So Long, Olin: A Kreutz, Er, Sayonara

The Bears’ veteran center is a surprise off-season departure, given the mere half-million-dollar gap between the two parties, and the Chicago football world is shocked. But something on the Bears’ O-line has to change.

The Bears broke with longtime center Olin Kreutz over $500,000, and fans, players, and even journalists are perplexed:

Brian Urlacher: “I don’t play O-line, but just watching him as a rookie and the last 11 years watching the way he works. He plays hurt, plays injured, never complains, just goes out there and practices and does his job. It’s too bad they couldn’t get it done.”

CBS’s Mike Freeman: “The use of the word release doesn’t do justice to what happened to Chicago center Olin Kreutz. He played in the NFL for 13 years. He was seen as an invaluable component and there may not have been a more popular player on the Bears.”

Chris Williams: “He’s irreplaceable.”

Even if it comes at an unpleasant time, it’s good to see the six-time Pro Bowler drawing so much praise, since individual offensive linemen rarely get singled out despite the difficulty of their jobs. Back in 2003, Sports Illustrated did a good appreciation of the positions, of which center is probably the hardest:

If a quarterback is a team’s field general, the offensive linemen are its special-ops forces, doing the dirty work under the cover of darkness. They may be among the smartest men on the field, yet they also absorb the most physical abuse. “Figure that one out,” says [John] Welbourn, a fifth-year player who has a B.A in rhetoric from Cal. “We’re getting hit 70 times a game, and we watch more film than almost anyone else. To do our jobs, you have to have a specific mental makeup.”

If you buy the Wonderlic, OLs and centers are the smartest guys on the field, for good reason. In the same SI issue, the Panthers’ Jeff Mitchell described what he does on every play:

Once we break the huddle, I’m visualizing the play that has been called. Then I’m breaking down our protection: I’m thinking about whether the running back is to my left or if the tight end is to my right, making sure I know which side of the formation is overloaded. If we’re in our base offense, I’m counting the people in front of me, looking for the positioning of the middle linebacker and then finding the strong-and weakside backers. If we’re in a three-receiver formation, I’m looking for the nickelback as well. The big thing I want to determine is who we are going to run at. Once I find the linebackers, I know where we have to go.

And that’s just for starters.

It’s always hard talking offensive linemen because they have the most opaque jobs in football, and probably in all major sports—so much of what makes an individual lineman good or bad is in impossibly subtle footwork, positioning, and timing, all occurring in an instant at the scrum of the line of scrimmage.

And we don’t have very good stats for them. But it is clear that the Bears’ offensive line needs change: by the advanced metrics that exist, the Bears had one of the worst offensive lines in football last year for both running and passing.

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