LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Injured Bears tight end Zach Miller has returned home to the Chicago area but remains in the hospital as he recovers from a brutal knee injury he suffered in Chicago's pre-bye week game against New Orleans. But a small part of him was being repped on the practice field back at Halas Hall by a few of his teammates.
The Bears have returned from their bye week and are preparing for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers to kick off the second half of the season. Miller, of course, won't be hitting the practice field for a very long time — his season is over, having been placed on injured reserve, and Miller's knee injury is a potentially career-threatening one.
But Miller's Bears teammates have him very much in mind. Outside linebacker Pernell McPhee and running back Jordan Howard posed for a photo — posted on the Bears' Twitter account — of both McPhee and Howard wearing Miller's No. 86 jersey.
McPhee sheepishly admitted with a laugh that it was Howard's idea to each wear 86 but was more serious when asked about keeping their fallen teammate in mind going forward.
"Just to let him know that we still got him and we're still fighting for him," McPhee said. "At the end of the day, we can put the season on the line just for him.
"... We had a soldier that went down, and we've got to have his back no matter what."
McPhee — who actually wore No. 86 as a defensive end at Mississippi State — said he wasn't sure if Miller had gotten wind of their tribute to him but said he hoped that the photos would make it his way so that Miller would know his "other family" has his back while he rehabilitates.
Head coach John Fox said Miller will require "a couple more procedures" and that he's expected to remain in the hospital for "a little more time." Fox said that he has spoken to Miller and that it was tough for him to spend an extended period in a New Orleans-area hospital, away from his family and friends, before returning to the area.
"That alone is enough to lift anyone's spirits," Fox said of Miller, whom the coach hopes to visit Friday for the first time since the day of the Saints game. "He's doing well."
McPhee: 'I'd rather play Brett than Aaron'
McPhee and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers have had a nice little rivalry brewing these past few years. After McPhee signed with the Bears prior to the 2015 season, Rodgers said that “it’s always fun beating the Bears” after Green Bay beat them at Soldier Field in the opener that season. In the rematch on Thanksgiving night 2015, the Bears got revenge by beating the Packers at Lambeau Field — and McPhee enjoyed swiping back at Rodgers.
“The quarterback said he loved beating up on us,” McPhee said following that game. “Who does he think we are? ... We went in there and we slapped them on [Rodgers’] ass. They need to go ask them how that feels.”
What has followed has been a little back and forth between the two — playful but edgy. McPhee even sacked Rodgers three times in the past two Bears-Packers games, including one in the 35-14 Packers victory at Lambeau in Week 4.
Of course, Rodgers is not playing in this one. He suffered a broken collarbone three weeks later that landed him on injured reserve. In his place, backup quarterback Brett Hundley has largely struggled, and the Packers are 0-3 since Rodgers went down.
So was there a part of McPhee that is disappointed he won't get to face Rodgers, his nemesis from the north?
"Disappointed? No," McPhee said with a smile. "No, I am not disappointed. I mean, I hope Rodgers has a speedy recovery. He's a legend to this game."
Then McPhee thought for a second about Sunday's matchup and the reality of the situation before continuing.
"I'd rather play Brett than Aaron," he said.
Smart man. Rodgers was having yet another terrific season — 13 touchdowns, three interceptions and 273.4 passing yards in his first five starts before getting hurt early in Week 7 against the Minnesota Vikings. And in Rodgers' past seven starts against the Bears, he had thrown 21 touchdowns with only one pick.
As for Hundley, he's thrown for only 489 yards in almost three complete games since taking over, with a TD-INT ratio of 1-4 and very few big plays in the passing game. Hundley appeared briefly in the Week 4 win over the Bears, completing his only pass attempt but for zero yards. He's still looking for his first NFL victory as a starter.
Maybe McPhee can form a new rivalry with Hundley, even though this could be the last time Hundley starts against the Bears as the Packers' QB in a long time if Rodgers returns to form next season. But McPhee's only aim, he said, is getting a win over the Bears' longtime rivals.
"It would mean a lot," he said. "We know our season is on the line going into the second half. It will show how much growth we have as a team. We are really looking forward to the challenge."