They operate in a world of grunts and sweat and mud and blood. The linemen of the Chicago Bears stay mostly out of the spotlight, but the team has advanced to the Super Bowl on the shoulderpads of these giants
By Bob LeGere
Published June 18, 2007
>> The linemen of the Chicago Bears stay mostly out of the spotlight, but if the team is to advance far in the playoffs, it will do so on the shoulderpads of these giants.
Illustration by Asaf Hanuka
At six feet six inches tall and 312 pounds, Chicago Bears offensive tackle John Tait suggests a Mack truck rearing up on its hind wheels. Even Tait, however, has to look up to his colleague on the other end of the offensive line, six-foot seven-inch, 314-pound Fred Miller. When the two of them are talking quietly together in the Bears locker room at the team’s Lake Forest practice facility, they fill enough space to occupy a mid-sized studio apartment. Yet, on a typical day when the Bears’ sanctuary is opened to the media, Tait, Miller, and the other mainstays of the line go virtually unnoticed while cameras and reporters scrimmage around relative pipsqueaks such as six-foot-four, 258-pound glamour linebacker Brian Urlacher.
Photography: Bill Smith Photography
>>Offensive linemen John Tait, Olin Kreutz, and Ruben Brown leave the field after victory over Minnesota.
Offensive linemen are used to that anonymity-a paradox, considering their size. Defensive linemen have a slightly higher recognition factor, though usually only those fellows who terrorize opposing quarterbacks with eye-catching sack totals. But to the architects of successful NFL teams, linemen are hugely visible-and the cornerstones upon which franchises are built. Without the grunts up front, even the most talented skill-position players-quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers-cannot function. “Everybody talks about the quarterback play and quarterback development,” says the Chicago Bears’ general manager, Jerry Angelo. “But nothing good can happen for the quarterback unless he gets protection. The quarterbacks that play really well and have the great games, they’re getting enough time in the pocket to do what they’re supposed to do.”
On the other side of the ball, a dominant defensive line makes the seven players behind it better. In Angelo’s experience, it does not work the other way. “I’ve never seen where a secondary overcame a poor front,” he says. “It starts with the front, and if that’s working right, it can camouflage some of the other things you don’t have on defense.”
Angelo has put this philosophy to work in building what looks to be the strongest Bears team since the Super Bowl maulers of the mid-eighties. The payoff began with an 11-5 record and a playoff berth in 2005, and it’s continuing this season, as the team broke fast from the gate, establishing itself as one of the NFL’s elite. Though offense-starved fans have thrilled to long bombs from Rex Grossman to Bernard Berrian, most players acknowledge that the heart of the team is that wall of flesh-1,523 pounds on offense, 1,115 on defense-in the middle of the play.
When Urlacher gave a Hall of Fame–worthy performance with 25 tackles in the Bears’ stunning and improbable week-six Monday night victory over the Arizona Cardinals, he said the feat was made possible because no one was blocking him. The Cardinals’ offensive linemen were preoccupied with the Bears’ defensive linemen.
“It all starts up front,” says Bears coach Lovie Smith. That’s why, on the Bears’ charter flights, the linemen sit up front, in first class. “That’s how much we think of them,” Smith says.
While linemen operate in relative obscurity, the Bears’ bruisers make up a colorful bunch-though probably not a group you would want to cross. One is the grandson of a Nigerian king. Another is one of the few Latinos in the NFL. Yet another turned his back on a promising career as a volleyball player. Two got into a fistfight at a gun range that resulted in a broken jaw.
Angelo has put this gang together, but he has followed different blueprints on opposite sides of the football. He created the offensive line by adding four veteran free agents to mainstay center Olin Kreutz, a nine-year Bears veteran who has been named to the past five Pro Bowls. Kreutz is the only O-line starter drafted by the team. The players around him have been brought in to fill gaps-most of them created by injuries.
Photography: Bill Smith Photography
>>Bear trap: Alex Brown (right) and Adewale Ogunleye close in on Detroit quarterback Jon Kitna.
