Without Kreutz, Bears soft at center

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- The prevailing belief was that of course
Olin Kreutz would be here. Under contract. In Bourbonnais. Joshing with the fellas and needling reporters, just like old times.

If not last Wednesday, when the core guys started trickling in, then surely soon after, good ol' Olin leading his teammates in the meeting room and exhorting them from the sideline until next Thursday, when veteran free agents can begin practice.

Instead, the Bears' braintrust has fumbled again and in epic fashion, in all likelihood losing the team's 15-year veteran center and leaving a gaping hole in its offense because of a stunning combination of arrogance and ignorance.

ESPNChicago.com reported Saturday night that Kreutz has texted goodbyes to teammates after negotiations that were never really serious broke down entirely.

Kreutz's Chicago-based agent, Mark Bartelstein, confirmed that while Kreutz does not have a deal with any other team, it is unlikely that Kreutz will return to Chicago.

"He's always wanted to make a deal with the Bears. But right now, it doesn't look like it's going to happen," Bartelstein said.

It is another black mark on the record of Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, this one with potential far-reaching implications.

This is the kind of move that not only affects the team on the field but sends a resounding shudder of distrust in a locker room filled with players loyal to Kreutz, reliant on his leadership.

The Bears put themselves in this situation by not addressing his contract sooner and by failing to address the anchor spot on the offensive line despite more than enough advance notice that their center has not been getting any younger.

On Friday, coach Lovie Smith said the Bears have "gone through a facelift on offense." Presumably, he was referring to the addition of receivers Roy Williams and Sam Hurd, tackle Gabe Carimi, their first-round draft pick, and veteran tight end Matt Spaeth while trading Greg Olsen.

"I like how we look right now," Smith said.

Really? For an offense, and specifically the offensive line, that was consistently the weak link on the team last season?

The Bears did appear to make a strong effort in going after tackle Willie Colon, who missed all of last season with an Achilles injury but had been the Steelers' starting right tackle for three years prior. But Colon opted to stay in Pittsburgh despite the fact that the Bears offered $3 million more over the life of the contract than the Steelers offered, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Any additions now will be for someone else's discards. And on Saturday, there was Roberto Garza, the Bears' starting right guard, snapping the ball to Jay Cutler in the Bears' first practice. That's because Garza, who has not played center in a regular-season game since 2005 and started there only once (10 years ago), is the only feasible backup they have at the position.

Garza, who moved to right guard midway through last season as the line finally started to focus on the run and consequently show some improvement, said all the right things Saturday. But the situation is not exactly conducive to building the sort of stability that will be crucial this season if the Bears' offense is to hold its own.

"Obviously with Olin being as durable as he is, I haven't had to [play center], which makes it good for me," Garza said. "I've been able to focus on guard. But I have to do what I have to do."

The Bears are now down a six-time Pro Bowl center and a solid veteran right guard. The backup to Garza? Edwin Williams, an upbeat 24-year-old and undrafted free agent of the Washington Redskins whose only pro experience has been at guard. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice likes Williams but he's also clearly not ready to start.

At age 34, no one including Kreutz himself believed he was the player he once was. But having played through numerous injuries that would sideline others, Kreutz finished last season healthy, is coming off a presumably restful offseason and there is no reason to think his play will drop off this year.

The longest tenured Bear along with Patrick Mannelly after last season, Kreutz's career should not be held up as the best example of how to exercise leverage. In 2002, Kreutz returned to Chicago after passing up an offer of $3 million more to play for Miami.

That same year, Kreutz added to his already burgeoning legend as tough guy by playing through an attack of appendicitis before undergoing surgery the next day, then returning to the field 10 days later, not long after his sutures were removed.

Talking about Kreutz's leadership has almost become cliché. But it's a big mistake not to take that seriously.

"In this locker room," Kyle Orton once said, "if you have the approval of Olin, everybody will take you in."

Kreutz loves Chicago, wanted to retire here and never tried to hide it. He also is married with four children, another reason he did not want to pull up stakes. Apparently, they were only more reasons for the Bears to take it for granted he would return, lowball offer or not.

"He's the glue up there up front," said Cutler on Friday, one of 18 Bears starting quarterbacks to have taken a snap from Kreutz. "He's a guy I'd love to have but I don't make those decisions, so we'll have to roll with what we have."

Apparently, whether what they have is adequate or not.

"It would be a tough position to fill," Garza said. "His leadership, his skills, what he brings to his team. He makes everyone around him better and hopefully we don't have to go through that. He means a lot to the guys who play with him. ...

"We're a better football team with him."

And now they're a worse team without him.

Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.