The one thing the Bears have been able to count on the last few seasons is that Khalil Mack will be in the lineup and spearheading their pass rush, no matter how much damage his body incurs along the way.
Even that, however, is no longer certain.
Mack has been missing practice ever since spraining his foot in Week 3 against the Browns, and the Bears have reached a point where it might be more sensible to let him heal rather than spend the rest of the season playing through it.
Coach Matt Nagy said Wednesday putting Mack on injured reserve is possible, which would keep him out of at least the next three games and mean the soonest he could return would be on Thanksgiving against the Lions.
“We’re working through everything right now with Khalil,” Nagy said. “There’s been absolutely no decisions made [on injured reserve]. We’ll just kinda see where that all ends up.”
That answer should come by Saturday afternoon, when the Bears must finalize their game-day roster. If it’s even in consideration to put him on injured reserve, that signals there’s almost no chance he plays Sunday against the 49ers.
It’d be a tough loss for the Bears at a time when they can’t afford it. They go into this game at 3-4, desperate to keep their season afloat.
Not only would their most talented player be stepping away, but they’re already missing the other pillars of their pass rush. Outside linebacker Robert Quinn remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list, and defensive tackle Akiem Hicks missed the game last week because of a groin injury.
Those three are essential to the Bears’ blueprint, which prioritized having an elite pass rush. Mack is seventh in the NFL with six sacks, and Quinn is 12th with 5.5. The Bears lead the league with 21 sacks as a team, which has helped them offset question marks in their secondary.
The trio of Mack, Quinn and Hicks accounts for 20% of the salary cap this season with a combined hit of $37.9 million.
Mack, who has made six consecutive Pro Bowls, has been incredibly reliable despite several significant injuries since joining the Bears in 2018. He has played 69% of the defensive snaps this season — he was in the 80s the last two seasons despite various injuries — and has played 53 of a possible 55 games for the Bears over the last four seasons.
“The last couple weeks he has not practiced, but he’s been able to get out there on game day and grit it out and really put together some good games and get after it, and we need that,” Nagy said. “But when you are hurting, you’ve got to be able to get answers, and . . . he’s in that process with doctors and trainers.”
Mack sustained the injury in the first half against the Browns about a month ago and appeared to be done for the day but returned after halftime. That was essentially the end of him practicing, but he was determined not to miss games and had a sack three consecutive weeks after getting hurt.
“If I’m out there, I’m 100%,” Mack said.
That’s an admirable mentality, but it’s clearly not true no matter how badly Mack wants it to be. It has hindered him enough to prompt a conversation to shelve him, and he and the Bears would be better off with him at full strength, even if he needs time off to get there.