LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Injuries are commonplace in football. It's a violent game played by fast, strong, athletic men colliding at breakneck speeds. Players go down, and other players step in to fill the void.
Some chasms are more easily filled than others. Some are impossible to replenish.
The Bears find themselves in such a predicament after losing wide receiver Darnell Mooney to an ankle injury in Sunday's 31-10 blowout loss to the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Mooney was rolled up on while blocking during the third quarter and had to be carried off the field.
Bears head coach Matt Eberflus announced Monday that Mooney likely will undergo season-ending surgery.
The Bears' new staff asked a lot of Mooney this season. As the most talented and accomplished receiver in a room filled with retreads and journeymen, Mooney had to learn to be the X, Z, and F responsibilities and switch between them on a play-by-play basis, depending on the call.
Mooney got off to a slow start this season as the Bears struggled to find their offensive footing. However, Mooney's versatility and connection with quarterback Justin Fields were a big reason for the improved offensive production the Bears discovered after their mini-bye week.
Mooney's on-field production and off-field injection of positivity and energy will be almost impossible to replace.
“I think he’s been doing a great job," Eberflus said Monday. "Obviously, it was a slow start for everybody. Once we got going into the offense, I think he really started to shine. Outstanding at blocking the perimeter. He had a really nice connection with Justin throughout that stretch. He is our leading receiver. But more importantly, he is a great teammate. He’s a great leader.
"No one puts more yards in than Darnell Mooney. I’ll promise you that. He laps people. He doubles them up. That’s what the numbers tell me. His speed in his numbers are outstanding. He works extremely hard. What I told him yesterday was just, ‘hey, just hang in there. Things happen. Still be around. We want you to be around and be in that leadership role and helping the younger players out.’"
Mooney entered the season hungry to prove he could shoulder the load of a true No. 1 receiver in the NFL. With the early-season slog and the Bears' run-heavy offense, Mooney's numbers never measured up to the goals he set for himself.
But he never saw it that way.
This season wasn't about proving he can be a No. 1. It was about setting the Bears' offense up so that he can show how great he can be. While top-flight receivers like Tyreek Hill and A.J. Brown entered new offenses this season and took off, Mooney was always aware of how long the journey would be for him to take off in this passing game.
"I haven't had that many impactful plays," Mooney told NBC Sports Chicago in a sitdown in early November. "I know that with everything being new, it's going to be a little tough trying to get there. You know, you have some other guys in different offenses who are doing well in their new offenses, but everything doesn't work the same in each and every offense.
"I'm honest to it. I'm true to it. I'm not, 'Oh, I wish I had these many yards, these many touchdowns.' I just want to win at the end of the day. Make sure we can worry about stats later. I just want to win."
In a world where top receivers often make headlines if they are displeased with their targets, touches, or offensive focus, Mooney never strayed from the process. Never made it about himself.
It would have been easy and understandable for Mooney, fresh off a 1,000-yard season, to be miffed at how things were going. He's a fifth-round pick on a rookie contract who is hoping to play his way into a lucrative contract that comes with proving you're the go-to guy.
But if he ever was frustrated, Mooney never showed it. In fact, when the offense was struggling early in the season, it was Mooney who stood in front of the media at his locker every Wednesday to answer questions about why things weren't clicking.
Mooney owned the loss when he bobbled a would-be game-winning touchdown in the final seconds of the Bears' Week 6 loss to the Washington Commanders. The offense only scored seven points that Thursday night, but Mooney could have made all of that irrelevant had he not lost the ball in the lights.
That's his job as the best skill player on the team. Make the play that erases the rest of the errors.
"At that period of time, I'm literally just telling myself, 'Just please, give me this ball. Give me this ball,'" Mooney said after the loss. "I just got to close the game for us. If I want to be that player, I want to be that guy for our team. I got to make that play.
"If I just catch the damn ball the first time, we win the game."
That night, Mooney sat at his locker and Fields' locker for a long time, replaying the moment in his mind. He and Fields watched the bobble over and over again.
It was the obsession of a player not interested in his own numbers but desperately searching to be the answer his team needed.
In a season defined by change that has seen several team leaders exit stage left, the Bears needed Mooney. For what he brought on the field, his attitude on the practice field, his energy in the locker room, his leadership, and his desire to be great because he knew that would make them great as a collective.
“Just his attitude," tight end Cole Kmet said when asked what makes Mooney special in the locker room. "You feel it in the building. He’s a guy. He just brings light in the room, a great leader. Just a dude that everyone seems to gravitate toward him. When you lose a guy like that in the huddle, it’s definitely tough for the team. Not only, obviously, he’s a great playmaker, but just his attitude and how he approaches his day-to-day is just really special.
“You feel it. When you have guys like that who do things the right way consistently and don’t complain about everything. He just does everything he’s told to do and does it at 100 percent all the time. Those are the type of leaders you want in the locker room, and the type of guy that other guys in the locker room gravitate toward.”
The Bears have six games left in the season. At 3-9, they have to use the final month to give valuable reps to players they think are part of their future and as a tryout period for young players who haven't gotten a significant opportunity to this point.
At its core, this Bears season was about laying the groundwork for what comes next. About finding what they have in the building, what they are missing, and how best to build something that can last.
That starts with leaders. Guys like Mooney with the talent to be special and the character to put the group ahead of the individual.
"You want to be like this crazy dominant offense," Mooney told NBC Sports Chicago in a sitdown in November. "We're all new to all of this. We're new to the offense, we're new to each other. We got to just be in the journey, be in the process and just try to stay focused.
"I don't even look at the stats. I want to make it so we can worry about stats next year. After winning. It's easy for me to be patient."
The next time Mooney takes the field likely will come after rehab that Kmet knows he will "take head on."
"I know he's going to have a big comeback," Kmet said.
It's very possible Mooney ends up being a high-end No. 2 receiver and not a No. 1. Perhaps Mooney's patience pays off, the offense takes off next season, and he explodes.
Regardless of how that shakes out, Mooney demonstrated his value to the Bears and this rebuild this season. He was a constant in a sea of change—someone who set the pace in a season about defining what comes next.
The Bears are still unearthing the complete picture of the road map forward. But they know now it will include Darnell Mooney.
"He's a great Bear," Eberflus said.