LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Kyle Fuller’s mysterious absence from the field this season has lacked much explanation.
Until Tuesday, that is.
The Bears have until Wednesday to activate Fuller from injured reserve and defensive coordinator Vic Fangio was asked if he has a say in the matter.
“No. I mean, I would if it got to that stage. But any time a guy’s hurt, there’s three stages to getting back to the field,” Fangio said. “One, you’ve got to get medical clearance. Two, the player’s got to say he’s ready to go and feels confident and he’s chomping at the bit to go play. And then the coaches get involved and see if he’s better than what the other choices are and if he really is back to being able to play. A has happened. B hasn’t, so C is a non-issue.”
In other words, Fuller has been cleared by the team’s medical staff, but he still doesn’t feel comfortable playing, despite being back at practice for almost three weeks now.
Unfortunately, Fuller wasn’t made available to address Fangio’s comments Tuesday. When approached by reporters, a Bears spokesman said the cornerback wasn’t available to talk.
Barring a major change of heart in the next 24 hours, it’s very unlikely Fuller will be activated to play in the team’s final two games. The cornerback originally underwent a arthroscopic procedure on his knee Aug. 16 and the hope was that he would be back for the season opener. At worst, he was only expected to a couple of games. Instead, Fuller missed the first three games of the season before the team surprisingly placed him on injured reserved. He returned to practice Nov. 30, but was not activated before any of the last three games. Now it seems likely he’ll sit out the entire 2016 season.
Before Fangio made his comments Tuesday, head coach John Fox was asked about Fuller’s “want-to.” In hindsight, his vague answer still carries some significance.
“That’s hard to measure. Looking inside people is not real easy,” Fox said. “All we can do as coaches is look at what’s on the field, evaluate and make a decision. It’s all about what’s best for the team.”
But given what’s on the field — remember, Cre’Von LeBlanc was beat by Jordy Nelson for a game-winning 60-yard reception just two days ago — one would think the Bears would want Fuller back on the field to see what he can still do. And yet, Fangio made it clear the coaches haven’t even gotten to that point because Fuller hasn’t indicated a desire to play.
Remember, this regime did not draft Fuller, they inherited him. But the former 14th-overall pick showed enough promise as a rookie that Fox and Fangio hoped Fuller could be a significant piece of their new 3-4 defense. That tune changed by Week 2 of the 2015 season, however, when Fangio benched Fuller late in a 48-23 loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
“He just needs to play better,” Fangio said at the time, while also adding that Fuller was lacking confidence.
Unfortunately, that confidence never really returned and it’s safe to say Fuller’s future with the organization is doubt. The cornerback is owed just over $1.74 million in 2017, the final year of his rookie deal, and will carry a cap hit slightly over $3.08 million next season. That’s a significant amount of money, but a number the Bears can stomach if they can’t find a trade partner who still sees potential in the soon-to-be 25-year-old.
From Fuller’s side of things, a source indicated back in August that the cornerback had tried to play through a different injury during the offseason program, which may have contributed to the knee issues he was having. That may explain why he is reluctant to return to the field late in a 3-11 season, even if it means further straining his relationship with the Bears. After all, Fuller enjoyed his most significant success when he was healthy in 2014, back when the Bears were playing more zone coverages in a 4-3 defense. A reunion with that type of scheme — with a healthy knee — might be what’s best for him.