On the defensive line, three of the four starters were drafted by the Bears: Tommie Harris and Tank Johnson in 2004 and Alex Brown in 2002. Since 2002, when Angelo began running the Bears’ draft, he has spent nine picks on defensive linemen, including two first-round picks, one second-round pick, one third-rounder, two in the fourth round, and three fifth-rounders. Beyond the draft, Angelo decided that the Bears needed a Pro Bowl pass rusher more than a Pro Bowl pass catcher, and in 2004 the team traded wide receiver Marty Booker (and a third-round pick) to the Miami Dolphins for left end Adewale Ogunleye.
The name (Add-uh-WAH-lay Oh-GOON-lay-uh) is Nigerian. His grandfather was a king in Ekiti, a state in Nigeria. In the early 1970s, Ogunleye’s father moved to New York, where the future Pro Bowler was born. Though he played at Indiana (where he was one of the best pass rushers in the Big Ten), Wale Ogunleye wasn’t drafted out of college; he had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, which required surgery and prematurely ended his senior season. Ogunleye later proved himself with the Dolphins, however (15 sacks in 2003), and Angelo signed him for the princely sum of $33.4 million over six years. The move started paying off in a big way last year as Ogunleye led the Bears with ten sacks and frequently caused opposing offenses to double-team him on passing plays.
Angelo’s ideal D-line formula requires a premier tackle to go along with an elite pass rusher. Enter Tommie Harris, the 14th overall pick in the 2004 draft, a six-foot-three 295-pounder from the University of Oklahoma who became a Pro Bowl selection in his second season. No less an authority than Urlacher, the NFL’s 2005 defensive player of the year, calls Harris a candidate for the honor this season. “There’s nobody in this league playing better,” Urlacher says. “They have to double him every play or he’s going to make the play. Even when they double him, he makes the play. So he frees guys up; not only us [linebackers], but other D-linemen.”
Harris has always been big, strong, and athletic. As a 150-pound fourth grader in Killeen, Texas, he was barred from the local youth football league because he exceeded the weight limit. So he went home, put on a black plastic garbage bag, and tried to run off the excess pounds. “I almost passed out,” he recalls. “It didn’t work, so I got kicked out of the league.”
Harris says he grew into and out of a bully stage that landed him in an alternative school for a year before he went to high school. By then he had figured out on his own what a disappointment he was becoming to his father, Tommie Sr., a Pentecostal minister, and his mother, Janie, a former missionary. For Harris, it was time to shape up and to stop letting people down.
Harris hasn’t disappointed the Bears. “We felt Tommie was that guy [who could play] inside,” Angelo says. “And we felt like Wale would be that pass-rush guy for us, and then we would bring in a good supporting cast, and we feel we’ve done that.”
Tank Johnson, taken a round after Harris in 2004, played so well early in the season that he replaced nose tackle Ian Scott (a 2003 draft pick) in the starting lineup. While Scott remains a run-stuffing force in the middle, Johnson has exhibited more all-around talent since recovering from a torn quadriceps in the off-season.
Johnson may have followed a more treacherous path to the NFL than any of his teammates. Until he was ten, he lived in an unsavory part of Gary, Indiana. His family’s move to Tempe, Arizona, was hastened when little Tank (who was still just Terry then) stood up for his younger sister who was being bullied. Her assailants doused him with gasoline and tried to ignite him. Bye-bye, Gary. At McClintock High School in Tempe, also the alma mater of offensive left tackle John Tait, Johnson became an all-state volleyball player and was offered Division I scholarships in that sport, but he turned them down for a football scholarship to the University of Washington, figuring his physical attributes translated more effectively to the gridiron. “Tank is a version of Tommie as an inside pass rusher,” Angelo says. “That’s the hardest thing for an inside guy to do-pass rush. Normally they’re good run-stopping players, but getting a pass rush from the inside is very, very difficult.”
Alex Brown was one of the most heavily decorated defensive players in college football history. In each of his final three seasons at the University of Florida, he was All-American, All–Southeast Conference, and a semifinalist for the Lombardi Award, given annually to the country’s top offensive or defensive lineman. He established a school record with 33 sacks. But the six-foot-three, 260-pound defensive end was not drafted until the fourth round in 2002, the 104th overall selection. It was a slap in the face, and it was delivered because too many teams questioned Brown’s work ethic. They believed that he had coasted through college on extraordinary natural ability, and they worried that he wouldn’t pay the price to excel at the next level.
Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera believes Brown got a bad rap coming out of Florida. “He’s got one of the best work ethics I’ve ever seen,” Rivera says. “He practices 100 percent. Sure, he gripes and grouses about having to come out and practice, but he does everything 100 miles per hour.”
In reality, few players in recent years have worked harder to succeed in the NFL. By the halfway point of this season, Brown had started 56 straight games. In each of the previous three seasons he either led the Bears’ linemen in tackles or was second. After ten games this season he was far ahead of his defensive linemates with 33 tackles, fourth best on the team.
The draft continues to pay off for the defensive line. In 2006, the Bears used the fifth round to steal Mark Anderson, an undersized (six-four, 255) defensive end. After ten weeks of the season, he had racked up eight and a half sacks, breaking the Bears’ rookie record of eight by Urlacher in 2000, even though he was primarily a backup used to relieve Brown and Ogunleye.
Overall, the Bears’ defensive line is significantly smaller than the NFL average (279 pounds to 289), and that’s by design. Coach Lovie Smith and defensive coordinator Rivera place a premium on speed-on getting all 11 players to the point of attack as quickly as possible. Even tackles Harris and Johnson (six-three, 300) are freakishly fast for their size. Harris routinely defeated wide receiver Mark Bradley in 15- and 20-yard dashes when they were teammates at Oklahoma, and Bradley is faster than most other NFL wide receivers. Johnson ran a 4.74-second 40-yard dash at the 2004 scouting combine, the fastest time by any interior lineman.
Angelo’s very first draft pick in Chicago was offensive tackle Marc Colombo, and two rounds later he selected another offensive lineman, Terrence Metcalf, currently the team’s top backup at the three interior positions. Colombo epitomized the events that forced Angelo to shop extensively in the free-agent market to find the ingredients for what has become one of the NFL’s better offensive lines. Colombo broke into the starting lineup in the second half of his rookie season in 2002 but soon suffered a dislocated kneecap that forced him to spend more than two grueling years rehabilitating. When it became evident Colombo would never be the player he had been, the Bears finally gave up and released him.
Rex Tucker, the left guard on the Bears’ 13-3 team of 2001, suffered a string of season-ending injuries beginning in the 2002 season, and left tackle Mike Gandy, a starter in 2002 and 2003, was plagued by injuries and inconsistency. All three players rebounded to earn starting positions on other teams this year, but none is playing at a level high enough to crack the Bears’ lineup. The Bears tried for a while to plug the holes created by those injuries with a variety of stopgap journeymen but had little success.
So Angelo went shopping. After the 2003 season, he pursued Tait, a restricted free agent right tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs who had been a first-round draft choice (14th overall) in 1999. Angelo presented Tait with a six-year, $33.5-million offer, which his old team declined to match, making him a Bear. Less than a month later, the Bears got a bargain when they signed left guard Ruben Brown for $4.5 million over three years after he was released in a cost-cutting move by the Buffalo Bills. Brown had just been voted to his eighth straight Pro Bowl, but he was already 32 and not a major player in Buffalo’s rebuilding plan. Brown is no longer a Pro Bowl player, but he has been a valuable addition and steadying influence.
The Bears’ offense was still a disaster in 2004-Lovie Smith’s rookie season-and a weak link at left tackle was one of the biggest factors. In a move typical of the selflessness of most offensive linemen, Tait offered to shift from right tackle to the more difficult left side (the side that protects the back of a right-handed quarterback and that matches up against most of the league’s best pass rushers). That helped, but it left a void at right tackle.
