Zach Miller

Zach Miller feels for Jesse James and hopes the NFL brings 'a little bit of common sense' to definition of a catch

USA Today

Zach Miller feels for Jesse James and hopes the NFL brings 'a little bit of common sense' to definition of a catch

Zach Miller had a message to another tight end who had a touchdown taken away thanks to the NFL’s bizarre and inscrutable catch rule: “I feel for you, brother.”

Miller, who received the PFWA Chicago Chapter's “Good Guy” Award on Thursday at Halas Hall, was referring to Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James, who on Sunday had what looked to be a go-ahead touchdown overturned on replay review. James caught a pass from Ben Roethlisberger, stretched toward the goal line and, according to the NFL, did not “survive the ground” in his attempt to score a go-ahead touchdown in a pivotal AFC clash against the New England Patriots. 

The NFL’s inability to clearly communicate the definition of a catch continues to be a bad look for the league, especially in such a high-profile moment as the Steelers-Patriots game on Sunday night. 

Miller knows all too well the inconsistencies of the NFL’s definition of a catch, having had what was initially a touchdown overturned on the play on which he dislocated his knee and tore an artery against the New Orleans Saints in October. 

“I don't know where this is going, where it's already been,” Miller, who began walking without for the first time since his injury this week, said. “I feel like we probably need to bring in a little bit of common sense to this thing.”

Miller said he hasn’t watched NFL senior vice president of officiating Alberto Riveron’s explanation of why his touchdown in New Orleans was overturned, which you might remember featured this arrow “showing” the ball being on the ground:

Miller, though, did say he watched Riveron’s explanation of why James’ touchdown was overturned to being an incomplete pass, which has been viewed over 1 million times on twitter. 

“First of all it's hard to listen to it, the monotone talk — that's not for me to hear,” Miller said. “Give me my touchdown back and maybe I'll listen to his takes. But I haven't heard mine.”

Miller doesn’t feel the need to get an explanation from Riveron as to why what could’ve been the final reception of his career was overturned to being an incompletion. 

“I can walk him through it,” Miller said, “how it really happened.”

Zach Miller's positive outlook after life-altering injury is something by which we all can be inspired

Zach Miller's positive outlook after life-altering injury is something by which we all can be inspired

Eight surgeries and more than six weeks later, Zach Miller made an emotional, inspirational return to Halas Hall on Monday. Miller’s most recent surgery was Friday, and he only started bending his left knee on Friday, too. 

The good news is the artery that was shredded when Miller awkwardly landed in the end zone of the Superdome Oct. 29 is “as strong if not stronger than it ever was,” Miller said. Miller didn’t wish to get into the structural specifics of his injury, but did say: “The main ligaments that normally are looked at and worried about are good.” 

But perhaps the best news about Miller’s injury — and there wasn’t much good news that came with it — is that his outlook has remained so positive and uplifting, both for those who’ve personally been with him and those who’ve interacted with him on social media. 

“I don’t think that all of the things that I’ve had gone on throughout my entire career, I don’t think there’s a part for me to sit back and think, ‘Why me?’” Miller said. “If anything I know that I’ll be better when this is done. This ain’t the end of my life. There’s a ton of things that I’ll still be able to do and really everything’s been conveyed to me is I’m going to be completely fine after we get through this. So now it’s just grind through this, use this for any amount of positivity you can and carry on because we’ve got a lot of life left to lead. Trying to have as much fun doing that as possible.”

That mentality was described as “impressive” by Bears coach John Fox, and that’s an apt way of putting it. Miller almost lost his leg in the hours after initially suffering his injury, after all. 

“That was very real,” Miller said Monday at Halas Hall. “A couple wrong turns away from actually happening. I had a ton of care, a lot of people helping me out throughout that entire process. But we were a couple minutes away from having that be real.”

Miller said he wasn’t initially told by doctors that amputation was a possibility, but he “just felt that” something more serious was going on. 

“I remember, before I got into the emergency surgery, the last thing I was telling the doctors was ‘Please, save my leg” because I knew that something wasn’t quite right just in the way my leg was feeling and the way it was filling up,” Miller said. “I knew we had issues. That was kind of in the back of my mind. I didn’t want that to happen. And I made sure to tell them that, hey, I don’t want that to happen as well.

“… The initial knee injury was just weird. I knew I had a significant injury. I didn’t know what it looked like. I knew it was severe. Then as time went on, I could just feel more pressure, a little more swelling, the leg starting to balloon up a little bit. I could just tell there was something going on that wasn’t really quite normal with a normal knee injury. So it made me worried. That was the initial thought for me. I started to panic a little bit. I just wanted to get things under control.”

Miller hasn’t thought much about what’s next for him football-wise, preferring to focus on the day-to-day progress he’s made since returning to Chicago (being able to get out of the house and come to Halas Hall on Monday represented progress, for example). But while Miller is 33 and a free agent after this season, he’s not willing to give up right now and call it a career. 

“I haven't really thought much of football from now on,” Miller said. “You know what I mean? I haven't got to that point. For me right now, it's just getting this right, getting healed up and when that point comes, make a decision. 

