By Robert Zeglinski
No one sells parity like the NFL. The idea of every team having a chance every year is what keeps a league humming for over a century. A clean slate is the equivalent of a do-over, a re-loaded level. It’s an extra life after a distressing “Game Over.” A cheat code in the face of strenuous game settings that manifest themselves in poor quarterback play and mismanagement of the salary cap. But parity is in itself pro football’s greatest myth. A sports league cannot profess equality and a level playing field when the same teams with the same players are the only ones left standing each and every December. When the same teams with the same players aren’t thinking about long-term plans for January and silver trophies, but instead are knee-deep in mock drafts, scouting visits, and thoughts of whether a top prospect drives a rickety Toyota Camry built on grit or not.
There was a time when the Bears were irrelevant come every Black Friday. An organization that saw no light at the end of the tunnel, let alone any exit into a wafting breeze. A franchise playing out the string to empty, apathetic stadiums by Christmas year after year after year. For most of the 2010s, the Bears were an also-ran with nothing to play for once the weather outside was frightful. Playoff proceedings could never be on the mind of a team struggling to float around 500. A pending postseason rivalry would never manifest as long as top-10 pick after top-10 pick accumulated. The mark of a great team is proving the NFL’s main value for once hopeless fans to be false.
The thing about even being a factor in late fall is it’s an impossible reality to miss until it’s gone.
You can only fathom what you can’t have, what you want, until it’s withered away. Seldom experience football that has a second wind of energy flowing underneath, and December eventually becomes a separate appetizer of whelming hors d’oeuvres to the postseason in its own right. It’s only right the Bears get to participate in this full-course meal for a change. An open bar of possibilities in jubilation (and sorrows) in liquid courage awaits.
In the face of rampant adversity, the Bears’ defense has managed to excel anyway. They’ve had to carry the inanimate carcass of an offense, and they’ve excelled. The game-changing, highlight plays that defined the franchise’s first NFC North championship since 2010 are long gone, but a disciplined unit built on chemistry and assignment-sound football remains. This is not a great defense as constituted, but it is enough to tread water. It is enough to strategically float until the time is right to strike, the way most people who say they can “swim” actually fare in the open sea until they’re prepared to expend more energy for the swim back to shore.
What’s made the Bears’ defensive platform special is how they’ve found success despite having less than a full shed of tools. Chicago is fourth in points allowed, seventh in yards allowed, and eighth in DVOA without the heart and soul of its fabric. While they’ve managed to stifle any variety of potent offense and mismatched quarterback, there’s been a gaping, mammoth-sized element missing. An element that makes a floating defense transcendent, and elevates it back to possessing a worthy feared reputation: Akiem Hicks.
The interior destructive auteur and 2018 Pro Bowler returned to practice this week. The veteran hasn’t appeared in a game since injuring his elbow across the pond in early October, and the difference in his absence in the Bears’ play was noticeable. At near full strength once more, he’s the one man that makes the opposition somehow focus less on Khalil Mack. Hicks is so proficient in his own right, he diverts attention from one of this generation’s best players. Talk about a man on a mission in his own stratosphere.
Ask the Bears to describe what the 330-pound defensive end’s return in the middle of a potential postseason chase means, and they know it’s not a moment too soon. They’re on the edge of a cliff. All hands are needed on deck, on the very edge, to safely climb back up.
“It would be huge,” Matt Nagy said. “He’s a dominant player. He brings attention, he brings double teams.”
Everyone at Halas Hall is still slowly getting accustomed to a second straight relevant December. Having a pulse this time of year is not a normal feeling for anyone donning with a bright orange C on their helmet. The adventure into the unknown could not continue without the monster in the middle. It could not have a proper story told without everyone in the picture having their say. If the Bears want to make Hicks’s return in Week 15 eventful, they’ll have to beat the suddenly reeling Cowboys in a must-win game on Thursday night. Then, while every game will remain must-win from that point on, the floodgates will open. And all bets are off. Any misstep otherwise, and Hicks makes a late-season last gasp for a team playing for pride, not positioning. Anything less, and disappointment awaits.
The Bears’ defense is the main reason they have even a solemn prayer of a playoff opportunity. They’ve acted as the catalyst an unstable team has leaned on again and again. As minute as their single-digit odds currently stand, the Bears have a chance thanks to their defense. A slim opening that can be broken down with reckless abandon as soon as the moment comes, or powered through by men of extraordinary size and strength.
Players of Hicks’s caliber can only assist in such lofty efforts from the ground up, from rock bottom. Hicks can level the playing field for the Bears. He can verify parity is the lie it’s always been through his own complementary brilliance. Chuck Pagano knows that his star defensive lineman can help make this a rare December to remember. Now he has to be given the chance.
“We all know what a game-wrecker he is.”
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.