- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- It's nice to feel wanted. When you're a professional athlete, it's more than nice.
As Lance Briggs prepares to potentially return to the lineup Sunday night against the Philadelphia Eagles, look no further than Jay Cutler to see how quickly even a franchise player can go from coveted to castoff. For Cutler, an experienced and competent replacement suddenly made him seem expendable in the opinion of many. For Briggs, a depleted Bears defense only elevated the value of an already valued 33-year-old linebacker.
Still, while he was sidelined for eight weeks with a fractured shoulder, some wondered if perhaps Briggs could have returned sooner and, as the Bears sank to 6-6 and looked to be falling out of playoff contention, that maybe he saw no compelling reason to come back.
It has been the longest layoff of Briggs' 11-year career. Before this, he had never missed more than two games in a regular season. Seemingly shaking off the departure of longtime teammate and buddy Brian Urlacher, Briggs was leading the Bears in tackles with 64 when he was injured in Week 7.
But it wouldn't exactly be far-fetched to speculate that the new regime might not want to include the veteran in its restructuring plans.
Briggs semi-joked about his forced vacation.
"Well, you do want to be missed," he said with a laugh. "You want to be missed. But, no, the only frustration is not being on the field to help, or feel like you watch a play and you're like, 'Oh, if I was out there,' you know? But that's just like any fan can say that: 'Oh, man, how come you didn't make that catch? How come you didn't make that tackle?' Well, it's a different story when you're out there and you're called on to do it. It's easy for me to say, 'I would have made that play.' Put me on the field, and I might not have made the play myself."
The fact is, he probably would have made the play himself. And his replacement, rookie Khaseem Greene, did not attempt to obscure that fact as he was discussing how Briggs' mere presence should help Sunday.
"It's easier to have him on the field because, well, he actually makes the plays ..." Greene said. "But it's always great to have a guy on the field who knows what you're supposed to be doing when you don't know what you're supposed to be doing. ... That's one of the most uplifting things is to have a veteran on the field like Lance, Pep and James Anderson to point out your mistakes before you make them. It's awesome."
Before is the operative word there. Unfortunately, that has not always been the case, and more often than not, it was because of the Bears' unstable defense that the team now finds itself fighting so desperately, though still fortunately, for a playoff spot.
How much can Briggs, who was medically cleared on Friday, really help the Bears on Sunday against a league-leading rushing offense and a league-leading rusher who referred somewhat gleefully about running backs "gashing" the Bears this season?
"He'll absolutely lift us," Greene said. "I don't think he's rusty. Obviously he hasn't been in there for a while but I'm pretty sure Lance is going to get the job done. This is a guy who is very passionate and now that he has the opportunity to play again, it's going to be something."
Bears coach Marc Trestman classified Briggs as a game-time decision on Sunday, and if he does play it's uncertain how many snaps he will get. And though it's hard to ever imagine him in a minor role, even Briggs sounded somewhat unsure given his relative lack of conditioning.
"It's going to be strap it on and see what happens," Briggs said. "I've been playing football for a long time and it just so happens that we're going against a team that runs 80 plays a game offensively, so that'll be interesting ...
"I like to think I'm a guy who's going to get in his gap and when the opportunity's there, try to make it. Hopefully I can help the team. I don't want to get out there and hurt us. But at this point right now, these last couple games, the defense has been playing better and better. We reached a lot of goals defensively this last game -- held them to 17 points, had takeaways, and held them in check rushing the ball. That's something to continue to build on."
That is certainly what Bears GM Phil Emery has in mind. Ironically, Briggs makes Emery's argument for him when it comes to building with the young guys.
"One of the things you've got to remember," he said, "is that each week, or most of these weeks this year, we've had a new starting front four or a different rotating front four. And a lot of young guys, and a lot of guys learning on the run. So there's a lot of things that we had planned coming into the season that we kind of had to scale back. We had to throw out. We had guys that were actually learning how to play the base stuff. It just takes time."
Briggs said it was "rough" not playing.
"I sat at home and I thought for a long time," he said. "Then I got up and I went and got another cookie, and then I came back and sat down and thought some longer."
There was "talk," he said, of placing him on IR. "But that didn't happen, and I'm here now," he said. "Now, I just want to play football."
It's difficult not to believe him.
The Bears' depleted defense will get a lift when Lance Briggs returns to action.