- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- Asking Gabe Carimi about the outlook for the Chicago Bears' offensive line is not exactly giving the second-year lineman too much credit. But it is a little like asking a 16-year-old what kind of mileage the family car gets.
He simply has bigger, more immediate concerns. Like getting out of the driveway.
For Carimi, his rookie season was, in his opinion, not a season at all. The first regular-season NFL game he ever attended became his last full game of 2011. The Bears defeated the Atlanta Falcons in their season-opener, but Jay Cutler was sacked five times and hurried six more, and for Carimi, it was more a blur at right tackle than anything else.
By halftime of the next week against New Orleans, Carimi's knee was dislocated and his season over, though he didn't know it at the time. In early November, he was back at practice for a day. But a week after that, there was arthroscopic surgery. And a week later, just days after the Bears put fellow lineman Chris Williams on IR with a dislocated wrist, Carimi was on the shelf as well.
Immediately, there were unavoidable comparisons to former first-rounder Marc Colombo, an offensive lineman who also dislocated his knee his rookie season, in 2002, and ended up missing the entire next season. He was waived by the Bears two years later.
For Carimi, his own case was bad enough.
"I don't know if there were really any positives out of the whole situation. I was here, still with the guys, watching film and seeing what they were doing, but there's no substitution for actually going out there and doing it," he said Wednesday, a day after returning to the practice field for the first time in six months. "You can say all you want, 'This is what I would do, this is what we should be doing,' but that only goes so far when you have only seven seconds to assess it on the field, and you have the play call, and you have to know a lot of different other factors. It doesn't really quite carry over."
In the NFL, of course, there is always another body to take your place. And though the Bears' surplus of bodies on the line did not exactly bowl anyone over last season -- except perhaps, Cutler -- Carimi has the luxury of time only until training camp in July.
Though he expects, after a day of rest on Wednesday, to get back on the field Thursday and again next week, the scrutiny officially fires up once again when the player reports to camp in Bourbonnais. With the Bears' offensive expectations running higher than they have since Cutler arrived three years ago, there will be even more heat on a unit that should be used to it by now.
Even Cutler added fuel to the discussion earlier this month when called the line "a concern." And given a chance to come back with some faint praise during the first days of the team's organized training activities last week, the quarterback said frankly that he couldn't assess how the line looked until they were in pads.
"We have great leadership with [center Roberto Garza]," Carimi said when asked how the unit was faring. "We just keep on trucking along, working on our assignments, working on our technique, and we just know that we're going to be good, you know?"
They thought they knew before last season started, too. And while a line held together with paper clips and glue pulled it together as the season went on, it will be imperative that Carimi and Williams, expected to start at right and left tackles respectively, keep Cutler upright if the "Air Bears" are to take off in 2012.
Carimi, who missed just three games in college due to injury, said he still feels like a rookie.
"I need to go back out there and actually get a season in there, so yeah, I feel like I have to go out and prove myself again," he said.
In the meantime, talking about last season looked almost as painful as rehab.
"You try to get back as soon as possible, especially early in the season, and then you finally have to come to the realization that you won't be able to come back," he said. "That's never been a situation I had to go through, so it was kind of hard to be like, 'All right, that was it. I'm not going to be able to make it back by this season, and even if I did, it would be playoffs,' and at that point we were stuttering a little bit offensively. It was frustrating. I was trying to get back. I was right about there at Week 8, I had thought, but I had a setback.
"That's probably the hardest part, is that you want to be out there and you know you just can't."
On Dec. 27, Carimi had more surgery to prevent the injury from happening again, something he said is no longer a concern. He also said he already feels "explosive" on the repaired leg.
But he does not deny there have been some tough days over the past six months. And like many athletes in town, especially those only too familiar with the feelings of vulnerability knee surgery can evoke, Carimi said Derrick Rose was in his thoughts.
"There are better days," he said. "Some days you get down on yourself when you rehab. You want to keep on progressing like you did like two days ago, but it's a constant battle. After six months now looking back, I feel real happy with the progress I've made even though there are points where you're like, 'Is this ever going to get better?' But obviously it has. I feel great now.
"I'll be out to practice [Thursday]. If that goes well, all next week and then mini-camp. How much more back can you get?"
He'll find out soon enough.
With offensive expectations high, the Bears need Gabe Carimi to bounce back.