Charles Tillman's departure from the 2013 season feels like the final, wretched piece in an unnatural, reverse transformation. Think of a butterfly rewinding backward into a larvae or caterpillar state until you have the pupa that is the Bears devolved defense.
Tillman might have been the last and final shot for the Bears to produce a Pro Bowl player on defense, something they have done every year since 2004 when Brian Urlacher went down with a hamstring injury one hour into Lovie Smith's first training camp practice. It ended a run of four consecutive Pro Bowl appearances for Urlacher, who the following year was one of three defenders and eight Bears selected for the all-star game in Hawaii.
The Bears produced 23 Pro Bowl appearances featuring nine players in the next eight years under Smith, including four players in each of the last two when Tillman finally started getting the recognition that had escaped him earlier in his career.
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Halas Hall, Washington Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045, USA
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It has been said Smith's version of the Cover-2 defense finds its greatness in its simplicity. It is not about the opponent you play, but rather the players you field that determines the success of the defense. There isn't great sophistication in the scheme, it's all about putting great players on the field and allowing them to overwhelm the opposition.
It's a gap-control scheme in which every player stays in an assigned gap and does his job, and the best players produce plays in terms of sacks, forced fumbles and interceptions. All you needed was five or six great players, a handful of Pro Bowl talent, and you could win consistently. With Tillman only a possibility now for a playoff return, Henry Melton out for the season and Lance Briggs still mending, the Bears will enter Sunday's game against the Ravens at Soldier Field with just two former Pro Bowl defenders — Julius Peppers and Tim Jennings.
Even with Jay Cutler out, they will have three former Pro Bowlers on offense — Brandon Marshall, Matt Forte and Jermon Bushrod — and three on special teams — Devin Hester, Robbie Gould and Eric Weems. Marshall and Gould have Pro Bowl credentials this season, but there isn't a player on defense that seems likely to be voted in, not even on reputation.
That has to be a bitter pill to swallow given the amount of money the Bears have invested in the unit. In terms of actual money spent, the Bears rank No. 5 in the NFL this year, spending $120.3 million, an all-time high for the franchise, according to a league source. That number is not the salary cap figure, but rather what's called "committed cash'' and includes money paid in bonuses prorated over the lifetime of a contract.
The Bears normally have been in the middle of the spending pack and often in the lower third. They were 27th in the 32-team NFL when they made the Super Bowl to finish the 2006 season.
The Bears did do a couple of big-money deals in free agency before this season, but much of the 2013 cap spending is on big numbers at the end of expiring contracts. The team has just 28 players under contract beyond this year, including a handful who could be leaving for salary cap reasons.
The Bears have a whopping $65.6 million invested in their defense this year. They got little out of Henry Melton, who made the Pro Bowl last year and went down with a knee injury while playing under the franchise tag for $8.45 million. Tillman is in the final year of his contract, and will miss roughly half the season on a flat rate of $8 million.
It was a year the Bears probably never thought he would see when he signed his current contract. It's not unusual for a team to put a so-called "fluff year'' at the end of a deal that makes it look like a bigger contract for the player and his agent, but is projected either to be renegotiated or not applied late in a player's career. The same thing happened with Urlacher last season when he played out his fluff year.
Throw in the $1.328 million deal D.J. Williams was on, along with a combined $1.25 million for Kelvin Hayden and Nate Collins and the Bears wind up with around $15 million tied up on injured reserve to go with the $5.1 million cap money for castoffs like Kellen Davis ($1.3 million) and Gabe Carimi ($900,000).
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5-9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.