Charles Leno Jr.

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Charles Leno says 'it's just gonna suck' without Kyle Long around

Chicago Bears left tackle Charles Leno, Jr. has a fond place in his heart for right guard Kyle Long. He's probably not alone in the Bears locker room with his feelings for the seven-year pro and three-time Pro Bowler.

Since being selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, Long has ascended into a leadership role with the Bears both on and off the field. And while his play in recent seasons has been negatively impacted by a variety of injuries (Long's been limited to just 29 games over the last four years), he still offered an experienced voice in the huddle and an enforcer's mentality after the snap.

But we may have seen the last of Long in a Bears uniform after the team officially placed him on season-ending injured reserve Monday (hip). It was news that Leno struggled to embrace.

“It’s the tale of the league for you,” Leno said from Halas Hall. “He’s been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, and that’s just how the league goes. You never know when that time is going to come. His happened so fast. So abrupt. It’s like, ‘Damn. He’s not going to be here.’ So it just sucks. That’s how I look at it — it’s just gonna suck.”

Long hasn't been great this season. His play was progressively getting worse, too. He has the lowest Pro Football Focus grade of any player on Chicago's offense (38.0) and played his worst two games of the year in Weeks 3 and 5 (he missed Week 4 with the hip injury).

It was time to shut him down. Maybe for good.

“This is his words — he said he’s a Bear for life,” Leno said of his conversation with Long. “[Those are] the words I remember him saying. That’s how he wanted to end things.”

That certainly doesn't sound like a player who expects to ever wear a Bears jersey again. It's a shame, but it's also the reality of professional football for an offensive lineman. No position absorbs as much wear and tear as the big uglies up front, and Long is a perfect example. He was once considered the most promising young interior offensive lineman in the NFL just a few years ago. Now, it's anyone's guess if he'll ever play another snap.

“When he was healthy and he was on, he was a dominant football player," Leno said. "I told him plenty of times, ‘Get back to that [2013, 2014, 2015] self.’ It just sucks because so many times he would try to get back to it and had to take a step back. When injuries compile, it’s just really [unfortunate].”

The Bears will look to fill Long's starting role with either Rashaad Coward, Ted Larsen or rookie Alex Bars. And while one (or all) of them will provide an upgrade on the field, none will be able to replace Long's larger-than-life presence everywhere else.

Bears at the Bye: Kyle Long headlines a brutal start for Chicago's O-line

Bears at the Bye: Kyle Long headlines a brutal start for Chicago's O-line

It's easy to cast blame on the quarterback, running back, wide receivers and tight end when an offense is struggling, as is the case with the Chicago Bears in 2019. In an era dominated by fantasy football and box-score scouting, production (or lack of it) tends to sculpt team and player narratives.

There's no denying Mitch Trubisky and the rest of the Bears' skill players have to improve over the final 11 games of the regular season. They've certainly played their part in what's been one of the worst offenses in the NFL through five weeks (30th overall), but their struggles will continue if there isn't a marked turnaround by the offensive line. It's been, by far, the most frustrating collection of five players on the roster this year and is the one position group where a change in the starting lineup could be on its way.

Right guard Kyle Long is playing the worst football of his seven-year career. There's no way around it. He's Chicago's lowest-graded player on offense (37.5), and out of 200 offensive linemen evaluated by Pro Football Focus in 2019, Long ranks 192nd. 

Injuries have become commonplace for Long over the last several seasons. He hasn't started more than nine games in any season since 2016 and he's already missed one game this year (hip). His poor play has been attributed to his hip injury by some analysts, but it might be time to simply recognize that Long isn't the same player he was when he entered the NFL in 2013. He's a great leader and one of the most recognizable faces on this team, but his performance has regressed to a reserve's level.

Long isn't alone with his struggles along the offensive line. Left tackle Charles Leno Jr. is off to a rough start in 2019; he leads the Bears with 15 pressures allowed, a total that's 19th-most among all offensive linemen this year. His 44.0 run-blocking grade from PFF is by far the lowest of his career and is contributing to Chicago's strains to establish a running game. Leno's made a living as an underrated left tackle who's outplayed his seventh-round draft status, but now that GM Ryan Pace has made a long-term commitment to him as the left tackle of this franchise — he signed a four-year, $37 million contract extension in 2017 — he's being held to a higher standard. 

Left guard Cody Whitehair and center James Daniels swapped positions this offseason with the hope that Daniels would emerge as a young building block in the middle of Chicago's offensive line. The 22-year-old hasn't been great, but he hasn't disappointed either. His 74.6 pass-blocking grade is the best among Bears starters this year and his 54.2 run-blocking score ranks second on the team, which is probably more of an indication of how poorly Chicago is doing in that department. Daniels isn't a finished product yet but he's off to a strong Year 1 as this team's pivot man.

Whitehair has been solid as well. He's been the only halfway competent run blocker through five games and at this point in his career has settled into his role as a reliable starting guard who Chicago can count on to play mistake-free football. He's been penalized only one time in 320 snaps this season, compared to Leno who's been flagged eight times.

Right tackle Bobby Massie, whose four-year, $30.8 million extension signed in the offseason is a bargain in today's market, is playing like a sound starter for the second year in a row. He's allowed just eight pressures in 2019, but (here we go again) needs to get better in in the run game. He missed one game because of vertigo.

So, where could that change in the offensive line come? Rashaad Coward, who's lodged 30 snaps this year and was the Bears' second-most effective lineman in the limited sample size, is a candidate to bump Long from the starting lineup. Maybe it won't happen in Week 7, but if Long's struggles continue after healing up during the bye, coach Matt Nagy will have little choice but to make the swap.

Coward, 24, fits the replacement mold. He's a young player with upside who's gotten better over time. Remember, he was a defensive lineman just two seasons ago.

The Bears will only go as far as their offensive line takes them in 2019. If this group fails, Trubisky and the rest of the offense will fail along with it. Hopefully, it will only get better from here.

Bears OL grade at the bye: F

Kyle Fuller talks interception in Denver during Bears' players visit Chicago Public School

Kyle Fuller talks interception in Denver during Bears' players visit Chicago Public School

To kick off the Bears 2019 School Outreach Program, defensive back Kyle Fuller and offensive lineman Charles Leno Jr. visited Jordan Elementary Community School. Partnering with Youth Guidance, a social services organization providing school-based programs for under-resourced communities, Bears players make weekly visits to speak at Chicago Public Schools throughout the season.

Fuller got the chance at the event to speak about his recent performance in Denver, where he had six tackles and one interception, as well as a big play where he stopped the Broncos at the ten-yard line, eventually allowing the Bears to get a field goal.

“It felt like a pretty long drive, you know,” Fuller described.  “Guys just got together to just try and get it to stop and that’s what we did.”

Fuller spoke about the defense’s pressure to perform following losing the season home opener to Green Bay.

“That’s what we’re working for, we want to put ourselves in those moments. We’re glad to have that opportunity,” Fuller said. “It feels good, I’m excited to get the win [in Denver]. Excited to move forward, getting ready for Washington this week. Just like all the other 31 teams, they’re good, so we’ve got to be prepared and be ready.”

Leno also spoke on how the Bears' offense will find their identity for the rest of the 2019 season. 

“You’re always trying to evolve every week,” Leno says. “It all changes week to week. We know our identity and we know we’re a good offense, we just have to keep getting better every week.”

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