Sunday in Minneapolis will largely be insignificant for the Bears, whose goal in their centennial season was earning a postseason trip to Miami in February, not beating a rival resting its starters for the playoffs, in Week 17 to get to .500.
Fittingly, however, among the few important individual evaluations for Matt Nagy, Ryan Pace and Co. is at right guard, arguably the least valuable position on the field, albeit where undrafted rookie Alex Bars is set to make his first NFL start.
We chatted Friday with Bars, who was most interested in his alma mater getting ready to meet Iowa State in the Camping World Bowl Saturday.
"It's a tricky game. They're 7-5; we're 10-2. But they run a 3-3-5. So just run outside zone on them," Bars said in the open locker room following the Bears' last practice of the season. Spoken like a true offensive lineman.
Still, don’t begin to tell Bars that Sunday is insignificant, not after he was in the early stages at this time last year in his recovery from a torn ACL that halted his final season with the Fighting Irish and made him a priority college free agent rather than a likely mid-round pick.
"That would be huge for me," he said. "Obviously my senior year in college didn’t go how I wanted it to go with the injury and everything. But I’m blessed to be here, I’m blessed to have this opportunity and make the most of it."
And out of playoff contention or not, it's a big opportunity considering how miserable the Bears offensive line played this season and the likelihood that Bars could be in the mix competing for the RG post currently manned by Rashaad Coward, who's been up and down in his first year as the starter but will miss Sunday with a knee injury.
With all due respect to Coward, a converted defensive lineman from Old Dominion who was thrown into a difficult spot this season, he lacks Bars' experience and pedigree. The Notre Dame product and team captain as a redshirt senior made 32 combined starts in college at either guard or tackle, learning under Bears OL coach Harry Hiestand and played alongside Pro Bowlers Quenton Nelson, Ronnie Stanley and Mike McGlinchey.
Still, he's the first to point out the significant step up from even an NFL OL factory like Notre Dame, never mind switching from defense coming out of ODU.
"It’s a different level than college, obviously, so you have to be on your game 24-7," he said. "Every detail has to be spot-on. So approaching that from a technical side has been big for me."
Of course, the devil is in the details when it comes to the Bears' offensive failures this season, from up front to behind center to the organization and play calling of the scheme. That's part of what makes the opportunity for Bars, among the more popular of the Bears rookies because of his strong career with the Irish and connection to Hiestand, unique.
The injury ensured he wouldn't be a plug-and-play alternative, but his talent and versatility are considered big potential long-term assets for the organization. There were even some rumblings around Halas Hall early in the season that the presence of Bars, at the time a member of the practice squad who turned down an opportunity to join the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots active roster, might have factored into the decision to send longtime RG Kyle Long to season-ending injured reserve.
Ultimately, Coward got the call, while Bars has logged merely two snaps to date as a rookie. But now that he's gained key experience, regained some of the strength that was lost in his knee and likely been granted his first starting shot.
"I’ve kept the same mindset all throughout the season. ... I’ve been working every week as if I was playing each and every rep," Bars said. So no matter what my role, I’ll be ready and I’ll be working on that."
The Bears are nearly ready to begin their self scout of a dreadful 2019 season on offense. It sure would be nice if Bars provided some optimism Sunday that one potential fix — personnel, not play calling — has been under their nose all along.
— Arthur Arkush