In some unwanted way, some of the latest injury misfortunes to befall the Bears might have forced them into some unwanted decision-making but also delivered some solutions along with the problems.
If there is a problem, it is that none of the solutions cleanly address the center position, for which Matt Slauson is eminently capable but does not address the longer term.
The Bears used a third-round draft choice on Hroniss Grasu, a former Oregon teammate of Kyle Long. And Grasu might qualify as the next-man-up at center, as coach John Fox said, “at some point.”
One temptation could be the “see what they’ve got” approach of inserting Grasu at center between Slauson at left guard and either Vladimir Ducasse or Patrick Omameh at right, operating on the premise that a third-round pick merits an in-depth look. That could happen.
But the Bears have not by any means relegated the 2015 regular season into an extension of training camp and preseason (or if they have, Pernell McPhee obviously didn’t get the memo). General manager Ryan Pace is highly unlikely to step out of character and demand his draft choice be installed, as some in his job have done. And the internal ethic of the NFL is that you earn a job, period, and unless Grasu has won it, simply handing the rookie a job because of draft status is its own mistake.
Perennial Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz was the Bears’ third-round pick in the 1998 draft. The Bears also had Casey Wiegmann, who’d won the job during training camp and started 15 games even through that disastrous 4-12 season.
Kreutz started just one game that year, then won the job the following camp and preseason in an extremely uncomfortable (for both players) competition — difficult not due to problems between the two, just that each knew the other deserved to be a starting NFL center, as Kreutz later explained. Both were right; Kreutz went to six Pro Bowls while Wiegmann starred at Kansas City and Denver.
But the reality was that Kreutz, one of the great centers in the history of a franchise with a history of excellent centers, wasn’t ready to win the starting job as a rookie.
Grasu’s size is not an issue; Will Montgomery weighs 304 pounds, and Grasu is in that range. Functional strength is always a question with even college stars transitioning to the NFL. And center involves technique as much as strength.
“Back when we had Taylor Boggs as our backup, he learned how to do it just by watching film of other small-type guys,” Slauson said. “So that's what I told Hroniss to do is just get a lot of tape of smaller, older guys using all their tricks.”
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Elsewhere, the concussion and shoulder miseries for left tackle Jermon Bushrod, on top of his earlier back issues, thrust unheralded Charles Leno into the starting lineup against the Oakland Raiders. Leno, who failed to hold onto the right-tackle opportunity he was presented in preseason, produced evidence that the Bears have at least an interim solution at left tackle (Long being the presumptive longer-term answer).
Line coach Dave Magazu already had pegged Leno through the offseason as a versatile option at virtually any of the line spots. Assuming Bushrod’s return, the Bears discovered an option at one of the most difficult positions on the field.
The loss of Montgomery to a broken leg created an immediate need at center, which was ably filled by two people: Slauson moving over into Montgomery’s spot, and Omameh, signed in September after his release by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, handling left guard.
Omameh’s play raises questions about his possibly supplanting penalty-plagued Ducasse at right guard.
Whatever the solution, “I know people get tired of hearing it, but it is a next-man-up approach,” Fox said. “It happens at a lot of positions in a lot of football games in the National Football League. All your backups ... have to be ready to play in a moment’s notice, particularly in the O-line because it is such a group dynamic.
“It’s five guys knowing exactly what the other guy is doing with line calls, pass-protection alerts. We run some no-huddle, so there’s a lot of checks at the line. I think we had maybe a couple high shotgun snaps — I know we had the one center-quarterback exchange problem that resulted in a turnover. But the good news was our guys overcame it.”