At the start of the season, there were concerns about the offensive line. As Dane noted at the time, some of these concerns seemed very legitimate, and some seemed like typical fan worrying. However, the Bears finished the year with a strong performance up front. There were too many penalties and a few growing pains, but the reality was that the Chicago o-line did its job better than most. As we wonder about what is next for the Bears, I find myself in a weird place. I'm not worried about the offensive line.
One reason I'm not worried is that while a playoff team needs a good offensive line, it doesn't need elite offensive linemen. Here are the top five teams in the NFL as far as total All Pro selections on the offensive line from 2010 to 2014: Cleveland (6), New Orleans (6), New England (5), Dallas (4), and Pittsburgh (4). Including the next tier (3 apiece) adds Baltimore and Philadelphia. On the other hand, here are the top seven teams in terms of playoff appearances at the same time: the New England Patriots, the Green Bay Packers, the Baltimore Ravens, the Cincinnati Bengals, the Denver Broncos, the Indianapolis Colts, and the Seattle Seahawks. There's not a lot of overlap besides the Patriots, and while it would be nice to duplicate their successes, Chicago has a lot of work to do before it becomes New England, and the offensive line is closer than most of our other units.
Because standout individuals matter less than how the group functions as a whole, simply counting All Pro selections is not the best way to judge the quality of an offensive line. Thankfully, the folks at Football Outsiders take into account a lot more variables than simply counting the number of times individual players were honored, and they rank offensive lines on both the value they add to the run game and the quality of the pass protection they provide. For the 2014 season, only two of the twelve playoff teams ranked in the top ten of offensive lines in both categories. In 2013, it was three teams. In fact, over the five years from 2010 to 2014, only in 2010 were there four playoff teams with offensive lines in the top ten in both categories. Interestingly, that year saw the Steelers (19th in run-blocking and 29th in adjusted sack rate) face off against the Packers (23rd in run-blocking and 21st in adjusted sack rate) in the Super Bowl.
Most of the time, a team needs to have a competent offensive line, as indicated by the fact that most playoff teams do have an offensive line that places in the top third of one of these categories (for example, the 2013 Seahawks were only 32nd in pass protection but 9th in run-blocking). The 2012 Ravens (6th in run-blocking and 13th in adjusted sack rate) won it all, and they were roughly equivalent to the 2015 Chicago Bears (ranked 7th and 11th in these two categories respectively).
Overall, the 2015 Bears enjoyed an offensive line as good as four of the last five Super Bowl winners and better than most of the playoff teams over the last few years. Is some of this influenced by the quality of our running backs and by Cutler's ability to scramble? Probably. On the other hand, the Bears have a good stable of running backs and Cutler can scramble, so the team needs to focus its rebuilding efforts elsewhere.
There's one real flaw in my argument, and it's the number of offensive holding penalties the Bears generated this season—a league-leading 35, more than two per game. That is counterbalanced, however, by having only 19 false starts (15th in the league), down from 27 false starts (2nd) the year before. There are growing pains, here, and those holds probably helped to kill a few drives. However, penalties on offensive lines tend to be linked pretty closely to the amount of shuffling on the line, and the Bears were forced to do a lot of shuffling. Once starters get a chance to settle into their positions, penalties should even out.
I say this because the one thing the line needs more than another guard or a shuffling of assets is continuity. Offensive lines thrive on continuity. The best year for the Cutler-era Bears' offensive line (before, arguably, this one) was 2013. This was the year they had continuity along the line. As Lester noted in his final sackwatch for this year, given the injuries along the offensive line and the changes that happened, the unit played really well this season.
So, I'm not worried about where Kyle Long ends up, because I am convinced that if he is simply given a chance to play in that position for a training camp and for sixteen games, he will be fine. I'm not worried about how active Grasu is, as long as he adds the muscle and gets the practice he needs to develop as a player. I think free agency needs to be focused on the other side of the football, because the Bears biggest problems were not in front of #6.