BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- After landing Sunday evening at Midway Airport and hopping on I-57 South, I looked at the clock and realized, I can make it for the end of the Chicago Bears' evening practice. So I stepped on the gas (just a bit, Illinois State Police) and got some bonus time with the Bears ahead of the scheduled start of my training camp visit.
I'm glad I did, because I got a chance to hear Bears offensive line coach Mike Tice declare his starting offensive line. Such news won't get people excited in many NFL cities, but in Chicago it might be one of the most important decisions of the summer. Remembering that all NFL teams are fluid in the first month of August, here is the lineup Tice insisted he is ready to move forward with:
Left tackle: J'Marcus Webb
Left guard: Chris Williams
Center: Roberto Garza
Right guard: Lance Louis
Right tackle: Gabe Carimi
Tice isn't a wishy-washy person. You wouldn't expect him to say, "this guy might be my left guard, or it could be that guy. I don't know. I haven't made up my mind." Tice is an old-school football coach who craves structure and believes that players do, too. The Bears emerged from the lockout without a clear starter at any of their five line positions, and that doesn't cut if for a Type A personality.
At the same time, it's important to note that structure can change at any time, as long as it leads to another definitive structure. So for that reason, I wouldn't necessarily go to Las Vegas with this lineup.
The best way to view Sunday's announcement is that this is the combination Tice wants to start. He said Sunday that "there is no competition," and I believe him. Most revealing is his initial unwillingness to turn over Olin Kreutz's center position to newcomer Chris Spencer -- who won't get into the starting lineup unless current center Roberto Garza, Williams or Louis are injured or, in Tice's word, falters.
There are two factors in play at center. First, Tice trusts Garza to play the position and wants him in the starting lineup somewhere. Second, Tice has been trying for two years to get Louis into the starting lineup on a permanent basis.
Sunday, Tice said Louis is an "elite pass blocker." Spencer is "coming along nicely," Tice said, but he made clear that Garza will be on the field as a starter in some capacity in 2011. So at this point, Tice likes the combination of Garza-Louis more than Spencer-Garza, if that makes sense. If anything, you wonder if Williams' starting job would be in jeopardy if Spencer progresses to the point where he is one of the Bears' top five linemen.
As for the tackle position, Tice addressed one of the questions we spent the spring discussing: How best to fill the tackle positions? Not everyone in the NFL believes Webb is equipped to be a left tackle, but Tice considers him the best-equipped of those available to him. Here is Tice's take on it: "J'Marcus is a better athlete. Gabe is obviously an elite run blocker. ... To me, you want your little-bit-of-a-better athlete on the left side. I think they're both doing well."
Tice has been known to use bold public statements to motivate players, but in this case I think he and the Bears are really searching for some quick continuity following two unexpected late-summer developments: The departure of Kreutz and the failure to acquire a starting-caliber lineman other than Spencer.
To succeed early this season, the Bears know they can't have a summer of personnel shuffling on the offensive line.
"I have five guys in there starting," Tice said. "Unless they falter, that's the five guys that are opening the season against Atlanta. Right now, I'm not seeing those guys falter. What I'm seeing right now is improvement every day... If something happens in the [preseason opener] against Buffalo, if someone doesn't step up to the plate because of the added pressure of a game ... then maybe we look at some things.
"Right now, I don't see that and I don't feel that."
Consider the starting five written in slow-drying ink. The Bears hope to maintain this lineup, but aren't foolish enough to lock it down quite yet.