Prior to the 1996 season, coming off a 9-7 year and near-miss of the playoffs, then-coach Dave Wannstedt didn’t back away from how he felt about the coming year:
“All the pieces are in place,” he told Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson.
And they might have been, for maybe three weeks, before quarterback Erik Kramer was lost to what was effectively a broken neck. The pieces ended up in, well, pieces.
Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is not issuing a full declaration that the pieces are again in place. But with the return of Pro Bowl guards Kyle Long and Josh Sitton, nickel receiver Eddie Royal, plus presumably nose tackle Eddie Goldman and cornerback Bryce Callahan on the defensive side, Cutler knows something of how Wannstedt was feeling.
“Offensively we’ve kind of got all our pieces back together,” Cutler said on Thursday. “We’re getting the full deck back together again, which is going to make it easier for the play-callers, diagramming stuff and guys making plays for us.”
The one piece of the offense still missing is wide receiver Kevin White, leading the team in catches before suffering a broken leg in the Detroit game. Running back Jeremy Langford has returned from a high-ankle sprain to find Jordan Howard playing better than he was and ensconced as the starter in a play-the-hot-hand backfield.
The pieces-in-place feeling has filtered into the defense with the impact return of rush linebacker Pernell McPhee and rookie Leonard Floyd shaking off injuries that cost him two games, coming back with three sacks in his last two games.
“You have to understand that those guys were the guys who were on the field initially,” said defensive end Akiem Hicks. “You expect him to return and when he does, you expect to be better because of it.”
None of which was meant to denigrate the work of the reserves. The play of multiple subs like Will Sutton at nose tackle was strong, and leaves the depth chart fortified even as Sutton, guards Ted Larsen and Eric Kush and others return to reserve roles.
“Those two [guards] deserve a lot of credit as well, getting themselves ready to play,” said offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains. “But obviously any time you get your original guy, your original starters out there, it’s a big plus.”