On the first day of training camp, before the Bears even took the field for practice in Bourbonnais, Pernell McPhee was placed on the physically unable to perform list. Just two days later, we learned the self-proclaimed “violent” outside linebacker who was supposed to be the prized free agent signing of Ryan Pace’s first offseason as Bears GM, had arthroscopic surgery to “clean out” whatever had built up in his right knee between reporting day and minicamp in June. That came after offseason labrum surgery. Which came after surgery on his left knee last offseason.
A presumably healthier McPhee was coming back, stud edge rusher of the future Leonard Floyd was expected to make a leap in his second season, and Willie Young and his 24 sacks in three years with the Bears were returning. So some believed Lamarr Houston and his nearly $7 million cap figure, which jumps to almost $9 million in the fifth and final season of his deal in 2018, were expendable. After the McPhee news this week, sometimes the best move is the one you don’t make. The Bears weren’t pushed against the salary cap, so they didn’t have to cut him loose. Good thing they didn’t. Houston heard the rumors and speculation, but didn’t pay much attention.
“No, I’m not worried about that,” the seven-year veteran said after Friday’s practice in Bourbonnais. “In the NFL, there’s 31 other teams. If it doesn’t work out for one team, I’m sure there’s something else that’ll happen.”
Houston’s been in Chicago for three years. The second was great, with eight sacks readjusting to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, which he had a taste of with the Oakland Raiders. The first and third seasons with the Bears were lousy, tearing an ACL in both knees, limiting him to just ten games, including only two last season. Those knee injuries added to the thinking his time at Halas Hall wouldn’t last much longer.
“It was rough but adversity breeds success in my mind so I believe it was all for the better," Houston said.
Houston blocked out the noise as he went through a long rehab for the second time in three years.
“This is a competitive league and anytime you get hurt, there’s always the 'next man up' theory," Houston said. "So you can’t really focus on whether it’s about you being missed. It’s more about the team being successful.”
Now the Bears have to consider themselves lucky to have Houston. And hope the injury bug doesn't bite him again, or Floyd, or Young, or Dan Skuta or Sam Acho before the games start to count. Houston was brought in by former Bears GM Phil Emery in 2014 after an 8-8 season under Marc Trestman. His first ACL injury on his first Bears sack during a blowout road loss to the New England Patriots was almost emblematic of that chaotic, at times embarrassing, season.
“It’s much different now,” Houston says entering year three under John Fox, despite the 9-23 record. “We have a more cohesive locker room. Guys are excited to be here, they want to play football, they want to win. You can feel the vibe around the building. Everybody’s really into what we’re doing and how we’re doing it, and I think that’s going to make us a much better football team."
Houston now looks to flash back, performance-wise, to 2015, in his first season under Vic Fangio, and most of a defensive staff that seems to have the minds and architects in place. Now it’s a matter of having the right talent, and keeping it as healthy as possible, despite the ominous start with McPhee.
“We have to put in the work to show our identity and what we want that to be. Right now (it’s early) we don’t have an identity," Houston said. "We’re working and we’re going to find one before camp is out. I think we’re all excited about that and putting our best foot forward doing it. I think that’s something we have to earn. We have to work to build it and we’re going to keep on punching away.
“Thankfully we have the same defense and same coaches so I can get right back in this defense and get rolling again. Just to be around practice, be around the guys, the coaches, I’m very grateful for it and very excited about it. I’m not really worried about proving what I can do. I’ve got the same coaches, they know what I can do. Right now I’m thinking of getting thru the process, making steady progress and getting back out on the field and playing hard."