“Patience, man. Patience. A lot of patience in my career.”
If he really wanted to, Willie Young could wonder what it’d be like to still be in Detroit. The 2010 seventh round draft pick scratched and clawed his way onto a roster that had strength on the defensive line, and in his fourth season with the Lions, Young finally became a starter. But they didn’t want to bring him back, or pay him, as much as then-GM Phil Emery and the Bears did when the 2014 free agent market opened up. Since then, the Bears have finished last in the NFC North for three straight years. Meanwhile, his former team has made the playoffs two times and has been looking for a defensive end to plug into its 4-3, opposite Ziggy-Ansah, after a good deal of turnover from Young’s final season in Motown.
But maybe the question should be: Where would the Bears be without Young?
After totaling six sacks in his four seasons with the Lions, he exploded for 10 here in 2014, then was forced to switch to outside linebacker in the scheme change under Vic Fangio and John Fox. He was unhappy and uncertain, but he “bought in” despite putting on a front that he never wanted to be called a linebacker, and still finished with 6.5 sacks. That was second on the team to Lamarr Houston (eight), who, like Young, also converted from the line. Young tore an achilles the second-to-last game in 2015, rehabbed his way back in time for the start of last season and led the way in sacks again with 7.5. Just 1.5 of those came over the final ten games, though, as Young managed a knee injury that was surgically repaired early this offseason.
“If you know anything about my career, and how I started out, you would know that patience is the key to my success,” Young said.
So there’s your back story. Now, as he aims to rejoin his teammates on the field during next week’s mandatory veteran minicamp, 24 sacks in three years shouldn’t necessarily lead a team that has an elite pass rusher. But as the Bears hope Leonard Floyd becomes that guy, it’s impressive for everything Young’s been through. It’s a decent amount of celebratory post-sack “reeling in,” and as the avid fisherman took Chicago media out on Lake Michigan last week, courtesy of Merchant Marine, the comparisons of his two passions were inevitable. From earning his shot in Detroit, to learning a new position, to rehabbing injuries and, finally, going through a rebuild that’s taken longer than many expected as the father of two turns 32 during the first month of this season.
“I’ve got some young boys, an 11- and five-year-old right now,” Young said as his simple-to-navigate boat sped away from DuSable Harbor and cruised north along the city skyline. “They are pros at being patient right now because that’s one of the things I call a skill. That’s what I told them. You’re not always gonna catch something.
“And also have a spot where it’s not so much about quantity, but quality,” he said as the narrative shifted to the art of getting through opposing offensive linemen to sack a quarterback. “They may not catch very many, but they’ll get a bite, (eventually) catch a nice one. So just to have that understanding about patience plays a major role when you’re comparing football to fishing. You don’t always catch 'em. You may not always get a sack, y’know. But one sack, every 30-40 plays, you’re doing pretty good in the NFL, y’know?”https://www.instagram.com/p/BIEP9h8gt1l/?taken-by=willie_young_gone_fishing97
Bears fans, though, haven’t had much quality or quantity when it comes to wins the three seasons Young’s been here. It’s nice to preach patience, but it’s wearing awfully thin. He understands. He’s lived through it. The faithful are waiting for the kind of payoff Young got last offseason, when he snagged his biggest prize, a 200-lb. swordfish off the coast of Palm Beach, Florida. Then Young got rewarded last August when his second General Manager here, Ryan Pace, recognized his effort and production with a two-year extension through 2018.
Right now, though, Young is just one piece of a defense that has potential to be very good. The Big If is if they can beat the injury bug. Young is like Houston, Floyd, Pernell McPhee, Eddie Goldman, Jaye Howard and Danny Trevathan. That’s just the front seven.
If this year is finally different, health-wise, it could be a significant step in that patience paying off, even with a secondary that looks like it will have at least three new starters in 2017.
Eight years ago, as Young was collecting eight sacks his senior season at North Carolina State, there was a young quarterback backing up Russell Wilson named Mike Glennon, who saw a bit of game action that year. When it comes to it this season, whether it’s his former college teammate or Mark Sanchez or Mitchell Trubisky guiding the other side of the ball, Young knows defensive health would provide significantly more hope and a step towards patience being rewarded.
“It’s hard not to look forward to it, especially when you have the moves we’ve been making. I’m looking forward to it. A lot of hope right now,” Young said. “We can’t predict the future, but I do know one thing: I know we’re giving it everything we’ve got to make sure we make it easy for the new quarterbacks. I don’t know who’ll be on the field, but I’ll start with the defense and try to create a stress-free, relaxed environment for that quarterback. That way, he won’t feel like he has to force anything and can take a chance when he wants to take a chance.
“It’ll be an interesting year. No doubt about it.”
Bears fans hope it’s the kind of interesting that’s been different from what they, and Young, have experienced since his arrival.