So Angelo opened the Bears’ wallet again, and the final two pieces of the puzzle arrived within two weeks of each other in March 2005. First Angelo signed 31-year-old right tackle Fred Miller to a five-year, $22.5-million contract, including a $6-million bonus. Miller had been released by the Tennessee Titans in another cost-cutting move. Thirteen days later, the Bears acquired Roberto Garza for just $900,000 for one year. Although he had been an off-and-on starter for the Atlanta Falcons, Garza had a history of knee injuries. He started four games at left guard and three at right guard in his rookie season with the Bears, and he won the starting right guard spot from Metcalf in training camp this year, soon after he had been rewarded with a six-year, $14-million contract extension that included a $4-million bonus.
Garza is one of just 19 Latino players in the league, and he was one of only four NFL players selected this year as an off-the-field champion by the United Way. Every December 2nd is Roberto Garza Day in his tiny hometown of Rio Hondo, Texas (population 2,000), just this side of the Mexican border, where his parents live on the street named in his honor.
The one constant on the offensive line has been Kreutz, whose toughness and team-first attitude make him the epitome of the guy you want on your side in a fight. Or put it another way: You wouldn’t want to be on the other side. At six feet two and 292 pounds, this Honolulu native is known for his short temper-twice he has broken the jaws of teammates with a not-so-nice Hawaiian punch in the face. It happened once in college at the University of Washington and once last year, when Kreutz and Miller tangled at an FBI shooting range during a team outing on an off day. Miller ended up with his jaw wired shut. Kreutz didn’t escape unscathed-he wore a 13-stitch gash in his head, courtesy of a five-pound weight delivered by Miller.
At first, the two players cooked up a story-a soufflé about Miller falling at night at home and hitting his face on a table. That concoction quickly fell. For the first time in seven years, Miller missed a start; but the next week, with his jaw still wired shut, he started against the Carolina Panthers’ Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers, one of the league’s best pass rushers. Peppers did not get a sack; he didn’t even make a tackle when matched against Miller.
Drafted in the third round in 1998, two months before he turned 21, Kreutz has spent his professional career with the Bears. As a free agent in 2002, after his first Pro Bowl selection, Kreutz was offered $26 million over six years by the Miami Dolphins, but he chose to stay with the Bears for $23 million. At the time, critics questioned why the Bears would pay a center-even an excellent one-so much money. True, the center is the captain of the offensive line, and he makes all the blocking calls and the adjustments based on what the defense shows; he needs to know the most about what’s going on, and he’s got to be a coach on the field. But traditionally, the big bucks for offensive linemen have gone to left tackles.
On November 1st, Kreutz signed a three-year, $17.5-million contract extension that included $9 million in guaranteed money and made the Bears’ perennial Pro Bowl center the focus of attention. He’d rather be at the eye of a storm or a brawl than forced to talk about himself, but there are plenty of others in the organization willing to sing his praises. “It starts with the talent,” says Jerry Angelo. “Assuming that his play stays at this level and he continues to stay healthy, he should be out in that [Halas Hall] lobby, on that Hall of Fame wall.”
But it wasn’t just productivity on the field that made the Bears want to extend the 29-year-old veteran’s contract a year and a half before his previous deal was scheduled to expire. “Just as important are the intangibles he brings to our team,” Angelo says. “That’s what we see each and every day that you don’t get a chance to see, and when we see it, we’re going to reward it.” He concludes, “When you think of our offensive line, you think of Olin.”
Weighing an average 305 pounds, the Bears’ offensive line is somewhat lighter than the typical NFL front wall (312 pounds). Tait and Miller, like most NFL tackles, are taller, rangier, and more athletic than their interior linemates, capable of defending a broader area. Guards like Garza (six feet two, 305 pounds) and Brown (six-three, 300) and centers like Kreutz (six-two, 292) are more squat and powerful-most of their work is done in a limited area.
And the incident at the shooting range? It had the potential to destroy the cohesive working relationship of a group that must function seamlessly. But the unit has flourished. Both players have accepted blame, taken their punishment in the form of fines from the NFL, and gone about the business of fueling the offense. Miller and Kreutz are not best friends, but they are able to work together for the good of the team. “Things got out of hand,” Kreutz said shortly after the truth came out. “I don’t know if it’ll ever be completely gone, but we’re over it. The team is the number-one thing, and we’re going to try to move on.”
