By Robert Zeglinski
“You’re always on the next step. You never just want to settle.”
That’s how Charles Leno Jr. encapsulated what he’s made out his promising NFL career.
It can be difficult to properly put into words the impact experience and comfort can have for an offensive lineman, especially when working with a new offensive line coach like the hands-on Harry Hiestand. There are too many unpredictable factors of emotion and conflicting personalities to definitively say how effective developmental processes are. Just because what you’ve done in the past worked, doesn’t mean it’ll work for you now.
“Take that next step,” Leno continued to me. “And keep getting better.”
It’s also difficult to articulate how foundational pieces of the Bears offensive line like Leno have become dramatically better. But perhaps it doesn’t need a complex explanation. Focusing on the most basic and simple of terms, like Leno has, is all you need to see what guys like him are capable of. And how a coach like Hiestand only magnifies their intrinsic abilities.
Coming out of Iowa, James Daniels was lauded as one of the best interior offensive line prospects in the 2018 NFL Draft. Part of praise for the 20-year-old was how well he moved in space and his finishing ability in regularly driving defenders to the ground. Part of it of was being mature beyond his years, allowing for room for Daniels to grow in time.
In major college football, almost no one develops professional offensive linemen like Iowa. So Daniels sticking out in that fashion, from that program, spoke volumes. It bodes well for the seamless transition he’s already making with the Bears under Hiestand. If Daniels didn’t possess extraordinary wisdom compared to other 20-year-olds, he wouldn’t be thriving as much as he has.
You saw that maturity as Daniels bowled over defenders in his first NFL action against the Bengals in Chicago’s second preseason game. You saw it as Daniels flashed every skill that made him the 2018 No. 39 overall selection. A complete player, with not many edges to sharpen up. He didn’t shy away from the moment. This is no ordinary rookie offensive lineman, and that’s a testament to the mentorship of Hiestand along with the mentality of Daniels.
“Coach Hiestand has been very big on positioning and hands, and keeping it consistent,” Daniels told me. He says this while chugging a bottle of water nonchalantly. “I’ve been patient and improving because of it.”
Consistency. That’s a concept that constantly comes up when Hiestand’s players like Daniels and Leno, anyone, glowingly speaks of the offensive line guru. The coach is consistent. His teaching and relationship building is consistent. His message and methods are consistent. He’s not leading you astray, because at the crux of it, he’s consistent.
That’s where Hiestand has always stood out as a coach. He’s consistent in his message, and he starts with you from the top in every little piece of your game.
“He’s (Hiestand) just hung in on the details with us,” Leno reiterates what makes his coach great. “So whether that’s your footwork, your hand placement, your hands inside, your base. Everything that has to do with offensive line play. He’s always honing in on the details.”
Attention to detail is crucial for every position in football, but especially an offensive lineman. When a player loses a battle in the trenches it often isn’t because he was overpowered, but because he let a part of his technique lapse mid-play. The very best offensive linemen rarely have these lapses, and it’s because they drill on their fundamentals regularly day after day. Because their coaches like Hiestand don’t let them be satisfied.
There’s always an area to improve, even if you think there isn’t. There’s always a manner to motivate yourself to sharpen up the finest details of your game, whether you’re a rookie like Daniels, or more importantly an established veteran like Leno. It’s the veterans here that can’t be neglected.
“Even though I’ve been getting better,” the fourth-year Leno starts. “He (Hiestand) points out things I can still improve at. He wants the best out of you. He doesn’t want you to be average, he doesn’t want you to be good. He wants you to be the best.”
Leno pauses for a second, and muses.
“So if someone wants the best out of you, why not do all that you can to try and prove you’re the best?”
Complacency is the root of failure. Basic human nature is at it’s core, self-satisfied. It’s why when people accomplish great things, they don’t go on to reach greater heights as they become complacent. Their efforts initially were seen as enough, and so the fall from grace and stagnancy begins. And if you’re not reaching for more stellar goals, someone else is. It’s a vicious cycle of a failure to launch.
NFL offensive linemen can’t afford to pat themselves on the back after one good season, game, or play. They can’t be pleased at merely making it, or the grind of football makes certain they won’t last. This is too unforgiving of a game to sit back on your heels and relax.
It wasn’t enough for Daniels to be drafted by the Bears. He had to immediately see where he needed to progress if he was to live up to his immense potential. The thing about that progression he noticed was more the jump in competition than something inherently nuanced he couldn’t understand or wasn’t capable of.
Daniels is a terrific athlete. He can make every block and play on the field that you’ll ask of a guard or center. It was more about becoming acclimated to a complicated game where you’re almost always facing a terrific athlete in the opposition. About processing plays faster and taking advantage of every lapse your opponent makes instead of the other way around.
“In college, I got away with a lot of stuff like overrunning things,” Daniels said sternly. “But if I overrun stuff here, I’m gonna get pushed back into the backfield.”
