Bears coach John Fox draws much the same distinction as your Mom might have, between real injuries and “owies,” those nicks and things that she could put a band-aid on and you would be back out playing before you’d missed a turn at bat.
Owies won’t keep players out of the Bears’ Sept. 11 opener in Houston against the Texans, so conclusions about whether it’s an injury or an owie don’t mean much at this point when thinking ahead for Week 1 availability.
But the seemingly endless drumbeat of players missing practice time – typically more than a dozen out of 90 on any given practice day – takes players out of the sessions they need to become parts of a whole on offense, defense or special teams. It means, for instance, that rookie outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, working to master pass-rush moves at the NFL level, misses time to work on those desperately needed moves against tackles and tight ends.
This time last year, linebackers Lamarr Houston and Willie Young were coming off injuries that ended their 2014 seasons. They were established veterans and it still took time, arguably the better part of a half season, for them to come all the way back physically, but also to integrate fully into the scheme with teammates.
Now with one of the NFL’s youngest rosters, the Bears could more than some other more veteran teams feel the effects of that lost time and chances to develop cohesion.
Fox has seen this situation before, and every preseason has injury stories. “I think it's pretty much the same in the other 31 [NFL] cities,” Fox said. “It's been about the same for me the last 15 years. So there's a difference between injuries and owies, so we've had a couple injuries and now it's just about getting everybody healthy for Houston.”
The sick-bay list by the time the Bears visit Houston is not expected to include guard Kyle Long, tight end Zach Miller, running back Jeremy Langford or nickel corner Bryce Callahan. But Long (shoulder) was working off to the side with right tackle Bobby Massie on footwork, not at full speed in practice. Callahan (hamstring) was just doing some light running, not in pads and not in concert with the rest of the nickel secondary projected to include him. Miller (concussion) was in a no-contact red jersey that called attention to his history of injury susceptibility.
They and others are not in any sort of game-week schedule.
“Everything is a schedule,” Fox said. “I don’t care who you are or where it is at home or at the office, there's a routine and a schedule. You like getting guys acclimated to the point of where we've got a 12 o'clock kickoff for a preseason game, which is a typical Sunday kickoff for us in our routine so I think the more you can expose guys to scheduling, kind of what you're expecting in the preparation, I think the better.”
Injuries, and owies, are doing that schedule no favors.
When Charles Tillman retired earlier this year, more than an elite cornerback was exiting the game. Tillman was a mentor to young defensive backs, even though he made it abundantly clear that he had no interest in moving on to coaching in his next career.
When the Bears re-signed Tracy Porter to a three-year contract this offseason, one that committed some $4.5 million to a cornerback who’d been with five different teams over the past five seasons, they were cementing in place more than just their top defensive back. They were committing to one of those hard-to-find individuals whose presence makes the whole greater than just the sum of the parts.
Porter, who has played 16 games just once (Oakland, 2009) in his eight NFL seasons, has started as many games in his career (79, including six in postseason) as the rest of the Bears defensive backs combined (75). The result is that Porter suddenly becomes the bell-cow for a group that is struggling to establish itself and a level of NFL competence.
“We’re young in the secondary outside of Tracy Porter for the most part and we’re just going to have to see what they’re capable of doing mentally as we go through the process here,” said coordinator Vic Fangio, “and how many schemes we can ask them to do effectively.”
A significant measure of how many of those schemes and everything else the secondary will be able to do traces (no pun intended) to Porter. He is not only the best defensive back on the roster; he also is the most experienced, from time in schemes with New Orleans, Denver, Oakland, Washington and now the Bears.
The situation is complex, however.
Veterans are too often assumed to be mentors to young players, even to the point of helping know where to line up, techniques and such. That involves in-game help, which is the nature of defense anyway. But a player assuming too much of a role in coaching others in his group can lose focus on his own job, a prelude to disaster.
“It can, but I try to do my best to focus in on what I need to do, and then once I see those guys taking their reps, then that’s when I go into the coaching mode,” Porter said. “But when I’m out there on the field, I’m locked in to what ‘21’ [his own number] and the rest of the defense has to do.
“But when the younger guys are in, I’m definitely in coaching mode. I’m getting my mental reps. At the same time, I’m watching those guys what they’re doing, if they’re having a missed assignment or having a not-so-good technique that I can help them with.”
The Bears had high hopes last year for tall cornerback Alan Ball, who started the first three games as Porter worked his way back from a preseason hamstring strain. Ball failed to capitalize on his opportunity and Porter replaced him at Seattle, then started the rest of the year.
And he has has begun this year working at setting an example as he did last Nov. 26 when he intercepted one Aaron Rodgers pass and broke up four others – most by any player in Rodgers’ career. Last Thursday’s game at New England was preseason, meaning that stats are typically dismissed as meaningless (which they are decidedly not when they indicate a pattern or trend). Inside the Chicago 10 Porter stripped the football from a Patriots running back and recovered it. The play was one the Bears practiced and the result was a takeaway in a second straight game, something the Bears were unable to accomplish over the final seven games of 2015.
It also was the only pass breakup or forced/recovered fumble by any member of the secondary in the game.
But that is part of preseason, and with the spiraling injury list in the secondary, Porter’s work away from the football will continue to be an unofficial on-field “assistant” to defensive-backs coach Ed Donatell.
“My biggest challenge?” Porter reflected. “Just keeping the guys into it that are injured and bringing the guys that weren’t getting many reps, getting those guys up to speed, to catch up the first- and second-team defense.”
Charles Tillman is living on the edge a month after waving the white flag on his NFL career.
The former Bears cornerback jumped out of a plane this weekend at the Chicago Air and Water Show.
[SHOP: Gear up Bears fans!]
Tillman even got a chance to see a place that he called home for 12 years: Soldier Field.
Not only that, but he had a ridiculous view of the city's skyline — which you can also see in the video.
It's safe to say he's fully in retirement mode.