For a defense struggling to rush passers and stop opponents short of 20 points, Friday was an official day for at least a small beam of light off in the distance.
The glow was emanating from outside linebacker Pernell McPhee, the marquee signing of GM Ryan Pace early the 2015 offseason but whose first year in Chicago spiraled downward with a left-knee injury that reduced him to more games inactive (two) than sacks (one) over the final nine games, and eventually required surgery this offseason.
Friday was the first day McPhee was eligible to practice after being placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open the season. He spent his first practice serving on the scout team, simulating Jacksonville Jaguars plays and formations for his teammates.
“Feel awesome,” McPhee said afterwards. “I feel great, man. I'm out there practicing, running around with my teammates, so that's the best feeling in the world.”
McPhee would be eligible to play next Thursday against the Packers in Green Bay. As for whether he will: “You'll see, you'll see,” McPhee said, smiling.
The Bears now have 21 days within which to move him onto the 53-man roster, or be forced to relegate him to injured reserve for the remainder of the season. The final date for the roster decision would be Nov. 4, the Friday before the Bears’ bye week, which would set his return for the Nov. 13 game at Tampa Bay, the scene of McPhee’s final sack last season.
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Getting him back would be one of the best feelings in the world for the Bears defense. McPhee was voted by teammates as one of the defensive co-captains and put up five sacks over the span of five games last season before his knee issues really set in.
Now he looms as a potential in-season booster shot for a defense that has gotten virtually no impact pass rushing from a corps of linebackers that projected to be a strength this season. But Lamarr Houston, the 2015 sack leader with eight, was lost for the season with a knee injury, and No. 1 draft pick Leonard Floyd has delivered just a half-sack being in and out of the lineup with injuries.
A fresh McPhee and his emotional edge can be a lift for the entire defense.
“Any time that guys can look next to him and see kind of an integral part or a guy that can be a integral part to help you win, obviously that gives you confidence," Bears head coach John Fox said. "It gives you a boost of energy.
“I think jokingly guys refer to it as ‘fresh legs.’ You know they haven't been out there through the grind of practicing all week and over the course of time, a month's worth of time. You know guys do have a little bit of a freshness to them. It's a little hard to tell on the first day and it wasn't a padded practice, it wasn't a real extensive practice, Fridays typically a little more of a light workout but I'd say I think there was some enthusiasm there and some freshness there for sure.”