Bears

The biggest non-story of the 2019 Bears offseason

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USA Today

The biggest non-story of the 2019 Bears offseason

It was potentially one of the biggest storylines – changes at two of the five positions on the offensive line – hanging over a Chicago Bears offense needing to grow as a group and with quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

The “news,” as this offseason, camp and preseason have unfolded, is that there’s no story, no news.

The story involved moving a 2018 Pro Bowl and 2016 all-rookie center – Cody Whitehair – out of the position he’d anchored on the Bears line for three years, and moving a relatively unproven (10 NFL starts) young O-lineman – James Daniels – from left guard and into Whitehair’s spot, with the latter going back to left guard after three years in the middle.

At stake was the risk of disruption of one of the NFL’s best emerging offensive lines, which tied for third-fewest sacks (33) and was top-10 in sack percentage in the league last season.

The result:

Nothing to see here.

No mishandled snaps. No questions about shotgun-snap issues. No compatibility issues with Trubisky.

“We like that just because whenever you have a switch like that, or a change, it means they're doing something right,” said coach Matt Nagy, “because it's not a point of emphasis for us.”

Daniels and Whitehair share more than a position-group meeting room. Both were second-round picks by Bears GM Ryan Pace, Whitehair in 2016, Daniels in 2018. Both earned starting jobs as rookies, once unusual for offensive linemen, now not so rare, at least for the Bears over much of this decade (Daniels, Whitehair, Kyle Long, Hroiss Grasu, Jordan Mills).

They are also part of an extremely close group. When Daniels’ turn came last year for the tradition of a rookie picking up the tab for the weekly offensive-line dinner, the tab topped $5,000, “but some of the guys helped me out with that, too, so I can’t complain,” Daniels said, more than a little appreciatively. “We lift together, eat together, do so much stuff together. We do things with other teammates, but this group is special.”

Whitehair nods: “We have such a good group, pretty close, respect each other and work for each other. And that’s what it’s all about, everybody working to make each other better, and that’s what we’re doing.”

It is also an overall situation with fascinating upside potential at the highest levels for the Bears.

Middle’ing thoughts

While NFL lore exalts middle linebacker and running back in Bears history, few positions have been staffed by as many greats as center for the Chicago Bears. George Trafton was selected to the 1920’s All-Decade Team. Bulldog Turner is one of only nine centers elected to the Hall of Fame. Olin Kreutz shared All-Decade-Team honors with Kevin Mawae for the 2000’s. Kreutz and Jay Hilgenberg have been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

And Kreutz is unequivocal about Daniels: “When I watch James Daniels, he does things at an elite level at a young age. I really think you’re looking at a kid who could be the best center in the NFL for a while,” Kreutz said during an appearance with “Mully and Haugh” on WSCR-AM.

Daniels grasps history as well as defenses. He became familiar with Hilgenberg at Iowa, where photos of Hilgenberg were around the football offices, and he has met Hilgenberg since joining the Bears.

He has availed himself of Kreutz’s insights, Kreutz having played for current O-line coach Harry Hiestand when the latter was coaching the Bears linemen through the Super Bowl time in the mid-1990’s. Kreutz, who played for six different offensive-line coaches during his career, deepened Daniels’ understanding of Hiestand’s principles and style, Daniels said.

“Harry teaches that everyone should know what everyone has to do on each play,” Daniels said. “So the adjustment hasn’t been hard. I would say that it could have been difficult, but all the other players – Kyle, Charles [Leno], Cody, Bobby [Massie] – they’ve all been helpful and always helped me. Somebody’ll get the call out. If I’m having trouble with this or that, they’re always there helping me.”

And Daniels appreciated what he now had to his immediate left on the line.

“I told Cody, because he is just so good, that if I make a wrong call, to correct me,” Daniels said. “So Cody playing center for the past three years, he’s been very helpful for me. If I come up and make the wrong call he’ll just say, ‘No, no, it’s [this],’ and he knows exactly where I’m looking on each play and he knows what I’m seeing.”

Anchoring the anchor

For Whitehair, the one constant in his NFL career has been change. He is on his third offensive line coach in four NFL seasons; his first, Dave Magazu, maintained that Whitehair was drafted to play center, before Whitehair went to left guard and then back to center, all before the first game of 2016, when the Bears signed veteran Josh Sitton. Whitehair stayed put through coach Jeremiah Washburn, and then a regime change from John Fox to Nagy and, with him, Hiestand.

Some “changes” are harder than others. He may be a guard again but he still breaks the huddle and looks to ID the “Mike” linebacker the way he did for the last three years at center.

“I kind of do,” he said, laughing. “You kind of read the defense because that’s your job as a center, so I do find myself doing a little bit of that at the line of scrimmage. But James has done an outstanding job, getting us all on the same page and communicating with us. That’s his thing now and he’s doing a great job.”

“Homecomings”

The switch has been anything but disruptive. Indeed, veteran NFL observers felt last season that Daniels, with his Iowa history at the position and playing style, in fact belonged at center and Whitehair, one of the most physical members of the Bears line, at the power position of guard.

“[Guard] is a position that I have a little more experience with throughout my background,” Whitehair said. “So it’s a little rusty, but like riding a bike, you knock the rust off and you’re back to yourself.”

For Daniels, “I knew that whatever position they had me play at, I’m going to be at ‘home.’ Last year it was at guard, this year at center, and I’ve been practicing all offseason so it’s feeling pretty good.”

Both live the O-line mantra: Wherever you need me… .

“It’s really been a motto of mine ever since I started playing football – wherever I can help the line, wherever I can help the team, no matter where it is, I’m all for it,” Whitehair said.

