November 29, 2012
The Bears have been running up a down escalator on offense for so long, they apparently can't help but feel they're on the verge of reaching the top.
Maybe that explains the delusion of adequacy that prevented them from seriously upgrading the offensive line last offseason. It's easy to laugh at a false premise now, but at the time it almost sounded sensible, the logic of limiting risk to solve the eternal offensive line woes. You remember the plan: Get rid of Mike Martz and his deep drops, concern yourself with protection instead of aggression and wait for the slot machine to hit jackpot.
Now, with a rash of injuries at guard, bad figures to get even worse. The Bears have won eight games despite the woes of bogeyman blockers. But instead of worrying if they can keep it up, the real concern is if they can field a unit capable of protecting quarterback Jay Cutler, triggering a solid running game and dodging further injury. What if things get better? Is it possible the line has been so bad that a collection of seldom-used backups, street free agents and out-of-position types can play as well as the full-time starters?
An offensive line is a team within a team, a unit that demands the kind of disciplined sequence of steps and movement associated with a Broadway chorus line. The entire NFL, not just the Bears, seems to be enduring an all-time low in consistent line play. Players move from team to team in free agency and limited practices in pads in the new collective bargaining agreement means there isn't enough time to produce the necessary choreography.
Generally speaking, it takes a couple of years to build an offensive line. With the failure of Chris Williams and the slow development of J'Marcus Webb and Gabe Carimi, the Bears seem like they are just beginning the building process instead of being years into it. Injuries and ineptitude have forced even more change, which pretty much should sink the Bears come playoff time despite a gaudy record thus far.
Not so fast, says right tackle Jonathan Scott, who lived with similar criticism during his time on the Steelers. Scott was one of two backup offensive linemen forced into action for a team that eventually lost a Super Bowl to the Packers.
"When you have the pieces willing to work together, you can have success instantaneously," Scott said. "You can have the greatest players in the world, but if they are not playing together, it doesn't matter. It's not like there is a simple slide scale of where guys came from. It's about working together."
The Steelers lost Max Starks and Willie Colon, two anchors of their line, and wound up in the Super Bowl with Scott at left tackle and Ramon Foster at right guard. Can this group of Bears duplicate that type of performance?
"I believe so," Scott said. "In Pittsburgh, we didn't have the same starting line pretty much the entire season and wound up in the Super Bowl. It's one of those X factors you can't put on paper or on the draft board. It is a feeling of trust you have with the guy next to you."
Trust is an interesting concept when you consider the relationship between an embattled line, a battered quarterback and an assailed attack.
If Cutler is the best quarterback the Bears ever have seen and Brandon Marshall is rewriting the record book, then why is the passing offense rated last in the NFL. Is it possible the Bears overadjusted after the experience with Martz?
Risk management on offense is all about weighing the benefits of spreading the field and occupying multiple defenders against a limited number of pass blockers. The more guys you have running routes, the better your odds of getting someone open. You put pressure on the defense, force a blown coverage or a missed tackle and that creates a big play.
But in doing so you also increase the chances of a sack, a strip sack, a concussion or an interception — even one returned for a touchdown.
Alternatively, you can increase protection and decrease your routes. Negative plays are reduced, but so are positive ones. Managing risk is a tricky business, one that demands a certain touch to get it right.
"First and foremost you have to protect the quarterback," Cutler said. "It's hard throwing out of a phone booth all the time. It makes life difficult when you're getting hit all the time, so if we need a few more guys in helping out, then that's what we have to do."
Expectations need to be lowered significantly with more game plans like the one against the Vikings that included grinding things out in the running game, moving the launch point by putting Cutler on the move and controlling the ball. It's a formula that will win, but not win much in the playoffs.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
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