He is still showing up on the injury report as limited but the muscles of his surgically repaired left leg are almost the same size as his right one, a telling indicator of how his comeback from early offseason knee surgery is really proceeding.
That and the familiar attitude.
“I’m back to normal,” Pernell McPhee said this week, with perceptible enthusiasm that was understandable, even after the loss against the Green Bay Packers, from a Bears linebacker and co-captain who had missed as many games this season (six) as in his previous five NFL seasons combined. “Getting the rust off.”
The rust had been there in Green Bay, both physical and mental. McPhee had gotten his weight down below 270 from a career-norm in the 280 range, but other than a handful of his 19 snaps, he was not the disrupter he and the Bears expected when he was brought in as the first major personnel addition of the Ryan Pace administration.
A player among the most instinctive on the roster wasn’t.
“I wouldn’t say I was thinking too much,” McPhee said. “I just didn’t know what to expect. I felt better but now I know what to expect.”
For a defense that has suffered the absences of McPhee, nose tackle Eddie Goldman, outside linebacker Lamarr Houston, linebacker Danny Trevathan and others through less than a half-season, that was a spot of promise.
Five of the Bears’ seven opponents have scored 23 or more points and the defense ranks 20th in points allowed — exactly where the unit finished in 2015.
The plan for the Packers game, his first since the season finale against the Detroit Lions last January, was for spot duty. He did not register on the stat sheet but was involved in several forces of plays, including a goal-line stop in the first quarter.
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“I thought considering where he was, the guy hadn’t played football since whenever he played last season and never even had a practice with pads on, [he] went out there and did OK,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “I think if you’re saying ‘pleased’ or ‘unpleased,’ I’d say ‘pleased.’
“Was it great or to the level he was at? No. But I think the best thing you can say is there’s hope there.”
McPhee and the Bears have a dual objective: working him into an expanded role in the defense while simultaneously avoiding a step backwards that would put him back on the sidelines.
“I think he’s going to get better and better,” Fangio said. “I think the key for him is will he have a setback? We’ll see.”
For now, no setbacks. Just the opposite, in fact.
“In full pads, going full speed,” McPhee said, shaking his head with a smile. “I don’t think about [the knee] at all.”