Sunday, December 26, 2010

Welcome Back

One of the first posts I wrote for this now three year exercise in ego fulfillment lamented the departure of Chris Harris from the Chicago Bears in the season after their last Super Bowl run.

At the time, it seemed like Bears fans were destined to remember Harris as the guy who picked off Peyton Manning in the Super Bowl and was then jettisoned to Carolina in favor of the woeful Adam Archuleta.

Now, four seasons later, Chris Harris has come home. And, as Lance Briggs pointed out today, he never should have left.

If Harris was under-appreciated for playing well above expectations as a sixth-round draft pick from the University of Louisiana-Monroe in his first run with the Bears, he is even more underrated now. But in the last two weeks, Harris has effectively ended both Bears' wins with interceptions.

Harris's five picks this year are a career high for the safety (and, oh by the way, one more than Archuleta managed in a seven year career). Those five interceptions lead the Bears' team this season and are also the most from a Bears' safety since Mike Brown picked five in 2001. If Harris can add to that total next week against Aaron Rodgers and the Pack, he will have intercepted more passes in a single season than any Bear safety in twenty years, dating back to Mark Carrier's incredible rookie campaign when he picked off ten passes straight out of U.S.C. in 1990.

Harris was also credited with 11 tackles in this afternoon's surprisingly offensive affair. With 65 tackles on the season, Harris exceeded his Bears' career single season totals in 2005 (58) and 2009 (54).

That's an impressive homecoming for a guy who has generally been an afterthought in a defense that has (appropriately) hyped Lance Briggs, Brian Urlacher, Peanut Tillman, Tommie Harris, and now Julius Peppers.

At the time that Chris Harris left, I faulted Lovie Smith for ridding the team of both Ron Rivera and a solid contributor in a stout defense. Whether that was accurate (or whether the call was made principally by Jerry Angelo), all that matters now is that Smith (and Angelo) welcomed Harris back to the fold and the Bears are better off for it.

I'm still not sold on the team -- they are as unsettling as the 11-5 Bears squad that got bounced from the playoffs at home by the Panthers in 2005 (while I sat in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore listening to the game and banging my head against the wall for getting too excited about their chances) -- but they are fun to cheer for. As good as Briggs, Urlacher, Peanut, and Pepper have been, Israel Idonjije is tied for the team lead with Peppers for sacks (8), Tim Jennings is sixth on the team in tackles (52), and the fifth member of Team Vanderbilt, D.J. Moore, has stepped up and played well in his second season in the Bears' secondary.

There are, along with Chris Harris, a number of players on the Bears' defensive side that are quietly distinguishing themselves with their play. But even acknowledging those important contributions, in a season where Briggs and Urlacher have cemented their places in the pantheon of all-time great Bears' linebackers, I think Harris has -- after an unfortunate detour -- begun to merit discussion (albeit premature) as one of the franchises' better safeties.

Harris may be gone again after the 2011 season, as the club's restructuring of the five-year contract extension he received from the Panthers back in 2008 was shortened to a four-year deal when the Bears traded Jamar Williams to get Harris back this off season (Williams has had a miserable season with the Panthers managing all of two tackles before being put on injured reserve). With Harris up for a new contract in 2012 and Major Wright being groomed to be a mainstay in the secondary, it would not be surprising to see the Bears let Harris walk again.

But 2012 is a long way away. Right now, Chris Harris is a Chicago Bear and is reminding us that in three seasons with the team, Chicago has gone to the playoffs all three times.

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