BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The absence of free-agent center Olin Kreutz played a role Friday in some interesting looks along the offensive line once the Bears took part in their first practice of training camp.
Offensive line coach Mike Tice calls it tinkering, admitting the team’s Bourbonnais Shuffle up front won’t and can't last.
“I don’t want to tinker too much,” he said. “I have a couple of days to let them get their legs underneath them, maybe tinker a little bit. But then we’ve got to go.”
The plan, Tice says, is to identify the starting offensive line much more quickly than last season. And by the looks of the team’s moves thus far in free agency, help might not be on the way for this unit that gave up a league high in sacks last year, subjecting quarterback Jay Cutler to enough punishment to be forced out of a total of eight quarters with injuries.
In addition to the absence of Kreutz (who is trying to negotiate a new contract, but hasn’t made any progress) rules of the new collective bargaining agreement prevented the Bears from starting training camp with the starting offensive line they originally planned.
The club planned to open camp with Edwin Williams, the backup center, as the starter in Kreutz’s absence. But because Williams was a restricted free agent who just resigned with the team, rules of the new CBA prevent him from practicing with the team until Thursday. So with Williams out, Tice moved veteran guard Roberto Garza -- originally expected to start camp at his normal right guard spot -- to center.
Frank Omiyale worked with the starters at left tackle, while J’Marcus Webb manned the right side. Chris Williams and Lance Louis worked with the starters at guard. First-round pick Gabe Carimi worked with the second stringers at left tackle.
Chris Williams also spent time working Friday at center. Tice explained that the team planned to take a look at Williams, a former first-round pick as a tackle, at center as a potential future replacement for Kreutz.
Tice spoke to Bears coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo and offensive coordinator Mike Martz about his plans for the line, and all were on board with it.
But Tice added that “they don’t want to dabble too much.” The looks the team showed out on the field came as a result of a plan thrown together at the last minute because of Kreutz’s situation and the team finding out that Edwin Williams wouldn’t be allowed to practice until Aug. 4.
“The problem last year was I didn’t know what anyone could do. I know what eight or nine guys can do right now,” Tice said. “I don’t know how athletic Carimi is yet to decide, ‘OK, leave him alone on the left’ or move him over to the right and switch [him] and J’Marcus. The issue I’m running into is not having an offseason, you feel a little less aggressive as far as making a move.”
The finalization of the offensive line will soon come, though.
Tice said that Chris Williams played snaps at center because A) the team has long wanted to start making contingency plans for the departure of Kreutz, and B) “we have to develop depth one way or another with veteran guys. You can’t develop the depth with the first day with your two [undrafted rookie] free agent centers. Obviously, it hurt a little bit with the new rules, not having Eddie [Edwin Williams], who has played center and was our backup center. He can’t take any plays, so we had to come up with a plan on the go a couple of days ago, and that was the plan we came out with.”
As expected, the Bears experienced “a couple of center exchange issues with Chris,” who interestingly is left handed.
In the coming days, though, look for Tice to start making more lasting moves along the offensive line. There’s a chance -- based on the team’s moves so far -- that help along the line won’t be coming until next week at the earliest.
So Tice needs to work his magic with what he’s got on the roster right now.
“I feel like I’ve always felt,” he said. “The way I can get them better is to coach them better. You can draft more players. We did that. You can bring in free agents. To this point, we have not. Other than that., I’m not sure there are any other ways to get them better.”
The likelihood of Kreutz not returning only complicates matters for a unit that could be soon without its veteran leader. Asked specifically whether the line could improve over 2010 without an infusion of new talent, Tice never hesitated, saying, “soon to be determined.”
Turning to walk away, the coach smiled and looked back, offering one last pearl of wisdom with a joking wink.
“That’s why they pay me the big bucks.”