Though Miller got the worst of it, afterwards he was the more apologetic player. “I’d like to apologize to Olin, my teammates, and my family,” he said at the time. “I realize that this was something very stupid on both our parts, and it’s not going to happen again.”
“The guys that we have here are guys who believe in each other,” Garza says. “We stick together. You see us walking around. We’re always together. We’re always hanging out and doing things together, and that’s what being an offensive lineman is: being part of the group.”
Angelo points out that continuity is vital to an offensive line, and the Bears’ linemen have now been together two years-above average for the NFL. “On defense, a guy can have a bad game, and you can still have a good game with the defensive line,” Angelo says. “On offense, if one of the linemen has a bad game, he affects the other four.”
The difference can be subtle, but you can see it on the sidelines during a game. Players mill around, pacing, chatting, and joking. The offensive linemen do all of that, too, but they do it as a group. They’re always within a few feet of each other, the starters, backups, inactives, and infirm. They speak the same language, and they have the same goal, to work as five finely tuned pieces of the same machine.
On the defensive line, the players operate more individually and feed off each other, on and off the field. When Ogunleye returned for the 49ers game after a two-game absence because of a hamstring injury, it was as if Harris had gotten his security blanket back. No longer could offenses continually double-team him. He responded with a fumble recovery and a 17-yard return that set up a Bears touchdown. “Tommie picked up that fumble, and he’s kind of into the karma thing,” Ogunleye says. “So with me in there, he feels like there’s always good karma. I’m glad to get back for Tommie.”
THE DEFENSIVE LINE
Adewale Ogunleye Height: 6’4” Weight: 260 Age: 29
Tommie Harris Height: 6’3” Weight: 295 Age: 23
Tank Johnson Height: 6’3” Weight: 300 Age: 24
Alex Brown Height: 6’3” Weight: 260 Age: 27
Position: Left end
Position: Nose tackle
Position: Right end
Key Duty: Left ends are usually the stronger run defender of the two ends; Ogunleye is that, but is also the Bears’ best pass rusher.
Key Duty: Uses size and strength to stop the run, but also quickness to create havoc in backfield
Key Duty: Strongest run defender on the line, and as such must endure the most double-team blocks on run plays
Key Duty: Rushes (righthanded) quarterbacks’ blind side; Brown is also solid in stopping the run.
Fact: Has ninth most sacks in NFL over previous four seasons, even though not drafted out of college following knee surgery
Fact: In May, helped former NFL players build school for orphanage in a war-ravaged area of Liberia
Fact: Sports a tattoo of the state of Indiana on his calf, even though he moved from there to Arizona as a child to escape a dangerous neighborhood
Fact: Owns a men’s pro volleyball team in Puerto Rico called Indios de Mayagüez
THE OFFENSIVE LINE
John Tait Height: 6’6” Weight: 312 Age: 31
Ruben Brown Height: 6’3” Weight: 300 Age: 34
Olin Kreutz Height: 6’2” Weight: 292 Age: 29
Roberto Garza Height: 6’2” Weight: 305 Age: 27
Fred Miller Height: 6’7” Weight: 314 Age: 33
Position: Left tackle
Position: Left guard
Position: Right guard
Key Duty:Protects quarterback’s blind side from what is usually the opponent’s best past rusher
Key Duty:Must possess excellent strength to overpower tackles weighing 300-plus pounds and open up holes for running backs
Key Duty:Leader of the line; calls all blocking assignments for offensive linemen
Key Duty:Drive-blocking in the rushing game, since Bears, like most teams, favor the right side when running the football
Key Duty:Uses agility to fend off pass-rushing defensive ends and strength to overpower opponents in running game
Fact: His 28-yard gain after a lateral in 2002 is the longest run by an NFL offensive lineman in the past 36 years.
Fact: In 2001, founded the Ruben Brown Motorcycle Run, which provides funds for the Salvation Army
Fact: Was statewide high-school heavyweight wrestling champ in Hawaii; just 20 years old when drafted by the bears in 1998
Fact: One of 19 Latino players in the NFL; was elected to the National Honor Society at Rio Hondo High School, in Texas
Fact: Had missed just two starts in nine years, starting 135 of 137 games as of midseason