As the Chicago Bears prepare to play their third preseason game next Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs, 20 players on the 90-man roster missed practice due to injury. Most of those players are struggling with minor injuries and were sitting for precautionary reasons. However, there is one who has been sidelined through organized team activities and training camp to date who holds the key to the Bearsâ€™ fortunes on defense this season, and maybe to their playoff hopes-outside linebacker Pernell McPhee.
McPhee was general manager Ryan Paceâ€™s name acquisition in the 2015 offseason when they agreed to a 5-year, $38.75 million contract with $15.5 million guaranteed. Big money for someone who had played 60 games in four seasons, but only started six.
It turns out the coal mine everyone thought the Bears bought contained a deposit of gold. Under head coach Marc Trestman the Bears lost all sense of accountability in the locker room.Â Once he arrivedÂ in Chicago, McPhee established himself as one of the leaders, not just of the defense but of the entire team, and was named a captain heading into Week 1.
One example of his influence was after the Bears opened 0-3 with the season on the brink of spiraling out of control. The Saturday night before their Week 4 game against the Oakland Raiders, McPhee gave a speech to the entire team that inspired them to pull together the next day.
The Bears held tough into the fourth quarter with McPhee contributing eight tackles and the first interception of his NFL career. His stop of Roy Helu on a third down run forced the Raiders to kick a field goal. The points allowed Oakland to take a 20-19 lead but gave the Bears two minutes to answer back for a field goal of their own to earn a 22-20 victory.
In the first eight games of the season before McPhee injured his knee, he amassed 35 tackles and five sacks. Over the final eight games of the season, after injuring his left knee, he missed two and pushed himself through the other six for 15 tackles and one sack.
Last February McPhee had the knee scoped. Afterwards it was announced that the procedure was successful and that he would recoverÂ in time for training camp. Well, that time has come and gone.
The question being raised with increased frequency is what is really wrong with the knee and why it is taking so long to heal. McPhee is running out of time not just to rehab his knee but to get into game shape so he can stay healthy when the stakes are real.
The Bearsâ€™ brass has built a facade of confidence over the past month that McPhee will still be on the field Week 1 in Houston. Last week, Pace told Adam Hoge of WGN Radio, â€śWe want him ready for the regular season. We donâ€™t want to rush him into this preseason. So itâ€™s like taking a patient approach to have him for the long haul.â€ť
The problem is the long haul is less than three weeks away and McPhee has yet to participate in a practice. As good as Willie Young has become in moving his pass rush talents to outside linebacker, McPhee has proven that, when healthy, heâ€™s the difference maker the Bears need at the position, both in pass rush and shutting down runners.
Through two preseason games the Bears have struggled to identify enough playmakers to raise their defense to a postseason level. Thatâ€™s why any hopes the Bears have of making a playoff run this season rest on whether McPheeâ€™s knee finally responds to rehab so his presence can return to leading the team from the field.