NEW ORLEANS -- Seven combined starts in 2010 provided ample opportunity for Chicago Bears backup offensive linemen Lance Louis and Edwin Williams to assert themselves as favorites in Operation Rebuild 2011 along the offensive line.
Unfortunately, though, the duo failed to deliver when called upon, according to Bears coach Lovie Smith.
“If you just be a team player, eventually, you’re gonna really get a chance to prove whether you can play or not, and you need to take advantage of your opportunity,” Smith said. “Lance hasn’t taken advantage of his opportunity. Edwin did not take advantage of his opportunity, or hasn’t taken advantage of the opportunity yet. We still like those guys. They’re young players that are in the system.”
Which isn’t necessarily the place either would like to be heading into 2011 considering the team has stated adamantly that it’s in desperate need of a makeover. The offensive line allowed a league-high 56 sacks on Bears quarterbacks Jay Cutler, Caleb Hanie and Todd Collins with the unit going through five combinations of starters through the first eight games.
Louis entered last season as the starter at right guard, and started the first four games before bruising his left knee during a brutal performance against the New York Giants in which Cutler suffered a concussion as a result of absorbing an NFL-record nine sacks in the first half.
Williams replaced Louis and started the next three games before losing his spot to Roberto Garza, who moved from the left side to the right after missing two games because of arthroscopic knee surgery.
The ineffectiveness of Louis and Williams in starting stints doesn’t necessarily relegate them to backup roles for the rest of their tenures with the team. But having already seen how Louis and Williams performed under fire in 2010, the Bears will explore elsewhere first before coming back to the duo in their search for pieces in the rebuilding effort up front.
Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo both said they have an idea of how they would like the Bears' offensive line to look in 2011. But Angelo pointed out all the “moving parts” associated with the acquisition of talent brought about by the NFL lockout, which has put free agency on hold until there’s a new collective bargaining agreement.
Without the opportunity to deal in free agency now, the Bears might be forced to replenish talent for the offensive line by rebuilding through the draft, which is a shaky proposition. Smith said the Bears typically begin the offseason conditioning program shortly after they return from the NFL owners meetings, which wrapped up on Tuesday. During that time, players would normally be at the facility working out, watching film, and building the camaraderie necessary for cohesion at positions such as the offensive line.
There’s also the possibility of players hindering any attempt to rebuild up front by reporting to the team after the lockout out of shape. Smith and offensive line coach Mike Tice said they are not worried about such a prospect.
"Chris Williams has been all over the offensive line. J’Marcus [Webb] has a little flexibility of whether he can play left [tackle] or right [tackle]. [Starting left tackle] Frank Omiyale: same thing, [as well as] Roberto Garza. They’ve all played across. We just have to see what the total group looks like first. That’s an area that we’ve said that we would like to improve.”
Firming up the ever-shifting offensive line is an offseason project in itself, especially with regard to Chris Williams, a former first-rounder who was drafted to be the left tackle of the future, but wound up starting 11 regular-season games last season at right guard.
Smith wants to find a permanent position for Chris Williams, and admitted that although he played well on occasion, the left guard battled frustrating spurts of inconsistency.
“One of the offseason projects is just really working and trying to figure out exactly where to play him and try to get him there,” Smith said. “I’m not running away from the question, but he made progress; did some good things last year. We liked some of the things he was able to do. Chris would be the first one to tell you there were other times when the play wasn’t as good as it needed to be. I’m anxious to see Chris go through an entire season healthy, and hopefully have him in the same spot. That’s the plan.”
Of course as the team continues to demonstrate, that could change based on talent acquisition through the draft and free agency, and whether the Bears can retain their own players. Smith said the team would like to re-sign veteran center Olin Kreutz, an unrestricted free agent, while Angelo seemed a bit non-committal about the notion.
Angelo said Louis and Williams both possessed the skill set to possibly play center, which might mean yet another shot for the duo that seemingly squandered its opportunities in 2010. The team also will need to determine what to do at the tackle spots with right tackle Webb -- who Smith said is talented enough to switch to the left side -- and left tackle Frank Omiyale, an aging veteran who was also inconsistent in 2010.
“I just want to make sure everything plays itself out as we go through these periods of allocating players that we get the five best players on the field,” Angelo said. “Anybody who’s in this business and understands personnel, it’s every bit about the continuity and the five players playing together. It’s as critical as the talent of the five players themselves. I’m not underscoring talent; that’s very important. The goal is to get your five talented players playing at the same time. That’s what we want to do.”
Smith echoed that sentiment, while expressing uncertainty about the look of the 2011 Bears offensive line. All everyone associated with the Bears organization knows is the unit needs to perform much better for Cutler to cash on his immense physical skills to take Mike Martz’s potentially explosive offense to new heights in Year 2 of the team’s foray into the system.
“We don’t know for sure what the group will look like,” Smith said. “If you just say, ‘Hey, you guys went with this group’, but you know, unless you’re talking about [linebacker] Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler and [defensive end] Julius Peppers, it’s pretty hard for me to tell you exactly, and [have] you hold me to it [about] where they’re gonna play. That’s the exciting part about the offseason: putting those pieces together to get that best group.”