Bears center Sam Mustipher has only started four games, but he’s been widely praised recently by coaches and teammates.
Oh, and by the best center in franchise history, too.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing stuff like this about Mustipher on Zooms from Halas Hall:
“You’d think he has been in the league 10, 11, 12 years the way he coaches out there,” running back David Montgomery said of the second-year undrafted free agent from Notre Dame.
“I think that Sam Mustipher has brought a very great energy to our huddle,” wide receiver Allen Robinson said.
“He’s a great leader,” coach Matt Nagy said.
“I think Sam is a starting center in this league,” offensive line coach Juan Castillo said.
It’s high praise for a guy who’s only started four games. I wanted to know just how grounded all that praise was in reality, though.
And who better to answer that question than Olin Kreutz, right?
“I think the film says that you can trust him in there as a starter or as a guy who can be the center/guard backup,” Kreutz told Cam Ellis and me on Thursday’s episode of the Under Center Podcast.
Kreutz has seen Mustipher excel at the cerebral aspect of playing center since making his NFL debut in Week 7 against the Los Angeles Rams.
“Sam does a really nice job organizing the Chicago Bears offensive line,” Kreutz said. “And by that I mean the center’s first job really is to be a traffic cop, point out the mike linebacker, by that I mean he organizes the protection, let’s everybody basically know who they’re blocking off of his point of the Mike linebacker. So Sam does a nice job of that.
“… And I know Sam pretty well, there’s things he has to work on, the one-on-one pass block on third down last week against the Texans he struggled with a little bit. He does a really nice job there though in the reach blocks on zone plays for right now. He’s looked real good.”
While Mustipher’s play has been part of the Bears’ recent offensive spark, he hasn’t only put good things on tape against bad defenses. Kreutz pointed out Mustipher’s strong Week 8 showing against the New Orleans Saints, a game in which David Montgomery rushed for 89 yards on 21 carries – easily his best game in Nick Foles’ seven starts.
The Saints have the NFL’s No. 1 rush defense, as rated by Football Outsiders’ DVOA, entering Week 15. It was Mustipher’s only start working with Foles – under whom the Bears’ run game cratered.
And Mustipher’s impact has gone beyond just how he’s blocked and organized the offense.
“One of the greatest compliments I can give Sam is that when his name is brought up in front of the group -- how do I put it? -- the reaction of the team, offensive and defensive players, the cheer that came up almost took me back,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “What it did was it showed you, I can't remember what coach (Nagy) mentioned him for, something in front of the team, but the reaction of the team showed me what the team thinks of him.”
A good guess to the play on which Nagy highlighted Mustipher: Late in the second quarter of the Bears’ Week 12 loss in Green Bay, wide receiver Darnell Mooney was stopped after catching a crossing route by Packers safety Darnell Savage. As Savage held Mooney to stop forward progress, cornerback Kevin King came up and punched Mooney, seemingly in an attempt to get the ball out but after the whistle was blown (it’s incredible a penalty wasn’t called).
It was Mustipher – along with Bars – who first came to Mooney’s defense. Mustipher shoved King away, protecting his wide receiver and earning the appreciation of his teammates. For a center, engendering that trust in teammates is incredibly important, and Mustipher has done just that.
“Him and Bars, I think that the energy that those guys bring, that shows up on tape,” Robinson said. “We see those guys helping guys up, we see those guys always constantly being around the ball or if it’s downfield on a pass play or if it's a run play that gets a tackle for loss or it's an explosive run you always see those guys around the ball and I think that's something that doesn't go unnoticed.”
It’s no surprise, then, that teammates are as quick to heap praise on Mustipher as he is to help them off the ground (or defend them from being mugged on the field). He’s putting everything together, and if he continues to do so over the final three weeks of the season, it’ll make things a lot easier on whoever the Bears’ GM is in building the 2021 offensive line.
“Now you got James Daniels, now you got Cody Whitehair, Alex Bars has done a nice job in there for you. You have some guys in there now that you trust,” Kreutz said. “(Mustipher’s) given you that luxury where if it’s between a tackle and a guard, maybe you take the tackle.”