Long will become the first starting rookie right guard in a Chicago Bears season opener during the Super Bowl era. The duo of Long and Mills will insure the team starts multiple rookies at any position in an opener since 1998. The fact that they will play side by side makes it even more remarkable.
The reality, though, is that this type of history will be made at the moment of the first offensive snap, which means the accomplishments, technically, will be sealed before either makes contact on an NFL field for the first time. In that sense, neither wants it to go down as their shining moment.
“I try not to focus on that kind of stuff,” Long said Wednesday. “It’s really good trivia and everything and a good tidbit to know, but right now I’m so focused on who to block on inside zone right. That stuff is far more important to me at this point.”
While Mills is equally focused on the gameplan, he knows there will be other elements also at work on the first drive of the season.
“The first series is to get the nervous jitters out of the way,” Mills said. “The veterans are veterans for a reason. They know the feeling already. For us, we’re coming into a new league, a different tempo. You just want to get those jitters out of the way with the first hit, the first drive, and after that, it should be smooth sailing.”
Well, there is the matter of a Cincinnati Bengals defense that emerged as one of the league’s best last season. The Bengals set a franchise record with 51 sacks and 43 of those were contributed by the defensive line. Defensive tackle Geno Atkins and his 12.5 sacks, leading all NFL interior linemen, have the attention of the Bears rookies.
“You grow up watching Geno Atkins, so to get the opportunity to play against him will be a real test,” Long said. “The whole defensive line will be lining up against him a lot. It will be a good opportunity. Luckily we have great guys that we practice against every day and it gets us ready to good for Sundays.”
Mills admits that the entire Bengals defense has players to admire, from Atkins to Carlos Dunlap to Michael Johnson to Rey Maualuga, but on Sunday, anyway, he won’t be interested in getting any autographs.
“Like the veterans tell us all the time, they are great players but you’re here for a reason too,” Mills said. “Just sit back, watch, be patient, let the game come to you and you’ll be fine.”
Veteran center Roberto Garza has been key in reassuring the baby Bears, and if he’s concerned about the offensive line’s inexperience, he isn’t admitting it. He’s been impressed by their willingness to learn.
“They are eager to pick things up and they want to go over things over and over again until we get it right,” Garza said. “Both guys are very talented and we’re looking forward to seeing them on Sunday.”
The unprecedented shuffle on the line isn’t lost on him, though.
“I’ve never been around when there has been a complete change like that before, but fortunately for us we have a lot of great guys that came in: Matt Slauson and (Jermon Bushrod and obviously the young guys,” Garza said. “A lot of guys came in but the offensive line guys work hard and they fit in very well. We’re fortunate we have a lot of good guys who know how to work and prepare for a game. It makes for an easier transition.”
And if anybody else is anxious about the transition, the chatty Long and the even chattier Martellus Bennett at tight end are trying to keep things light.
“I think they’re doing a great job,” Bennett said of the rookies. “Jordan does a great job communicating and Kyle does a real good job communicating. I’m right next to them a lot and I over-communicate as you can probably tell. I’m in their ear all the time even reassuring the calls, ‘Hey you have this, we have this. What are you doing? What is your call?’
“Just make sure we’re talking all the time so we’re on the same page. Sometimes I’ll ask them questions where (Mills will say), ‘Oh no, me and Kyle got this.’ So I ask them questions all the time and I think they like it.”
Keeping those lines of communication will be key, especially when the Bengals start showing looks they didn’t reveal in the preseason.
“I would think communication is always key no matter if they are rookies or not. Just being on the same page … and doing the plays exactly as they are called and doing the technique we work on day in and day out is key for all of us,” Garza said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a rookie or a longtime veteran. Doing your job exactly how it’s supposed to be done is the key to being successful.”
So at 34 and the oldest offensive starter, is Garza starting to feel like a father figure when he’s on the field?
“I wouldn’t call myself a father figure,” he said. “not to those guys.”
Perhaps that, as much as anything, shows that the Bears aren’t looking at their rookie offensive lineman as a couple of kids.