As far as left-tackle competitions go, the intrigue surrounding the Chicago Bears' is as good as it gets.
It's been apparent for weeks that the Bears wanted third-year player J'Marcus Webb to win the job of protecting quarterback Jay Cutler's blind side. The Bears strengthened that notion recently by assigning Webb's chief competitor, Chris Williams, to work as the second-team right tackle.
Bears coach Lovie Smith and offensive coordinator Mike Tice have refused to name a winner of the battle, even if Webb is the only combatant at this point. And so it was notable that Webb played longer than any other starter Thursday night in the Bears' preseason debut, playing into the fourth quarter as both the first-, second- an third-team left tackle.
So what gives here?
Left tackles, as they say, don't grow on trees. It's highly unlikely the Bears could find an upgrade outside of the organization before the start of the regular season. They appear to have discarded Williams as all but an emergency possibility. The strong likelihood is that Webb will be the Bears' Week 1 left tackle.
So why embarrass him by going against typical NFL practice and leaving him in the game so long after his peers departed? Having covered Tice during his tenure as the Minnesota Vikings' coach, I took it as a pure mind game, one that would create the impression of a tenuous situation when in reality there is none -- while also telling Webb he hasn't yet earned the job yet. Tice and the Bears are trying to light a fire under Webb, I would guess, in hopes of spurring him to elevate and grab it rather than merely accept it.
Consider it the mental version of teaching a defensive player to strike when he makes a tackle rather than catching and absorbing the ball carrier.
Mind games are to be used with great care at the professional level, where many players view them as unnecessary and demeaning. Webb might be the exception. Given the importance of his position, and their lack of options, the Bears better be right.