BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- In this era of the NFL, most training camp competitions can be placed into one of two categories. Sometimes the winner can be preordained, either by a player's status or a coach's preference. Other times, a camp battle is an admission that the team has no credible option at the position.
Our job is to figure out where to place the Chicago Bears' ostensible competition at left tackle, a position important enough to scuttle the Bears' Super Bowl hopes if they make a bad decision. J'Marcus Webb opened the Bears' first training camp practice with the first team, and my strong impression after spending some time here Thursday is that he is the favorite for the job.
Offensive coordinator Mike Tice strongly disputed that notion after practice, saying that Webb and Chris Williams will split time with the first team throughout training camp. Tice said it will be a "dogfight" and added: "I'm not going to put up with any crap from those two guys as far as turning guys free and having them hit the quarterback."
Please understand that all of this represents an educated opinion based on watching Tice operate for more than a decade, beginning when he was the Minnesota Vikings' offensive line coach. I think Tice takes great pride in identifying and cultivating little-known offensive linemen, whether it was Vikings center Matt Birk (a sixth-round draft pick) or guard David Dixon (a former practice squad player). Webb, a seventh-round pick in 2010, fits that mold. Williams, drafted in the first round two years before Tice arrived in Chicago, does not.
If I had to guess, I would say Williams' role in this competition is to ensure Webb does not take the position for granted. Tice didn't tell me that or even hint at it, but it's worth noting what he said when I asked him why he is working so closely with the offensive line even in his new role.
After spending two years as the Bears' offensive line coach, Tice said: "I've always been under the impression that the third year is the key year for an offensive lineman. If you look at it … Lance Louis in his third year. [Louis did not play in his rookie year of 2009.] J'Marcus Webb is in his third year. All of a sudden you've got these guys that should blossom, if we've done it right and we are right. I want to be a part of that."
Webb won't start at left tackle if he makes the volume of mistakes he did in 2011, whether it was 15 accepted penalties or a series of mental errors that led to sacks. But sometimes the threat of losing a job, real or perceived, is all that's required to level out a player's performance.
If things go the way the Bears seemingly envision it, Webb will respond positively to the competition and become a long-term building block of the Bears' offense.
"No pressure, right?" Webb said, laughing. "It's definitely a big year. It'll be my third year, and my third year with coach Tice. We're definitely looking forward to it."
I won't try to evaluate how Webb performed Thursday, especially on a day when players where wearing shorts and the entire offense was shaking off a clear layer of offseason rust. It might not be Webb's job to lose, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he were the starter when the Bears open the season Sept. 9 against the Indianapolis Colts.
You might think I've mis-categorized this competition. I suppose you could argue that having two presumably evenly-matched left tackles, one of the game's most difficult positions, means the Bears don't have anyone who could be an effective starter.
I can't rule out the possibility. The Bears can't afford for that to be the case, not after standing pat at the position this offseason. But there was a reason they didn't acquire a left tackle. Webb is their guy. I think.