Allow me to play devil’s advocate for a moment and ask a serious question. What if the Bears didn’t have 19 players on Injured Reserve, another 55 games missed due to injury, 8 games lost to suspension and countless other nagging injuries in 2016? Would we be having the same "doom and gloom" opinion of the Bears heading into 2017?
To truly grasp how crippling the injury situation was in 2016, we first have to examine how important those players were to the team. Based on the depth chart heading into the season, one could make the argument that the Bears lost 14 starters for 4 or more games due to injury or suspension.
Of course, some of these injuries proved to be beneficial to the team. For this exercise, let’s leave the injuries that helped the team or didn’t hurt the team, as-is.
Jay Cutler: Missed 11 games due to injury. If you recall, he was injured during the Texans game to open the season. I believe this happened in the 4th quarter on a hit by Mercilus. There were a few ugly passes thrown directly after that hit. At the time, the Bears were actually winning that game 14-13 after a Novack FG on the opening drive of the 2nd half.
To prove just how far away week 17 was from week 1, consider the scoring plays from those games. Against the Texans on opening day, Jeremy Langford rushed for the first score and Eddie Royal caught a TD pass from Jay Cutler. Fast forward to week 17 and Matt Barkley to Cameron Meredith was the lone TD.
The singular loss of your starting QB would be devastating to virtually any NFL but especially to a team coming off a 6-10 season. This problem was compounded by the fact that Connor Shaw broke his leg in the preseason, Brian Hoyer would go on to break his arm and miss the remaining 9 games of the season. We, as fans, often forget that Matt Barkley wasn’t even on the roster until September 22, when he was signed off the Practice Squad.
Jeremy Langford: Missed 4 games and was Questionable in another. This is one of those positives I mentioned earlier as Jordan Howard went on to break the Bears Rookie rushing record with 1,313 yards.
Alshon Jeffery: Suspended for 4 games and Questionable for 4 others. Whether you agree with allowing him to leave or not, the fact remains that Jeffery was the Bears best receiving option in 2016. Losing him for a 4-game stretch in addition to some nagging injuries, really hurt the passing game.
Kevin White: Missed 11 games and Questionable in another. The light appeared to be coming on for White. After a lackluster performance in the first 2 games (7 catches for 70 yards), White starting showing improvement over the next 2 (12 catches for 127 yards). There was a highlight reel one-handed, over-the-shoulder catch in the Dallas game and he really showed his burst against Detroit. With no track record to go off of, it is hard to say what could have been. But it was certainly looking he was about to turn the corner as a Pro.
Eddie Royal: Missed 7 games and Questionable in 4 others. Say what you will about Royal as a Bear, but over the course of his career, he has been a very productive player. Injuries have basically derailed his career at this point but a healthy Royal was still a significant upgrade over Joshua Bellamy or Deonte Thompson.
Zach Miller: Missed 6 games and Questionable in 3 others. Miller seems to be the guy that you can pencil in for the IR list at some point in every season. Given his production when he was healthy though, and I think it was safe to assume that he was having another very solid season for the Bears.
Kyle Long: Missed 9 games and Questionable in 2 others. Long wasn’t healthy at any point in 2015. He started the season with a torn shoulder Labrum, which is still an issue, and he ended his season by a high ankle injury against Tampa Bay. Larsen and Kush filled in admirably but how much better could Jordan Howard be with a healthy Kyle Long and a healthy…
Josh Sitton: Missed 3 games and Questionable in 6 others. The other former All-Pro Guard in the middle of the line was battling injuries all season as well. Like Long, Sitton was battling shoulder and ankle injuries all season. Had these 2 been fully healthy, that Offensive Line would have been an even greater asset.
Hroniss Grasu: Missed all 16 games. Grasu was another one of those "happy accidents" as the late, great Bob Ross would say. This injury allowed Cody Whitehair to step in at Center and start all 16 games. Grasu, by several accounts however, looked good in Training Camp. It is possible that Whitehair-Grasu-Long would have been the interior of the line and could have been very good as well.
By my count, that’s 9 of 11 Training Camp starters that missed at least 3 games, plus nagging injuries. Add in Hoyer and Shaw, and it is pretty easy to see how the team ended up 28th in scoring last year. On the bright side, the Bears were 15th in yards. So at least they moved the ball a little bit.
Eddie Goldman: Missed 10 games. Goldman was one the 2015 Draft’s bright spots. He flashed pass rushing abilities and proved to be almost unmovable against the run. He was being depended on to show improvement from his Rookie year to his 2nd season. Unfortunately, his progress has been derailed by injuries.
