James Daniels

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

Bears offensive woes vs. Packers leave questions about Matt Nagy’s adaptability, flexibility

Bears offensive woes vs. Packers leave questions about Matt Nagy’s adaptability, flexibility

The disconcerting Bears 10-3 loss to start the season against the Green Bay Packers was surprising and initially concerning. It shouldn’t have been, not entirely.

What will be surprising and very concerning will be if the Chicago offense under Matt Nagy/Mark Helfrich do not adjust to certain realities that the dismal offensive performance brought to the fore.

And along with all of this is an overarching need for some perspective on Nagy in particular, something that has been in short supply during the fawning gush-fest that has swirled around Nagy ever since his hiring if for no better reason that he isn’t John Fox.

Nagy has ridden the crest wave of adulation and media canonization borne out of the long-standing civic craving for offensive innovation. And after more than one false positive (Gary Crowton, Mike Martz, Marc Trestman, Adam Gase), BearsNation has been primed to embrace someone with the cred that comes with being from the Andy Reid coaching tree.

The need to tap brakes has been there since the Nagy hiring. Funky plays – Freezer Left, Oompah Loompah, Willie Wonka, even the Papa Bear Left T-formation – worked even while the overall offense wasn’t re-defining the NFL, for anyone who was paying close attention.

COTY misdirection

What sent NagyMania to another level long before the start of the 2019 season was Nagy being named NFL coach of the year, a fitting honor for someone who took a team from 5-11 to 12-4. But the award reflected Nagy’s deft makeover of the entire on-field product, not so much the offense even with all its fun twists. In some respects, until the Chicago offense moves into at least the mid-teens in league rankings, it is still the unit that failed to top 15 points in four of its last six games of 2018, with the nagging suspicion that the NFL indeed has figured some things out about Nagy and quarterback Mitchell Trubisky.

But to be blunt, Nagy’s success was built on the defense that he inherited, complete with coordinator Vic Fangio and with a massive upgrade in the form of the Khalil Mack trade and drafting of Roquan Smith. (Just for casual comparison purposes: Nagy was given a gently broken-in Trubisky and Mack. John Fox was given Kevin White and Jay Cutler, Mike Glennon and Brian Hoyer.)

This in no way whatsoever disparages Nagy’s coaching accomplishment. Not at all.

But Sean McVay was COTY for 2017 after turning around the Los Angeles Rams and Jared Goff. Offense.

Jason Garrett, 2016 COTY. The Cowboys at No. 4 overall draft Ezekiel Elliott, who leads the NFL in rushing, and Dak Prescott in the fourth round, with Prescott joining Elliott on the Pro Bowl roster after leading the Cowboys to No. 5 in points and yardage. Offense.

Ron Rivera, 2015 COTY. A defense guy but who had quarterback Cam Newton emerge as the league’s MVP. Offense.

Bruce Arians, 2014 COTY… .  You get the point.

Nagy’s 2018 season was an epic turnaround for the franchise. It did not happen because of his offense.

Again, no slight of Nagy whatsoever. Just a dose of perspective, one which, best guess, Nagy himself is keeping.

“Identity” crisis

Beyond the minutiae of Thursday – Eddy Pineiro’s field goal range, delay-of-game penalties, Cordarrelle Patterson as the short-yardage back, etc. – the broader issue hanging over Nagy from the Green Bay game is the run game. The overall run-pass relationship, actually.

Through three quarters against Green Bay, the Bears had netted just 120 yards on 27 pass plays (23 throws, four sacks); average, 4.4 yards per play. The rushing average at 3.1 yards certainly wasn’t dominating, but to be that wedded to a failing strategy is not the stuff of an enlightened offensive mind.

If the Bears suddenly are groping for an identity to their suspect abilities to run the football, the chief fault lies with Nagy, not Jordan Howard anymore. Not necessarily the offensive line, either; the strength of the line is the interior, particularly guards Kyle Long and Cody Whitehair. Tackle make Pro Bowls for pass blocking, guards for run blocking, and Long and Whitehair have been Pro Bowl’ers, albeit Whitehair at center. The Bears have invested heavy draft and financial capital in Long, Whitehair and center James Daniels. The decision not to give them the opportunity to take the heart out of the Packers lies with Nagy. Fox kept the reins on a rookie Trubisky; Nagy did the same with the heart of his offensive line.

Nagy has, to his credit, pointed the thumb rather than a finger as recently as Thursday night after a game in which he called 50 pass plays vs. 15 run plays in a game in which the Bears never trailed by more than one score. That he was unable to adjust and was so locked in to throwing when Trubisky wasn’t doing it very well is a substantial indictment of Nagy.

Observations have been that Nagy becomes bored with the run game. Not sure that’s necessarily the case; no coach is bored with something that goes well.

Nagy, however, is a quarterback by training and DNA, and those guys think throwing is just simply what you do, as in, “If God didn’t want us to pass, then why did he give us arms?” Besides, NFL rules-makers have tilted the game that way anyway.

And as certain past failed Chicago offensive leaders (Trestman, others) did, when the run component of the game plan faltered, it was abandoned as just not working that day.

Nagy appeared to succumb to that mindset on Thursday. The Bears ran 10 times in the first quarter against Green Bay and had seven pass plays. The runs averaged a paltry 3.6 yards. In the second quarter, one carry, average down to 3.1. Nagy did the first two drives of the third quarter with runs but that was about it for the game.

Last year the Bears ran 29 times and called 29 pass plays in the second Green Bay game and put 332 yards and 24 points on a Mike Pettine defense, the same Mike Pettine who outcoached Nagy and the offense last Thursday.

Nagy has only once experienced a losing season since entering the NFL in 2008 as a junior member of Reid’s staff with the Philadelphia Eagles. That was back in 2012. The 2019 season obviously is only one game old, but Nagy himself said that this is a vastly different and more difficult loss than the one that opened the 2018 season, which was on the road and as an underdog. It was Nagy’s honeymoon season as a new and first-time head coach in an in-stall year; every situation was a learning experience, positive for the most part.

Now his Bears, who were favored on Thursday, already have lost as many home games this year as they did in all of ’18.

The NFL spent much of 2018 learning about the Nagy offense while the Fangio defense was dominating. Now it falls to Nagy to do the learning.

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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.”