marked by setbacks and undefined status updates. Burton returned for training camp but never appeared 100 percent. He didn’t play in the preseason and when he suffered a groin injury late in August, general manager Ryan Pace said it was unrelated to the previous injury.
After missing the season opener against the Packers, Burton played in the next eight games but was a shell of his former self. He had 14 receptions for 84 yards and no touchdowns. Only five of his catches went for first downs. Only one was longer than 11 yards. He left the Lions game on Nov. 10 with a calf injury and was put on injured reserve last week. But coach Matt Nagy indicated the groin injury that never quite healed was also a factor.
“[It was] a little of both,” Nagy said Monday. “He had that calf, and I think overall you kind of knew from the year how that was going. And then we had that [calf injury], so it just made sense.”
Considering that Burton’s original injury was minor enough to not immediately warrant surgery, his problematic recovery is disconcerting. Ravens linebacker Za’Darius Smith had sports hernia surgery in January before signing with Green Bay and has 8 1/2 sacks and 20 quarterback hits this season.
Linebacker David Mayo had sports hernia surgery in February and is having a solid year with the Giants — starting the last seven games, with 13 tackles against the Patriots in Week 6. Seahawks defensive tackle Jarran Reed had the surgery in April and returned in Week 7 — he had 1.5 sacks against the 49ers in Week 10. And Chiefs offensive tackle Eric Fisher had sports hernia surgery in Week 3 this season and started Monday night against the Chargers.
Burton has two years left on the four-year, $32 million contract he signed in 2018 — with $4 million guaranteed and a $7.5 million dead-cap hit for 2020. So the Bears likely will hope a longer period of rehabilitation will finally get Burton right in 2020 — but also bring in a starter-level “move” tight end in the offseason, even if they have to splurge again to do so. The position is too important in Nagy’s offense to leave anything to chance.
2. Just how important is the tight end in Nagy’s offense? Just look at the Chiefs and Eagles — two other Andy Reid offenses. Tight end Travis Kelce has led the Chiefs in receptions and has been first or second in yards for the past four seasons. Zach Ertz has led the Eagles in receptions and yards the past four seasons.
Burton was fourth in receptions and yards in 2019, when he was healthy. He is sixth in both categories this season. So the Bears not only need to shore up the position on the roster, but also find a way to better utilize the move tight end in Nagy’s offense.
3. Maybe it’s time for Matt Nagy and the Bears to drop the TLC approach with Mitch Trubisky and go the tough-love approach. Nagy was literally the quarterback whisperer on the sidelines when he informed Trubisky he was turning to Chase Daniel on Sunday. How about throwing him in the emotional deep end and seeing if he can swim? Trying to build Trubisky’s confidence only seems to be eroding it.
4. Stat of the Weak: The Bears gained 80 yards on 28 first-and-10 plays against the Rams — a season-low 2.9 yards per play that dropped them to 29th in the NFL in first-and-10 average (4.8 yards).
5. The Bears had an historically winning formula against the Rams — and still couldn’t win. According to research via pro-football-reference.com, the Bears are the first team since the merger to lose with at least 70 offensive plays, one or fewer turnovers, two or fewer penalties, and 17 or fewer points allowed. Teams that fit those parameters were 103-0 since 1970. Yikes!
6. It’s hard to argue with the notion that the 4-6 Bears have little to play for without Trubisky starting the final six games. But how about the offensive line establishing itself as a positive factor in 2020? The Bears’ line is ranked 28th in the NFL by footballoutsiders.com. The Bears rank 29th in rushing yards per carry and 32nd in passing yards per attempt.
And with tackles Bobby Massie and Charles Leno on long-term deals, all five starters are expected to return in 2020 — assuming the Bears continue to be encouraged by Rashaad Coward’s work in place of Kyle Long at right guard.
Massie, who left the Rams game with a back injury in the third quarter, said he expects to start this week against the Giants.
7. Has Akiem Hicks supplanted Khalil Mack as the Bears’ most valuable defender? You could make that argument after seeing opponents neutralize Mack in Hicks’ absence. For what it’s worth, the Bears shut down the Jets (207 yards, 3.8 per play, 10 points) and Bills (264 yards, 3.3 per play, nine points) in two games without Mack (and with Hicks) last season (lower degree-of-difficulty noted).
Either way, Hicks’ value, which has always been appreciated since he arrived in 2016, continues to rise with each game he misses.
8. Even if the Bears pull off a miracle finish that would rival the 1977 run to the playoffs and finish 10-6, they still would be long shots to make the playoffs. The Seahawk (8-2) and Vikings (8-3) hold the wild-card spots in the NFC and both are on pace to finish 11-5 or better.
The 2015 Jets are the last team to finish 10-6 and not make the playoffs.
9. Josh McCown Ex-Bears Player of the Week Award: Jets tight end Daniel Brown caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Sam Darnold in the first quarter to ignite a 34-17 victory over the Redskins at FedEx Field.
It was Brown’s first reception of the season and second touchdown catch of his career. He caught a seven-yard touchdown pass from Matt Barkley against the Titans in his first game with the Bears in 2016.
10. Bear-ometer: 6-10 — vs. Giants (W); at Lions (W); vs. Cowboys (L); at Packers (L); vs. Chiefs (L); at Vikings (L).