Lamarr Houston: Missed 14 games. It is debatable whether or not Houston was truly the starter. He was coming off of an 8-sack season in 2015 and was the most dependable OLB against the run. In my opinion, he was unquestionably the starter across from…
Pernell McPhee: Missed 7 games and Questionable in 2 others. McPhee has just not had any luck at all since he has been here. Like Houston, he has been injured for most of his Bears tenure. Even when McPhee was playing last year, he did not appear to be healthy and his play suffered. Just imagine if the Bears had the Pernell McPhee from the first 8 weeks of 2015 playing last season.
Jerrell Freeman: Missed 4 games due to suspension and Questionable in 2 others. Freeman was arguably the best player on the Bears last year. Those 4 games that he missed made a huge difference to the defense. Instead of the steady Freeman roaming the middle of the field, Anderson and Timu were the fill-in players.
Danny Trevathan: Missed 7 games and Questionable in 1 other. Trevathan was not having a particularly outstanding season but it was still very solid. He had a few lapses in coverage early on but was otherwise an above average performer. The bonus here was Nick Kwiatkowski got an early look, but he is a better fit at the "Mike" or Freeman’s position than he is at "Jack" or Trevathan’s position.
Tracy Porter: Questionable in 8 games. While Porter didn’t miss any time, he was certainly not the same player he was in 2015. A healthy Tracy Porter could have really helped stabilize the young secondary.
Kyle Fuller: Missed all 16 games. Fuller started the 2015 in an inauspicious way. He gave up big plays through the air and via pass interference penalties, although the penalties were debatable. But something happening in the middle of that season, his confidence grew in the system. According to Pro Football Focus, Kyle Fuller was the 7th best CB in the NFL after Week 7. Needless to say, most Bears fans saw Fuller finally living up to his 1st Round pedigree.
Bryce Callahan: Missed 3 games and Questionable in 5 others. Callahan has been one of the brighter spots in the defensive backfield ever since being signed as an UDFA in 2015. Callahan has battled injuries for 2 straight years but this also opened the door for Cre’Von LeBlanc to get an opportunity, so not all was lost. The feisty Callahan would’ve tremendously helped in the slot had he not been in-and-out of the lineup with nagging injuries.
So that is 8 of 12 starters (including Nickel Back) that missed significant time or was battling injuries last season. These key injuries played a major role in why the defense ranked 24th in points allowed. But the Brightside, like offensively, is that the defense was ranked 15th in yards allowed.
The Final Results
When you take a step back and truly look at what was lost in terms of games played, especially to key players, it is easy to see why the Bears were 3-13 in 2016. There are very few, if any, teams in today’s NFL that could overcome such hardships.
Would the Patriots have been in the Super Bowl having Brady, Garoppolo, Edelman, Solder and Butler missed the same amount of time as the Bears? Not a chance. They may have been an 8-8 team, but just as easily a 4 or 5-win team.
How about the Falcons? What if Ryan, J. Jones, Freeman, Beazley and D. Jones all missed significant time with injuries? I think you have a similar result, no better than a 5-win team.
It is important to keep things in context when a team is rebuilding. Yes, the current Pace/Fox Regime is 9-23 in 2 season, but there have been extenuating circumstances abound. It is easy to see this team, on paper and un-injured, and project them as having taken a step forward. Is it out of the question to think that the Bears could’ve been 8-8 with a little more luck in the injury department?
On a broader scale, how have injuries hurt the development of young players like White, Fuller, Goldman, Amos, Hall, Floyd, Grasu, Callahan and Langford? How have injuries to key veterans (Cutler, Jeffery, Trevathan, McPhee, Porter, Long, et al) kept the team from gelling together on the field and allowing young players to develop at their own pace?
Surely the team is partly responsible for the rash of injuries but bad luck also played a key role. It was good to hear Ryan Pace mention the injuries and how the team is going about fixing them.
"We have made some tweaks and some adjustments," Pace said. "Without going into specifics, but it could be some scheduling things, some training camp things, things we're doing in the weight room, things we're doing in the training room, just dialing things in to adapt and not just put our heads in the sand and say, 'oh that's bad luck.'
"We've made some adjustments and tweaks that we're all supportive of and we all had input on. We're excited about the outcome of that."
As readers of mine may have noticed, I am trying to keep a level-headed and optimistic approach to the Bears re-building efforts. But the injuries need to stop and this team needs to start making progress. I don’t think this team is that far off from the rest of the NFC North. They simply need to stay healthy and the results will show.