By Robert Zeglinski
CHICAGO – The last time the Bears went to the Super Bowl in 2006, they rushed for 1,918 yards as a team and allowed only 25 sacks. An offensive led by center Olin Kreutz in his prime keyed Chicago’s offense en route to the franchise’s first NFC championship since 1986. Rushing yards and sacks allowed often being excellent indicators of how a line has progressed, as it shows they’re moving defenders up front and keeping their quarterback clean. That offensive front was coached by the guru Harry Hiestand: who makes his return to the Bears this season after an eight-year stint in the college ranks.
Roundly praised as one of, if not, the best offensive line coach there is, Hiestand is considered the Bears’ top position coach of an overall impressive staff Matt Nagy pieced together this off-season. For a position group as important as the offensive line, that’s music to Chicago’s ears in having offensive success once again.
But how much of an impact should we expect from Hiestand in whipping the Bears’ offensive line into shape? If his reputation and Bears’ historical context is any indication, Chicago should be preparing for an elite unit in the trenches soon. Training camp this July is is the first glimpse of his work.
The Bears’ hogs’ peaks and valleys
Since Hiestand’s departure in 2009, the Bears’ offensive line’s collective performance has been anything but consistent. It’s difficult to wholly evaluate this position more than any, because you never fully understand what one tackle or guard’s assignment was on unsuccessful plays. The evaluation of offensive linemen is so subjective, that a firmly accepted baseline of determining a quality unit or player hasn’t evolved too much from the proverbial “eye test”.
That said, since we’re examining Chicago offensive lines together, we’ll use rushing yards and sacks allowed as the primary barometers in how the Bears have soldiered on without Hiestand. There are far more extenuating circumstances that go into both figures (like talent and scheme for one), but they’re generally seen as endorsements or indictments of the guys up front. In terms of sacks, keep in mind that the lower the ranking, the better.
Rushing yards: 1,616 (20th)
Sacks allowed: 56 (1st)
Rushing yards: 2,015 (9th)
Sacks allowed: 49 (5th)
Rushing yards: 1,970 (10th)
Sacks allowed: 44 (8th)
Rushing yards: 1,828 (16th)
Sacks allowed: 30 (tied for 28th)
Rushing yards: 1,441 (27th)
Sacks allowed: 41 (14th)
Rushing yards: 1,854 (11th)
Sacks allowed: 34 (18th)
Rushing yards: 1,735 (17th)
Sacks allowed: 28 (24th)
Rushing yards: 1,788 (16th)
Sacks allowed: 39 (15th)
As evidenced, the Bears have rarely balanced the success of their offense up front over roughly the past decade. In the years they’ve pass protected well, they’ve generally struggled to rush it, and wasted good protection on lost seasons like 2016’s 3-13 finish.
The introduction of an offensive line mastermind like Hiestand ideally mitigates the ebb and flows that have plagued the Bears since he left Halas Hall. The more consistent a merely solid performance becomes, the better an offensive line plays and grows together over the course of a season as their bond and understanding grows stronger.
No stranger to developing talent
Where Hiestand really separates himself as a coach is developing young offensive linemen into lynchpins. If you put a raw talent under his watch who just needs some seasoning, chances are you’ll soon have an elite player on your hands. Hiestand made his mark in this fashion at Tennessee and Notre Dame. Not many in the NFL have the same track record of individual development that he does.
There’s the Cowboys’ Zack Martin, a four-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro, as well as two above average starters for the Texans and Ravens in center Nick Martin and tackle Ronnie Stanley, respectively. And the newest additions to his accomplishments in the form of 2018 first round selections Quenton Nelson (Colts) and Mike McGlinchey (49ers).
Each of these studs have proven themselves to be integral players for their teams or soon should join the proven ranks. Each of them owe a great deal of their pedigree and foundation to Hiestand’s coaching.
How does this relate to the current Bears?
Look no further than rookie James Daniels (who was personally recommended to Hiestand by Daniels’ college head coach Kirk Ferentz) and third-year center Cody Whitehair. Chicago is in position to enjoy a special interior offensive line pairing for years to come. Don’t forget the recuperating right guard Kyle Long or constantly ascending left tackle Charles Leno Jr. either. Everyone can be more fundamentally and technically sound when the message means something.
Their rise will come on the heels of Hiestand’s mentorship that makes the young players eventual elite pieces, and the established veterans more steady for the Bears’ front. His resume speaks for itself.
Hiestand’s body guards
Hiestand’s impact on the Bears’ offense will be most felt outside of the main position group itself: on Mitchell Trubisky.
Everything Chicago does moving forward is predicated on Trubisky thriving. He can only play well from as consistently clean a pocket to throw the ball as possible. He can only make a leap into stardom in a comfortable environment, with time to throw.
The stewards of this pocket is Hiestand’s offensive line. They are the first and last line of defense in front of Trubisky against onslaughts of pass rushers that will ultimately facilitate any success Trubisky has. Keep Trubisky upright and the results will immediately pay dividends as he spreads the wealth, meaning the ball, around. A quarterback can’t do anything from the ground.
This goes double for running backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Though, most offensive linemen actually prefer run blocking given that it’s easier to step forward than kick stepping against world class, freakish pass rushers. Making the rushing attack more sound is less of a concern because of that sentiment.
Full pads finally come on once we reach Bourbonnais in July, and the opportunity to see how Hiestand’s players operate in the high pressure, competitive practice environment sets the tone for the rest of their season. If Hiestand lives up to his esteemed reputation, Trubisky and his skill player friends are in excellent hands.
Robert is your guy for all things Bears. Find him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.