BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Bears coach Matt Nagy issued some veteran days for the first time Tuesday, letting a handful of players skip a light practice. What stood out most was one player who didn’t rest: Kyle Long.
The veteran right guard stood around enough in the previous two training camps to last a career. While the focus is on the swing-tackle position and what the team will do if indispensable left tackle Charles Leno suffers an injury, the biggest development on the offensive line is Long’s long-awaited return to health. It even overshadows the position change made next to him, with James Daniels sliding to center and Cody Whitehair kicking out to left guard.
Long’s right ankle, the one that was rolled up on from behind during a road game against the Buccaneers in Week 9 of the 2016 season, is still an issue. He will need surgery, perhaps more than one, when his playing days are over. But he’s moving better than he has in a long time, and after spending the last two offseasons rehabilitating from various surgeries – ankle, neck, shoulder, elbow – this year he was free from the burden that ties a player to the training room for months at a time.
Maybe it took longer than anyone expected for Long to work his way back from the original ankle injury. It was an arduous process that no doubt took him to some dark places. But he finally has emerged and looks much better.
“I can play five, six more years,” Long, 30, said. “The ankle feels great. It took so long to heal. Once it heals, you have to strengthen and then once you strengthen, you have to stretch and then once you stretch, you have to strengthen it more. For a time, I really thought I would never see light at the end of the tunnel.”
Finally able to move better and handle the rigors of work day after day, Long was given the green light. Remember, the Bears routinely gave him rest days last season. He participated in every spring practice and then was able to put the “off” in offseason, getting serious about his golf game this summer. He always has been optimistic, but Long is particularly upbeat while preparing for his seventh season as the longest-tenured Bears player on offense.
“For me in the two years now, and I’ve heard from other people in previous years, this is the best shape, condition, strength, mental,” coach Matt Nagy said. “Where he’s at is in a good place. He’s worked hard for that. He’s all-in. He’s committed.”
Said right tackle Bobby Massie, who has known Long since their high school days in Virginia: “He looks great. You have had a chance to see him since Day 1. He’s the best I have seen him since I have been a Bear (2016). He’s had a few nicks. He is a brand-new car off the lot right now.”
It’s quite a transformation for Long, who early in his career represented the Bears in three straight Pro Bowls. He was the face of the franchise when the team was struggling to find its way – a young player to build around when there few other building blocks. It goes without saying that when an offensive lineman is the face of the franchise, the overall talent on the roster isn’t great – and that’s not minimizing his position.
“Yeah,” Long said. “That’s fair. I didn’t want that. I took full advantage of it while I could. As a team, we’ve gone there, come back, gone there, come back, gone there and now we’re somewhere we want to stay.”
Long no longer is the face of the franchise and, if anything, he almost seems relieved, even though he did well when regularly thrust into the spotlight.
“It’s great because now I can just do my job,” he said. “I don’t have to do (as much) media, unless you want to talk to me, and lay low and let Mitch (Trubisky) and Akiem (Hicks) and Danny (Trevathan) and Khalil (Mack), Tarik (Cohen), Eddie (Jackson), Allen (Robinson), all of these guys. The list goes on and on. It’s amazing. I am a football player now, not the offensive spokesman or team spokesman.”
The Bears approached Long for a pay cut early in the offseason after he missed 22 games over the last three seasons, including eight last year with a right foot injury (not related to the ankle) before returning for the playoffs.
“I said, ‘Take it,'” Long said of his reaction when the team asked. “I am betting on myself. If I can help the Bears while I am betting on myself, then great. Maybe we can get some guys signed (to extensions). There are some of my good friends that need to get paid. That will happen in due time. I trust (Ryan) Pace. I trust Nagy. I trust the McCaskeys. But no one wants to give money back.”
The cut reduced Long’s pay for this season from $7 million to $4.1 million. He can earn $2.5 million back if he’s voted to the Pro Bowl or is selected first team All-Pro and hits a playing-time lever. The restructuring chopped off the final year (2021) of his previous contract and made 2020 an $8.1 million club option that the Bears can execute any time before the end of this season.
Don’t kid yourself: Money is important. But the Bears have paid Long a little more than $33 million, according to Spotrac.com, since former general manager Phil Emery made him a first-round pick in 2013. Long is thrilled to be preparing for a season in which the Bears have legitimate aspirations for making a deep playoff run.
“The last year was really enjoyable, but I didn’t get to fully immerse myself in the enjoyment because I wasn’t fully healthy,” he said. “I’ve done every rep in the spring, no days off in camp so far, no feel-good days. I feel great and I am happy. I am happy to around a group of guys – we don’t just have a core nucleus anymore. We have a team, and it is fun to be around.”
Who knows what lies ahead for Long after this season and whether the Bears will pick up the option? The only way he could traverse through the peaks and valleys – plenty more valleys than peaks – of the injuries and rehabilitation was by taking it one day at a time. So he’ll take this one day at a time – and enjoy it more than ever.
“I am me now,” Long said. “I think I am the happiest guy in the locker room.”
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