Quick-study Garza at center of storm
August, 9, 2011
By Michael C. Wright | ESPNChicago.com
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRobert Garza is trying to learn the center position as quickly as possible in camp.BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Roberto Garza plans to channel his inner-Olin in taking over at center this season, as the new leader for the Chicago Bears most scrutinized position group heading into Saturday's preseason opener against the Buffalo Bills.
In doing so, Garza says he'll lean on lessons learned from six years of playing alongside recently departed Olin Kreutz, while continuing the standard of accountability established by his former comrade.
"Olin's always been the guy, and I've always just sat back and watched what he's done. I'm trying to do things the way he's done by trying to make the guys around you better," Garza said. "He's played so much football and has so much knowledge.
"Luckily, for me, I got a chance to play with him and learn from him. Now is the time for me to share that knowledge and everything he taught me, and try to continue his leadership role on the offensive line."
It won't be easy. Ten days into training camp, offensive line coach Mike Tice boldly declared his starting five of Garza at center, Chris Williams and Lance Louis at left and right guard and J'Marcus Webb at left tackle and rookie first rounder Gabe Carimi manning the right-tackle spot.
Although he's started just one game at center throughout his 11-year career, it's up to Garza to orchestrate cohesion within this group.
"There's some anxiety there for Roberto. He's only started one game at center in his career," Tice said. "At first, I don't know that he was totally embracing it. But he's such a team player that he's going to do what we ask him to do."
Prior to making the decision to move on without Kreutz, the Bears spoke with Garza about the possibility of moving to center. But Tice misread Garza's reaction to the move as trepidation.
The truth is Garza never expected Kreutz to leave.
"I thought Olin was coming back. I didn't think that was gonna even be an issue," Garza said. "He's moved on, [and we] wish him the best. Now, that's a role that I'm gonna be playing. I have to go out there and perform and do my job to the best of my abilities."
Tice admitted that Garza lacks Kreutz's awareness and chemistry with quarterback Jay Cutler. But with the regular season closing in, Garza will have to develop some of those attributes quickly, Tice said.
"Roberto has given me a lot of good advice lately, and he really seems like a good leader on this team," Carimi said. "It seems like we're really getting it."
For Cutler's sake, hopefully that's the case.
The Bears changed the lineup on the offensive line five times last season in the first eight games. Bears coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo and Tice wanted to avoid a similar situation this season.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRoberto Garza learned a lot from Olin Kreutz, but he didn't expect to replace him this season.
"We're getting a great evaluation of our offensive line," Smith said. "We have an idea [of how the line will look in the regular-season opener against Atlanta], but we'll continue to let it work itself out."
It's worth noting that after the lineup change in 2010, the Bears still gave up 25 more sacks, and enter this season with a group that has a combined 16 starts at their current positions. So regardless of how anyone on the coaching staff paints it, the situation is cause for concern.
Interestingly, Williams is the only player with extensive experience (11 starts) at his current position.
"We still have to go out and prove it, and we'll get our first opportunity on Saturday against the Bills. Obviously, this group of guys has been working together, and we feel comfortable with each other," Garza said. "Going out on the field live in front of the fans, [and] the opposing team is when the real character of a guy comes out. So we'll see. I have all the trust in the guys I've been playing with. Those guys have been working hard every single day, getting better every day and that's where it starts."
The team brought in Chris Spencer as the potential replacement for Kreutz, signing him to a $6 million contract over two years. Spencer took Tice's announcement in stride, saying all he could do was "be prepared for when they call my number."
So there's a backup plan if Garza doesn't pan out or the line "falters", as Tice termed it. The new center just hopes Tice won't have to implement it.
"At guard, I was spoiled. Olin made everything. So now, it's on my shoulders to go out there and get everybody squared away," Garza said. "It's a learning process as well. I have to go out there and continue to learn and see some of the looks at center that I haven't seen from playing guard. We have all the film from last year to build off of. Obviously it's still early, and we've still got to go out and prove that we're gonna be a good offensive line."