Usher in a new guard: Interior OL a Bears’ soft spot
By: Robert Zeglinski
Offensive line construction, like offensive line play, is simple. A common convention of building a successful wall is working your way from the outside in. Tackles are placed at a premium. They are underrated athletes and some of the smartest members of a team. Cornerstones with the authority and firsthand power to protect the main cornerstone, the quarterback. If a team jives well at tackle, chances are little other issues are present. Chances are, they possess an elite offense. But sometimes, conventions are meant to be broken. They’re meant to be twisted, repurposed, flipped on a whim.
Until recently, that’s exactly how Ryan Pace’s Bears have operated up front.
Or, at least, when they had the resources and horses to do so.
There was a short period of time where it appeared Chicago was the league’s envy inside. Kyle Long. Cody Whitehair. James Daniels. A trio not to be trifled with. A trio with a bright future combined together, never apart. The thesis of piecing together an offensive line from the inside out spreading out like a beautiful umbrella. Then Long missed 35 starts in four seasons thanks to a variety of maladies. Shifting around from center to guard and back to center left the veteran no steady ground to stand on for the veteran Whitehair. Daniels, ever the prodigy himself, is not being rushed to develop, but has yet to make a prolific, expected, or hopeful leap. A cavalcade of issues compounding on one another like a mistaken-tipped domino knocking over the rest of the set.
Plugging in holes in the hull everywhere when water sinks in other areas only delays the inevitable. What was once considered a strength for the Bears is now one of their glaring liabilities. Chicago’s best interior lineman is a 27-year-old veteran without a specific niche. Long is long gone to a second life of ascendance on the Twitter and Twitch-sphere. And Daniels, well, Daniels has baggage to work out.
In an off-season where the Bears need a quarterback change, they also need an overhaul of his personal protection service. The NFL’s 25th ranked rushing attack when using the middle has nothing to lean on as a vanguard for a viable passer. Whitehair and Daniels present a tantalizing prospect of a duo for the foreseeable future, but their camaraderie only goes so far without another partner. Aside from basic math dictating that three is greater than two (in a sane society where facts matter), leaving an abyss of a pothole inside handicaps whatever bounce back the Bears are planning in 2020.
It’s not enough to already cover for lagging tackles of late such as Charles Leno and Bobby Massie. Great offenses already have to compensate for their flaws and weak points. The more present issues, the more the structural integrity collapses in on itself when asked to stretch beyond its means. One incompetent player closer to the quarterback by alignment places an inherent larger target on his back. A hollow turnstile where no car, or defensive linemen, has to stop on his way to speeding up the ramp again. This is how accidents happen, children.
The worst thing that could have happened with Long was delaying the specter of inevitability. While the injuries and degradation of his body are in no way to be blamed on the 30-year-old, his constant presence had the Bears procrastinate on a nagging problem. His promise of a return to full capacity, even though he returned worse for the wear with every passing season, straddled out what the Bears believed to be viable inside. When it came to bolstering their offensive line with an answer in Long’s absence, they said, “They’ll do it in the morning” or “They’ll do it tomorrow.” To the surprise of complacency that is present in every soul in existence, such plans never coalesced well enough. It was never done in the morning. It was never done tomorrow. It was always rushed, squeezed out onto a page running on one brain cell. They operated like a college student writing a term paper the night before. They received the predictable, disappointing results they deserved.
At least there’s another semester for the Bears to pick their grades back up.
It’s often said acclimation for a guard is easier than every starting offensive position. They have less to worry about in specific separating skills against defensive backs. They’re not carrying the ball, catching the ball, and responsible for blitz pickup like running backs. The defense’s toughest pass rushers, save for the Aaron Donald’s of the world, play on the outside, not the inside. And they’re not the field generals responsible for memorizing every route, audible, syllable, poem, and dark incantation the way quarterbacks are. Guards are largely one-note mobile tanks. A dime a dozen on the gridiron, with little flash or substance in the package deal.
From this perspective, it shouldn’t be difficult for the Bears to find a quality replacement for Long. But given how limited they are in draft capital, a move toward the aggressive side in free agency is prudent. Finding a guard means finding the path of least resistance in pro football. Finding a guard means bolstering the relative invulnerability of an already promising partnership with Whitehair and Daniels in the fold.
Three friends are always better than one.
A proactive methodology involves the pursuit of Washington’s Brandon Scherff. Scherff, just 28, has missed 13 starts in the last two seasons. But when healthy and running on all cylinders, his prowess is unmatched among his peers. A three-time Pro Bowler to start his career, Scherff has served as a useful power ball of a tool for Washington. Be it impossible blocks in space, pancakes of superstars accustomed to wrecking games without resistance, or a general encompassing intimidation factor, Scherff is the total package. He’s a 315-pound mass of menacing humanity who singlehandedly antiquates the idea of guards being less valuable than tackles. While certainly a pricey (and risk-laden) investment, Scherff’s upside presents the Bears with the prospect of having the sturdy interior trio they never launched off the ground with Long.
He’s that good. He’s that experienced. He’s that special. And yes, not without coincidence, he’s a guard. He’s also worth it. Who woulda’ thunk it?
The Bears have a lot of hurdles to clear over the coming months in free agency. Reinvigorating Quarterback A’s Interior Secret Service should not only be a passing thought on the mythical to-do list, it should be a priority. Like their tackle brethren, guards are people too, after all.
Robert is a writer and editor. Follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.