In the last game of the 2011 season, with a little over five minutes left to play, the Bears were up on the Vikings by 4. Joe Webb threw a deep pass, trying to get the touchdown his team desperately needed to win. The pass was knocked down, and the score at the time (17-13 for the Bears) ended up being the final score of the game. However, I wasn’t watching the next possession, not really. Instead, I was talking with my wife about the impact of what we had just seen. In a game that could not have any real impact on the Bears’ future, the future of the Bears was irrevocably harmed.
That pass was far more meaningful than it should have been in a contest between the 3-12 Vikings and the 7-9 Bears. It was meaningful because by the time that the whistle blew, Brian Urlacher was down with a knee injury that—by any reasonable understanding—changed his career. Yes, he got back on the field in 2012, but it was different. He was a different player, albeit one with the same drive and heart.
All games are meaningful in the NFL. The tape is a player’s best résumé. Players should and usually do want to play in every game, and Brian Urlacher absolutely should have been playing. Make any argument that you want to make about meaningless games, and that game was fairly meaningless, but the human mind is usually structured in such a way that in order to have the drive and mindset that lets you fling your body around a playing field, you have to want to be a part of every play.
Coaches should not bench players or wrap them in packing foam. Not only is John Fox doing his best to win games (like the results or not, but he is trying), but he is also trying to build a culture. Whether or not he has succeeded, and how much that culture matters, is of course up for debate. However, every win is valuable to a struggling veteran coach and to a general manager trying to prove himself.
However, with all of that said, now that the Bears can no longer get in the way of Green Bay’s resurgence, I find myself dreading another Brian Urlacher meets Major Wright moment. I will watch the next Bears game irrationally certain that Jordan Howard or Leonard Floyd is going to suffer some catastrophic injury in a game that will only add to the injury total for the Beloved.
In his Ten Thoughts, Lester mentions draft-eligible players skipping exhibition games in order to preserve their future, and regardless of whether or not you agree with Jaylon Smith, who says he would still play, it’s easy to understand why a player who has yet to cash a single paycheck might hesitate. It is even easy to understand why a player like Kyle Fuller might hesitate before thinking he is ready to go.
While I can rationalize all of these decisions, the fact of the matter is that I want to see Leonard Floyd and Jordan Howard play out the final season and play as if they have nothing to lose. It’s not because of the reps. Some of it is because it is impossible to imagine the conversation wherein a coach tells one player “you’re too valuable to play in this game” and another player “get on out there and try.” It happens, I know. I just don’t like it. Most of the reason I want to see the emerging stars out there is simpler, though. I want to see “my” team win. Even the meaningless games. And just like I hope for them to somehow pull out a W, I hope for them to somehow stay healthy while doing so.
What say you? Is it better for a team like the Bears to sit its remaining stars, or do they play to win the game and risk another day like January 1, 2012?