Despite all the progress the Chicago Bears made this spring, their offensive line remains a critical question mark heading into the season.
The Bears used three combinations of starters up front last season, with Chris Williams starting 11 games at right tackle before moving to the left side for the final five, Frank Omiyale starting 12 games at left guard and center Olin Kreutz fighting through the entire season on a worn-out Achilles tendon. The lack of continuity contributed to quarterback Jay Cutler's suffering a career-high 35 sacks, in addition to throwing a career-high 26 interceptions.
Will the situation improve in 2010? Maybe, maybe not, based on the acquisition of new offensive line coach Mike Tice, coupled with how offensive lines have protected historically in the scheme employed by new coordinator Mike Martz.
"I think we'll see a productive offense," Bears linebacker Lance Briggs said. "It really does come down to [protection]. [Cutler] has to be protected."
History, meanwhile, indicates that the task of keeping Cutler upright in Martz's offense could be daunting. So the question then becomes whether the risks are worth the rewards in Martz's high-octane scheme because it's almost a given that Cutler will suffer as many if not more sacks in 2010 as he did last season.
From 1999 to 2008 (Martz didn't coach in 2009), Martz's offenses produced staggering passing statistics yet ranked among the NFL's top 10 in sacks allowed in eight of the coach's 10 seasons, and in the top three in each of his last three. Naturally, increased passing attempts equate to more sacks. But given Chicago's stated commitment to a run-first philosophy, it's difficult to predict whether the Bears will increase Cutler's pass attempts/potential for sacks this season.
Martz's offenses have averaged 577.4 passes and 47.4 sacks. Although the Bears averaged 36.7 sacks and 519.1 attempts the past 10 years, they've surrendered 35 sacks or more just twice in the past five seasons.
Martz's offenses with the Rams, Lions and 49ers, meanwhile, gave up 40 sacks or more in nine consecutive years after allowing 33 in 1999.
"Emphasis on protection: That's one of the first things [Martz] stressed since Day 1," tight end Greg Olsen said. "The priority is to protect the quarterback. It doesn't matter how good your routes are. It doesn't matter [the] kind of scheme you have. None of [it] matters if the quarterback doesn't have time to stand there and deliver it, especially on some of the deeper stuff. I think he puts a big emphasis on keeping extra guys in [to block] whether it be an extra tight end or backs."
Still, the extra manpower hasn't translated into better pass protection for Martz's offenses. It might be unrealistic to expect anything different in 2010.
Despite Cutler enduring career highs last season for interceptions and sacks, it would also be unrealistic to draw a correlation between picks and sacks for the quarterback, given his history. Cutler's previous career high in sacks was 27 in 2007, yet he threw 14 interceptions. The following year, Cutler suffered fewer sacks (11) but threw more INTs (18).
That's not to say there's not a correlation between sacks and negative consequences for Cutler, considering that the most he has fumbled in two seasons (11 and nine fumbles in 2007 and 2009, respectively) came in years when teams sacked him the most.
Cutler says "pressing" contributed to his increased INT totals in 2009, but it's highly likely that pressure played a role, too. That's why the Bears hired Tice, who appears to be cautiously optimistic about the offensive line's prospects for success this season.
"I like how the group is accepting coaching. I like how they're working," Tice said. "We've identified some areas for each of the guys who are returning that they need to work on, and they've worked diligently at those things. First and foremost across the board is their usage of hands, carrying their hands higher and not dropping their hands, which in turn makes their shoulders go forward, which in turn makes them whiff. We've been working diligently on their hands every day. We're working a bag that we've designed to help them with their hand carriage and the way they approach and strike with their hands, not only in the run game but in pass protection, too.
"The other thing we're working on is their steps, their footwork. We want to be more forward. We want to be taking the line of scrimmage and having a more positive step towards the line of scrimmage. [We want] to try to eliminate any type of bucket step or drop step. Those things take time. It takes repetitions. It takes the guys buying in."
Players often claim that teams build cohesiveness in the offseason, so it's worth mentioning that the entire starting offensive line hasn't worked together all offseason. Recovering from surgery, Kreutz hasn't taken any repetitions this offseason, with Josh Beekman taking his place at center. The staff also has shuffled personnel at left guard the majority of the offseason between Johan Asiata, Lance Louis and Kevin Shaffer before finally giving the bulk of first-team repetitions to Asiata in the most recent OTAs (Beekman might still be a contender for the starting job), in addition to moving Omiyale from guard to right tackle.
There's still reason to hope, Olsen said.
"On the offensive line, I think [left tackle] Chris Williams is a guy who is really gonna surprise some people with how good he's gonna be, and Frank [Omiyale] moving back out [to right tackle], then our inside three with Olin [Kreutz], [Roberto] Garza and those guys coming back," he said. "Our offensive line is gonna be real good for us this year."
Chicago concludes its final session of the offseason Wednesday before taking a break until training camp in July, but it will have done little to assuage concerns about the offensive line because true resolution won't be achieved until the unit operates in full pads under game conditions in the preseason.
"If we get the offensive line and everyone else straightened out, we'll be good," Cutler said.
Michael C. Wright covers the Bears for ESPNChicago.com.