“Another thing, too, is that our line is so athletic, we can do many things. As the season gets on and you have to maybe do another position, you’re able to do it without any trouble. It also helps to only suit seven or eight guys on game day, helps with the roster.”

Bears reportedly expect Akiem Hicks to come off injured reserve in eight weeks

Bears reportedly expect Akiem Hicks to come off injured reserve in eight weeks

The Bears expect to activate Akiem Hicks off injured reserve as soon as they can — which would be for their Week 15 game against the Green Bay Packers — according to a report from ESPN’s Adam Schefter:

The NFL requires players placed on injured reserve to spend eight weeks on it before they can be activated. While losing Hicks for half the season certainly presents a significant challenge to the Bears’ defense, that he does not need surgery and is expected to return in 2019 is at least a silver lining. 

The Bears officially placed Hicks on injured reserve Tuesday and promoted offensive lineman Alex Bars from their practice squad. 

While Hicks won’t be on the field for a while, he will be present around Halas Hall and Soldier Field as the Bears, defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. 

“He’s going to be with us throughout the gameplanning, he’s going to be with us on game day, he’s going to be on the sidelines, all those kinds of things,” Rodgers said. “You’re going to feel the presence of him on the sideline and everything we do from here to whenever that is.”

Bears can feel Trey Flowers' pain with NFL's over-emphasis on hands to the face penalties

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USA Today

Bears can feel Trey Flowers' pain with NFL's over-emphasis on hands to the face penalties

The Detroit Lions felt victimized by two brutal hands to the face penalties assessed to defensive end Trey Flowers on Monday night, flags which significantly contributed to the Green Bay Packers kicking a game-winning field goal as time expired. Those two penalties sparked yet another officiating firestorm for the NFL to put out. 

But while those two fouls came in high-leverage, fourth quarter situations — and helped the Packers score 10 points on their way to a division-best 5-1 record — they were just two fouls. The Bears have been flagged for illegal use of hands/hands to the face a mind-numbing eight times in 2019, easily the highest total in the league. 
No other team has been flagged more than four times for it. 

The Bears, collectively, were flagged twice for illegal use of hands in 2018 (defensive linemen Jonathan Bullard and Akiem Hicks were the offenders). 2019’s breakdown encompasses three units and quite a bit of frustration: Cornerback Prince Amukamara (3), left tackle Charles Leno Jr. (2), and right guard Kyle Long, outside linebacker Khalil Mack and outside linebacker Isaiah Irving (1). 

So on Tuesday, we asked around the Bears’ position coaches to get their take on why all these hands to the face penalties are occurring in Chicago, and also their thoughts on the high-profile mistakes made by Clete Blakeman’s officiating crew in Green Bay on Monday. 

“You just gotta avoid it,” defensive line coach Jay Rodgers said. “There’s times where it happens, times where it doesn’t happen, especially when you get your hands on sweaty, slippery guys in the fourth quarter, it’s going to happen.”

Long, prior to his season-ending injury, said officiating crews previously would mete out warnings of sorts for hands to the face. Perhaps baked into those were an understanding of what Rodgers said — sometimes, these things just happen unintentionally in such a physical, fast-moving sport. 

Now? Seemingly any contact with a player’s face — facemask or helmet — is whistled. 

“Those guys don't seem to get it as far as people's heads are moving all the time,” offensive line coach Harry Hiestand said. “What I read this morning, one of the things that was important about it is that (a player’s hand) stays there and that it's kind of an act of getting an edge by doing it. You just want to prevent that.”

Still, even while some of these hands to the face fouls aren’t preventable or are just straight up blown calls, there are coaching points for these players on both sides of the ball. 

“You just gotta watch the release of that receiver, keep (your) eyes down,” cornerbacks coach Deshea Townsend said. “Sometimes it’s incidental when a guy ducks his head, but you gotta focus on putting your eyes where they should be and that’ll force him to keep his hands down.”

So that’s the coaching point for Amukamara, at least. For Rodgers’ defensive linemen and Ted Monachino’s outside linebackers, it’s similarly all about hand placement. 

Rodgers said a lot of the rushes he teaches his players involve hand strikes near an offensive lineman’s armpit, which if executed correctly won’t allow for the possibility of a hands to the face penalty. And for guys like Mack, Monachino said they need to be aware of keeping their hands more toward the middle of a lineman’s numbers and not anywhere higher near the collar or facemask. 

Because while the second of the hands to the face penalties called on Flowers was admitted as a blown call by NFL VP of operations Troy Vincent, his hand was close enough to left tackle David Bakhtiari’s face that a blown call became a possibility based on what he’s coached to do. 

“As a protector, they’re taught to keep their face out,” Monachino explained. “So as he’s getting driven back, he’s got his head back so he can do that. From the side, that doesn’t look very good, right? But that pass rusher, Flowers, he wasn’t the reason that his head was back. It was because David Bakhtiari is a good player. He wants to get his face out of there so he can have a chance to recover.”

So it wasn’t like Bakhtiari flopped or sold the penalty like he was suited up for Manchester United and not the Green Bay Packers. But with the NFL making hands to the face a point of emphasis in 2019, anything that looks remotely like it is liable to be called. 

Monachino said he’ll use those two calls against Flowers as coaching points this week, not to remind them of how sub-optimal the league’s officiating has come across this year, but to remind his players of where their hands need to be to make sure officiating mistakes don’t happen, let alone reasonably-called penalties. 

And at some point, the Bears’ string of hands to the face penalties aren’t just on the officiating crews calling their games or random bad luck. They’re on the coaches and players for not getting the league’s message that anything contact close to an opponent’s face isn’t acceptable. 

“Those are judgements now,” Hiestand said. “Their eyes are on that a little bit, so we've got to do a better job.”

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