During last year’s training camp, Bears outside linebacker Pernell McPhee described his play like only he could.
Indeed, that is the perfect descriptor for how the 27-year-old prefers to operate. He’s not going to beat an offensive lineman consistently with a speed rush. No one will confuse his speed on the field to be akin to that of a championship sprinter.
No, McPhee mauls his counterparts with a crushing bull rush, violent hands, and a motor that never stops. He has an innate and special finishing burst when in the backfield and is rarely out of proper position in the running game. When on top of his game, he’s not a superstar, but there’s no argument that he isn’t one of the very best edge defenders in the NFL.
The music aside there, goosebumps should come over anyone when they see how McPhee rag dolls a tackle like he does against the Lions above. This is a guy that’s an inherent badass in every sense of the word.
In fact, last season, there was no doubt that he was the lone dynamic and incremental piece on a budding Vic Fangio defense. According to Pro Football Focus, McPhee accounted for nearly a quarter of the Bears pass rush pressure last year. That figure was first among 3-4 outside linebackers. He was also one of the league’s best run defenders in making stops. A fact like that speaks to both a lack of talent on last year’s defense, and is a credit to McPhee who valiantly tried to fill every void.
Many questioned whether he could be at the forefront of a defense as one of the primary pass rushers instead of a situational guy like he was in Baltimore, and he passed with flying colors.
That is until, injury struck.
A majority of the dominance McPhee displayed came in the first half of 2015.
McPhee injured his left knee around the midway point and it lingered enough to slow him down to where he became a non-factor. Eventually, he required arthroscopic surgery in the offseason. Whether the Bears should have sat him knowing the extent and seriousness of his injury after a playoff berth is a different discussion altogether. In the end, he missed the last two games of the season after it had nagged at him for quite awhile.
There were supposed reports that leaked out of Baltimore saying McPhee was “damaged goods”, which speaks to whether he could be rise above the concerns of being just a situational pass rusher. The credibility of those reports is still in question, but it push forward the discussion surrounding the defender.
Either way, the subsequent procedure set back McPhee’s 2016 debut all the way until ‘Thursday Night Football’ against the Green Bay Packers approximately two weeks ago. Simply enough, he wasn’t healing right and he didn’t practice at all during training camp to warrant not being on the physically unable to perform list until then.
Of course, McPhee played only 19 snaps in Lambeau, as the outside linebacker was more of a decoy on a pitch count trying to knock off rust, then an actual impact factor.
Judging his return and place on the team for the future after this game would leave you dark and depressed.
His night against the Minnesota Vikings this past Monday, was a welcome step in the proper direction towards the healthy force of last year. He recorded his first sack of the season, forced a fumble, and in general looked much faster and more comfortable coming up the field.
Judging his return and place on the team for the future after this game would leave you joyfully optimistic. You might even mutter ‘violent’ happily to yourself as a reminder.
But, yet again, he was on a relative pitch account, playing just 25 of the available 55 offensive snaps.
To note, McPhee was incredibly productive in 18 pass rush opportunities, with four quarterback hits and that lone sack. Basically, he had a hit on the Vikings’ Sam Bradford around every four plays. So, he can clearly still play.
The question moving forward for the Bears and McPhee now is whether he’s a part time player, available on just half the snaps of a game or where he can eventually evolve into a guy on the field 70-80 percent of the time. With Leonard Floyd’s emergence, and other depth like Willie Young as well as others developing on the defensive line such as Jonathan Bullard, maybe the Bears don’t need full-time “violence” from McPhee. Maybe they just need a guy who can be lynchpin in whatever his body will allow.
If the Bears push McPhee too much, they likely exhaust and ruin him altogether. If they use him too little, it’s a disservice to a defense that needs him, in a delicate balancing act. Like Happy Gilmore, the Bears have to play the “ball” as it lies.
One thing’s for sure is that they’re dramatically better when he’s playing well. He gives Chicago’s defense that extra “oomph”, and an identity, even.
And ideally, a player with three years left on his deal after this season just needs to be available at all, let alone half of a game. The Bears aren’t better off without him if they release him once his guaranteed money is off the books. You take all the wins you can get with a player that might not ever prove to be able to carry the same load again.
Quite honestly, even if they wanted him to play a majority of the snaps again in the near future, he probably wouldn’t able to. This doesn’t sound like an organization confident his knee will ever be fully optimized again. The Bears didn’t fully disclose the seriousness of his original injury up until he showed up in shorts at Bourbonnais and even then, they’ve been incredibly vague on his status.
After the Packers game, Fangio didn’t sound so confident about McPhee moving forward, even with a small sample size.
If a coordinator’s merely hoping his player can return to a high level of play, that won’t inspire much faith and is a testament to the Bears simply going out on a limb themselves. They’re merely hoping he can be a quality defender again in whatever capacity.
Obviously, McPhee, one never to shy away from a microphone, felt and feels differently.
Not to get too drastic, as McPhee should maintain positivity, but any steps he’ll take will be more attributed to his knee being able to absorb all of the punishment. That’s the only test we need to see over time as Chicago attempts to finish it’s championship defense puzzle. They’d definitely like their “violent” linebacker along for that ride.
If it’s his body responding well or if it indeed takes that miracle for McPhee’s knee to hold up, be sure the Bears will accept either blessing.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.