“Do I want to play football? What do you think? I've been a football player my whole life. I would love to play football. We'll cross that road when it's time.”

If Miller’s playing career indeed is over, though, he can say he ended it with a touchdown. That may not have been what replay officials decided was the case, but that bizarre ruling isn’t what will live on in his mind, or the minds of nearly everyone who saw that play. 

“That'll forever be a touchdown for me,” Miller said. 

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Bears need rookies to develop immediately to keep playoff hopes alive

Nick Kwiatkoski found out something about the rookie “wall” about this time last year, his first in the NFL. It wasn’t even the games themselves, the first three preseason ones and the first two of the regular season, which Kwiatkoski missed with a severe hamstring injury. It isn’t even the grind of training camp, much of which Kwiatkoski had to sit out with the hamstring. It was all of it.

“I went right from my senior year into this point of the year and I felt drained,” Kwiatkoski said, shaking his head. “It’s such a difference from what you’re used to in college. Now it’s football-football-football, all the time. That plays into it.

“My bowl game [at West Virginia] was on a Saturday. I was back in training that Monday. I went and did that for three months – Senior Bowl, Combine, Pro Day, I was still training. OTA’s, minicamps. We got a break before the season but that didn’t feel like anything. Then you’re into the season.”

Limited workloads for ’17 draft class

Any rookie “wall” may be a relative threshold for the Bears, who may be making major changes but not yet with their rookies doing heavy loads. Only one rookie has started all eight games and none of the draft choices have played as many as 50 percent of the snaps on either offense or defense. The Bears need that to change.

The Bears and their rookies are deep into the season now, with players getting deep into their on-field preparations for the Green Bay Packers next Sunday and beginning the second half of the 2017. Over the past week-plus, a number of “resets” will have occurred, both physical and mental.

Both can be a problem, and right now the Bears’ margin for error at 3-5 is perilously thin for any coping with any problems.

“I did hit a wall,” said guard Josh Sitton, recalling his 2008 rookie season as a Packer. “I was ready to get the [heck] outta there. I remember it. My O-line coach actually called me in his office and said, ‘You look dead.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel like it.’”

The rookies have been practicing at an NFL level with veterans since the start of training camp at the end of July. But only safety Eddie Jackson had won his starting job by opening day; Jackson has started every game and played unofficially 99.6 percent of the opposing snaps.

Quarterback Mitch Trubisky replaced Mike Glennon four games ago, and has played 233 snaps. Tight end Adam Shaheen also has started four games but played barely 20 percent of the Bears’ snaps. With Zach Miller’s season-ending knee injury, a major void opens, with Shaheen now needed to play up to the level of a second-round draft choice, which he hasn’t.

The Case of Cohen

Running back Tarik Cohen became aware of the “wall” over the break, “going back home and seeing [alma mater North Carolina A&T’s] schedule and seeing they have two games left, possibility of three games left, and we [the Bears] have eight. So that's the only thing that really caught me off guard.”

Cohen has been in all eight games but started only one (Tampa Bay) and played 38 percent of the offensive snaps. Cohen, however, has played 49 snaps on special teams as the Bears’ primary kick and punt returner, particularly with Deonte Thompson released and Benny Cunningham missing time with a sprained ankle.

The novelty of Cohen has more than worn off, more like possibly worn “down” as in Cohen touches producing diminishing returns as the rookie season of the undersized running back hits the midpoint. Injuries have taken Cunningham (5-10, 217 pounds) out of the rotation to the point where Cohen has been pressed into a role for which he isn’t really designed, and the Bears now very much need Cunningham. Very much.

Cohen had double-digit touches (handoffs plus targets) in five of the Bears’ first six games, too much of an NFL workload for a player measuring 5-6 and 185 pounds and in his first NFL season after a small-college career. Viewed using the Darren Sproles template for diminutive backs: Sproles had no more than four offensive touches in a game until deep into his third season, by which time he’d developed more physically even with a second season spent on IR.

Like Sproles, Cohen is handling kick returns but is also carrying the football and working as a receiver. Cohen played 18 offensive snaps against New Orleans, plus nine on special teams, compared to 3 snaps for Cunningham, none on special teams.

Health is an obvious factor. But while it has been one for Cunningham, the risk now is that it will become one for an over-used Cohen. The gold standard for undersized backs is perhaps Warrick Dunn, who burst on the NFL with huge usage and production for Tampa Bay in ’97. But Dunn was out of Florida State at a time when the ‘Noles were perennially part of the national-championship discussion, a different exposure than Cohen’s, or Sproles’ for that matter.

The off-week (not the “bye” – a bye is what happens when you advance a round in a tournament or playoffs without a scheduled match) is a time for self-scouting; best guess is that Cohen’s usage will come up.

“I feel like I’m good. I’m refreshed,” Cohen said. “The bye week came at a perfect time. But even before the bye week I didn’t necessarily feel like I was getting sluggish or running into any type of wall.

“I feel like it’s been going well. I don’t feel like I’ve been overworked or had an overload put on me. I feel like I’m talking everything they want me to do in the playbook and really running with it in stride because it’s not necessarily a lot in one area, it’s just bits and pieces in a lot of areas, so I feel like I’m able to handle that.”