CAN TARIK TURN BACK TIME?

Con­tract is the car­rot as Co­hen aims to re­claim 2018 form

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - JA­SON LIESER jlieser@suntimes.com | @Ja­sonLieser

Tarik Co­hen lit­er­ally can’t af­ford an­other down sea­son. He has the in­ter­twined mo­ti­va­tions of eras­ing a frus­trat­ing 2019 per­for­mance, which he ad­mits “was def­i­nitely not my best work,” and play­ing for the big con­tract he thought he’d al­ready have by now.

The Bears couldn’t ex­tend his con­tract this off­sea­son af­ter he plunged from be­ing ar­guably their best of­fen­sive player to be­ing a min­i­mal fac­tor. And other teams will be sim­i­larly hes­i­tant in free agency next year if Co­hen doesn’t turn it around.

“Go­ing into a con­tract year, I al­ready know [there’s] only one thing that mat­ters, and it’s how I play on the field this sea­son,”

he said af­ter prac­tice Tues­day. “It’s on me to per­form well this year. I’ve got to ball out this year.”

The Bears would ap­pre­ci­ate that. Co­hen starred at run­ning back in coach Matt Nagy’s first sea­son in 2018, lead­ing the Bears with 1,169 yards from scrim­mage. He was a threat as a re­ceiver, catch­ing a team-best 71 passes, and was their most ef­fec­tive run­ner. On av­er­age, get­ting the ball in Co­hen’s hands was worth 6.9 yards.

Not only was he pro­duc­tive, but he also was un­pre­dictable, open­ing up other el­e­ments of the of­fense by forc­ing de­fenses into predica­ments of how to cover him. The Bears ide­ally want op­po­nents so off-bal­anced that they try to de­fend Co­hen with a safety when it turns out he’s run­ning and with a line­backer when he’s go­ing out for a pass. The more guess­work be­fore the snap, the bet­ter.

Co­hen’s in­cred­i­ble speed and elu­sive­ness earned him the nick­names “The Hu­man Joy­stick” (be­cause he moves like he’s in a video game) and “Chicken Salad” (you can fig­ure that one out on your own).

But he wasn’t ei­ther of those things last sea­son. And that’s why he’s in the wait-and-see cat­e­gory rather than get­ting a new con­tract vir­tu­ally au­to­mat­i­cally.

What hap­pened to this guy? His yards per touch dropped to 4.7, and there were times when he was barely no­tice­able. In Weeks 7 and 8, as the Bears fought to steer out of a tail­spin, he played just 16 snaps each game. He got five car­ries or fewer in all but three games.

Co­hen put up six games of 100plus yards of of­fense in his first two sea­sons and av­er­aged 73.1 yards per game in 2018. He topped 73 yards just twice last sea­son.

Any­one who thought he didn’t look quite right was cor­rect. He didn’t feel right and said a poor com­mit­ment to off­sea­son work­outs led to his body fail­ing him.

“I didn’t feel the same ex­plo­sion that I would usu­ally feel, the same speed and the same fire,” he said.

“Also, hav­ing a los­ing sea­son would make you feel that way. But mostly I feel like it was the fact that I didn’t have the best off­sea­son.”

Co­hen added that “a whole lot of fam­ily is­sues” made life chaotic lead­ing up to last sea­son, but the re­cent off­sea­son went much bet­ter.

The con­tract im­pli­ca­tions surely will have some impact as Co­hen faces the end of his four-year, $3 mil­lion rookie deal. It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict the mar­ket as the NFL low­ers its salary cap to ac­count for losses dur­ing the pan­demic, but Co­hen is play­ing for the dif­fer­ence be­tween a prove-it deal and longterm fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity.

From Nagy’s per­spec­tive, he needs a de­pend­able play­maker. Of­fen­sively, the Bears know what they’ll get from re­ceiver Allen Robinson. Ev­ery­thing else is un­de­ter­mined. It’d be help­ful to add Co­hen to the list of cer­tain­ties.

Nagy, as al­ways, is op­ti­mistic about a bounce-back sea­son.

“He’s re­ally ded­i­cated right now and try­ing to be coach­able,” he said. “There were some things we saw last year that we thought he could do bet­ter. He’s hit that full steam ahead.”

“IT’S ON ME TO PER­FORM WELL THIS YEAR. I’VE GOT TO BALL OUT THIS YEAR.” TARIK CO­HEN

NAM Y. HUH/AP

Bears run­ning back Tarik Co­hen needs a big sea­son to make up for his drop in pro­duc­tion in 2019.

AP

Tarik Co­hen (look­ing for open field against the Gi­ants last Novem­ber) ad­mits he wasn’t in the great­est shape last sea­son.

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