Presumably, Bears players remain undivided in their support of linebacker Lance Briggs returning to start Sunday night against the Eagles.
There will be no whispers, controversy or anonymous sources this week. Everybody in Chicago agrees the Bears defense is better with a rusty Briggs back in the lineup -- mostly because it can't get much worse.
But in case anybody wondered, on behalf of the offense, wide receiver Brandon Marshall offered a strong endorsement Wednesday for the defensive captain who hasn't played since Week 7 because of an injured shoulder.
"There might be a little rust, but we all know what Lance is capable of doing," Marshall said of Briggs, who practiced with the starting defense Wednesday. "He's a monster out there. I wouldn't test Lance too much. His history says enough."
True, but Briggs' past matters much less than the Bears' present. The Eagles offense under first-year coach Chip Kelly, admired more than mocked these days, spreads out defenses before running over them. If the Eagles' innovation doesn't beat you, their execution will. They lead the league in rushing with 152.9 yards per game. Not since Allen Iverson have Philadelphia sports fans celebrated something this hard to stop.
No wonder Pro Bowl-bound Eagles running back LeSean McCoy sounded like someone who had trained for months just for Sunday's chance against the NFL's worst rushing defense by nearly 20 yards per game. Optimists have pointed out how the Bears defense improved when it gave up just 94 rushing yards to the Browns. Indeed, that sounds encouraging until a closer look reveals the Browns came in averaging only 84.3.
"Seeing teams gash them, automatically that light bulb lights up in your head," McCoy said of the Bears. "It's one thing to be in shape. It's another thing to be in shape for this offense."
McCoy was referring to his own conditioning but could have meant Briggs' after missing seven games. One Bears teammate mentioned how hungry Briggs is. One look at the linebacker made that the last thought to come to mind. In more ways than one, Briggs will carry a heavy burden back into the defensive huddle, and it understandably will take time before he gets his football legs back.
The Bears simply hope they don't give up four touchdowns before he does.
"Certainly he hasn't played football in a long time (Oct. 20), but Lance is a unique athlete," coach Marc Trestman said.
Still, it's not fair or realistic to think Briggs can come back after a 63-day layoff and save a defense beyond saving. Will Briggs make safeties Chris Conte and Major Wright, both badly in need of a football geometry lesson, take better angles? Will Briggs help defensive end Shea McClellin be stouter against the run? Will one guy who hasn't played since October suddenly make the other 10 look capable of playing into February? Leadership and confidence only go so far.
Briggs once sat out an entire preseason with an injury and played the season opener in midseason form. But he was younger then, and the opponent wasn't revolutionizing NFL offenses with its basketball-like pace. An NFL linebacker recovering from a bum shoulder is like an opera singer overcoming laryngitis. Until his most important part of the body fully recovers, the audience should temper expectations.
"I've seen Lance in practice, and he's into it mentally," linebacker James Anderson said. "It's just a matter of getting his wind back."
Everybody expecting instant greatness from Briggs, take a deep breath. The Bears will need their defense more than ever against the Eagles, but style-wise, playing against a relentless, wide-open offense is a tough matchup for any 33-year-old linebacker -- especially one readjusting to the speed of the game.
The Bears might have missed Briggs more than Jay Cutler, thanks to Josh McCown, but Cutler's return packed more pressure and carried more significance. Even with a healthy Briggs, the Bears were a bad defense. Without him, they simply became historically bad.
"It's about getting my strength," Briggs said on Comcast SportsNet. "I haven't lifted weights. I wasn't able to run for four weeks."
If the Lions lose and the Packers win Sunday before the Bears kick off, Briggs can gain another week he could use. Under that scenario, the Eagles outcome wouldn't affect the Bears' chances of winning the NFC North, and Trestman either could use Briggs sparingly like in an exhibition game to bring him back slowly -- the ideal situation -- or avoid all risk by making him inactive. What would Trestman do faced with that choice?
"I don't know," he said.
Funny, Trestman could have said the same thing answering how effective he thinks Briggs can be.
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