The plot thickens for Bears' Harris

Posted by ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Honest. As I prepared to hit Chicago's training camp this week, the first name I wrote in my notebook was Tommie Harris. It wasn't Jay Cutler. (I think he's gotten a fair amount of coverage already.) It wasn't Greg Olsen. It wasn't Chris Williams or Brian Urlacher or Nate Vasher.

(Relax, they all made the list at some point.)

From my perspective, the Bears have as much riding on Harris as they do on Cutler or any other player on their roster. We've been through it before: Chicago's plan for rejuvenating its Tampa-2 scheme depends on having consistent pass rush from the defensive line. When healthy, Harris is an elite pass rusher and interior disrupter. When he isn't, the Bears have no one they can rely on for that dual role.

The decision to stand pat on personnel suggested the Bears were confident Harris would rebound from the left knee problems that limited him last season. Monday, however, Harris admitted he had a second knee procedure in March to determine why he was still feeling pain after originally having surgery in January 2008. The admission came on another day of inactivity for Harris, who oddly watched the entire practice while wearing full pads and holding his helmet under his arm.

Explanations varied. Harris said afterwards his hamstring was sore. Coach Lovie Smith said Harris' knee was sore.

More than a month remains before the Bears' Sept. 13 opener at Green Bay, so Harris still has time to get ready for the season. But I think it's fair to start questioning whether he will be able to fulfill the elite role Chicago has laid out for him. After all, it's been five months since the newly-revealed surgery, one that Harris said found scar tissue but no other structural problems. Is it reasonable to expect Harris' recovery to take that long, or is his knee permanently diminished?

"Tommie is coming off dealing with different injuries," Smith said. "We still feel good about him. He wasn't able to go today. I'm looking at it that way....

"We have a lot of veterans here. Orlando Pace. Olin Kreutz. They've all had injuries and tightness. Tommie is taking a little bit longer, but we've got plenty of time. We're not playing tomorrow. I don't want him out there. It's probably as much me as it is him. I don't want him out there until we feel he's ready to go."

That is all technically true, but keep in mind that Harris has been on a limited regimen since the March surgery. He's not recovering from a recent injury so much as he is trying to find a way to get on the field in its aftermath. It's not like waiting for a bone to heal.

The January 2008 surgery left Harris limited throughout last season, and Harris said the second procedure was done "to see why stuff is still coming back and different things are still showing up." Almost 20 months after the original surgery, Harris is still feeling soreness. Speaking after practice Monday, Harris said he still has "a lot" of confidence that he'll eventually push through and resurrect his career.

"I've been playing and would play on one leg," Harris said. "I can play this game. It's a mentality."

Harris said he would "love to be out there" and seems to understand the unfortunate image projected by him watching practice in full pads.

"The hardest thing is knowing how political this business is," Harris said, "and having to wear pads and sit on the sidelines acting like I'm going out there and different stuff like that. It's a bit frustrating. But I'm going to hang in there and see how this plays out."

As Harris watched, Israel Idonije filled in at the ultra-important "under tackle" position. Idonije is a nice player, but he'll never match Harris' impact on an everydown basis. If Harris' health continues to be a question -- and Monday's events did nothing but fuel them -- it is hard to imagine the Bears defense reaching its lofty goals this season.