“If you give a defensive player something here, they’re going to take it. In college, some players are good enough to take it, others they weren’t.”
Indeed, no longer does Daniels get the luxury of facing a random no-name from somewhere like Northern Iowa. In the NFL, he’ll see the best of the best week in and week out. He’ll see technicians that not only have acutely studied his entire game beforehand, but will be more than capable of exposing his weaknesses if he’s not careful.
“God giveth and God taketh away,” but in football terms.
The traditional path to NFL success isn’t for everyone, because there is no traditional path. It’s a myth. A fallacy of the highest order. Whatever works for you is how you make a career on this stage. No one plan or mindset works for the same person.
The 26-year-old Leno has had anything but a traditional path to the league. A former seventh-round draft choice in 2014 out of Boise State, Leno has had to earn every milestone he’s enjoyed with the Bears.
First career start in late 2014? Check.
Not missing a start in the last two seasons? Check.
Not missing a snap in the last two seasons? Check. It was here where Leno notably and happily corrected me, noting how he reliable he’s been for the Bears in participating in every offensive play of 32 games from 2016 to 2017.
And, slowly ascending while you go into your physical prime? Check and check.
Leno has been around long enough to have generally experienced everything a seasoned veteran like him should. It takes an acute sense of pride in your work to be that available for your team and to have taken the next step in every year you’ve been in the NFL like Leno has. A sense of pride that drives Leno every day. It takes dedication combined with ability, and a motivating voice in your head.
Even in the midst of first full camp after a four-year, $37 million dollar contract extension signed last fall, Leno knows his objective as the blindside protector of the Bears’ offense hasn’t been altered. No matter how much the Bears offense is more high-flying under Matt Nagy, it’s the same. No matter much more explosive the Bears offense is, it’s the same. Leno’s responsibilities are endlessly the same. And that’s a good thing.
“My job doesn’t change, man,” Leno told me of potential shifts while chuckling at the assertion that he’d have to do anything different. “I’m still going out there to protect 10 (Mitchell Trubisky) as best as I can. I’m still trying to make those holes for Tarik (Cohen), Jordan (Howard), and Benny (Cunningham).”
“I’m trying to communicate, and I’m trying to be a good leader. I’m trying to be vocal, a smart player, fundamentally sound. My job doesn’t change. It’s the same.”
Maybe that’s the actual traditional path of a comfortable and successful NFL offensive lineman: Understanding how simple the game is, and what’s expected of you. No matter what shifts around you, you stay grounded. What Daniels as a rookie and what Leno as a veteran see in their spectrums is different but also ironically the same when boiled down to mundane routine. It’s a cliche, but keep yourself collected, and everything takes care of itself.
That goes double for taking care of your body in the manner that Leno has, in care that’s played an immense role in him not missing a game in two seasons. You don’t have to prescribe to alternative medicine to last in pro football. Know what works for you and make it a part of who you are. Leno wouldn’t be here if he didn’t have that innate understanding of himself and his tastes. Tastes that could never ever have him give up poultry.
“At the end of the day, I’m just trying to take care of my body,” Leno said with a hearty laugh. “Nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing extraordinary. I’m not going vegan, for example. I love chicken too much.”
We have an obsession in sports over legacy. No one can ever be in one moment. Any time a good or great player accomplishes anything, it must relate back to how this affects their overall memory and what it means in a convoluted grander scheme of things. There’s no appreciation of the present. We’re always either looking backward or forward, losing sight of what’s special right in front of our eyes.
Sometimes, though, you do have to look back in order to appreciate where you’ve come. For a guy such as Daniels coming out of one of the mentioned premier offensive line schools in Iowa, a place that has produced the likes of the Ravens’ Marshal Yanda and Packers’ Bryan Bulaga in recent years, that legacy is paramount. He’s a name who carries on Iowa’s tradition forever, and being one of those names is unsurprisingly tremendously humbling.
“That legacy means a lot to me,” Daniels said. “When you’re getting recruited to Iowa, those were the players (Yanda, Bulaga) that I got on my recruiting mail.”
If all goes well, the Hawkeyes will assuredly feature Daniels in as many promotional means as they can in the future. Not only to build their program, but because Daniels is a perfect example of what happens when hard work meets talent. By 2022 when Daniels will be 24, he could be viewed as one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL. That’s not a goal to shy away from. That’s something to highlight again and again.
In knowing he’d be shown off to wide-eyed college recruits as a role model to follow, Daniels takes his responsibility to heart. He can be a star for the Bears and simultaneously help create cherished memories for so many.
“It’s nice to know that if I do what I’m supposed to do, I’m gonna be on the recruiting mail of the Class of 2022 or something like that,” Daniels said with a smile. “It means a lot to me to know that players back at Iowa are looking up to me, and that recruits will also look up to me.” R.
Robert is an editor, writer and producer. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.