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.
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.
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.”
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.”