It's no secret that the Chicago Bears offensive line struggled this preseason. The Bears' offensive front questions are what most believe will hold them back this year. Signing an All-Pro guard like Josh Sitton does a lot to improve quality, expectations, and even morale.
But it makes one wonder how they came to the point of signing a dominant player like Sitton, what his addition means for this season and beyond, and whether there should be any concerns.
An offseason of domino effects for the line is no doubt what we need to consider first. The Bears and general manager Ryan Pace likely had a much different plan than adding an All-Pro player one week before the season opener. But the nature of the NFL could care less for appropriate timing. The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry after all. Let's break it all down.
Bears' depth blasted, needs boost:
Whether you believe that he was a fit for the Bears' zone blocking scheme or not, releasing a supposedly capable lineman in Matt Slauson was the first blow to crucial depth. The merits of that decision have been endlessly debated around these parts. Then, the early retirements of Nate Chandler and Manny Ramirez-neither of which were really any good but were still back-ups-put the Bears on the brink of chaos.
This was the point at which the Bears could absolutely not afford an injury to their projected starting five. They were already thin enough. Then Hroniss Grasu tore his ACL and the newly extended Kyle Long suffered a possibly serious shoulder injury.
Pace and the Bears front office were now in dire straits as the offense looked discombobulated throughout the preseason save for promising stretches against New England. Following the glorified "Back-up Bowl" against the Browns, few could have expected Sitton just falling into their laps.
Aggressiveness pays off, move signals new mentality:
Getting Sitton into Halas Hall immediately following his release by the Green Bay Packers paid off. Perhaps, the close proximity and divisional familiarity for Sitton played a factor. The three-time Pro Bowler and reigning All-Pro was promptly signed to a three year deal worth $21.5 million to go with $10 million guaranteed.
That's a lot of confidence in a 30-year-old player just released by one of the most stable organizations in football. First of all, there's no way the Bears could have known Sitton would just be sitting there but they had major issues. It was a necessary move to even field a competitive team in 2016. The swift confidence with which they moved on signing him, along with his slight pay raise, paints an even greater picture though.
Pace, head coach John Fox, and the rest of the Bears' brain trust signed him in a definitive win-now (or soon) move. They clearly trust and believe in this youthful core more than most. Yes, most of the other 30 teams would've also likely wanted to sign Sitton. Yet, the fact that the Bears are willing to plug and play an older but still quality player while also paying him quite handsomely--which goes against what Pace has done so far in his youth movement--speaks volumes. They can break from their set plan under special circumstances.
This is probably still a developmental year, but to me, the gusto in acquiring Sitton says Chicago thinks it can win and soon.
Scheme and team impact:
In adding Sitton, the Bears, at least on paper, now have the best guard duo in football with Sitton and Long.
A move like this will have a trickle effect across the entire line once they have time to gel (Sunday against Houston might be rough). With the Bears expected to soon start the rookie Cody Whitehair at center, he'll have less growing pains then the average young player given the experience surrounding him. There's no doubt that the Bears should feel much more comfortable in starting Whitehair given the two quality players he can build chemistry with.
Your left tackle in Charles Leno Jr., who by most accounts, had an excellent preseason, and who Bears' offensive line coach Dave Magazu said is "probably the most underrated offensive lineman in football”, now gets to work in tandem with the best left guard in the league. The Bears are banking a lot on Leno Jr. being a fantastic anchor in pass protection at their most important position on the line. There's a reason as to why they didn't spend a high draft pick to replace the second year tackle. Now, Sitton can help Leno Jr. recognize his full potential while simultaneously composing one of the best left sides of a line in the NFL.
With the interior soundly solidified-following the New Orleans Saints' model of building a line from the inside out-the Bears' most vulnerable spot on their front is Bobby Massie. Given the strengths everywhere else, you can now scheme aplenty to assist Massie against the top defenses and pass rushers the Bears will meet.
Any doubts about Massie in pass protection haven't been completely eliminated. Still, the concern over his play can now be more effectively game planned around with the addition of Sitton.
Also, if Grasu turns out to recover very well from his injury, the Bears now have much more effective depth and competition for their line, the one position you can never have enough of. These are good questions to possess.
Of course, any time a player the quality of Sitton is released, every other general manager will wonder to themselves, "What does Team A know that we don't?" Pace went through the same thought process (via the Sun-Times).
It begs the question as to what Packers GM Ted Thompson knows about this move.
Is it injuries?
Sitton has had chronic back issues in his career that have limited him from practice time in recent years, yet he's only missed a few games within that span. For a 300-plus pound man, your back is never something to joke about. Sitton did lose a little weight in the offseason to help manage but maybe his back is worse off than Green Bay is willing to let on, especially as he’s on the wrong side of 30. It isn't like the Bears had much choice though in delegating between not moving quickly on Sitton. Their offensive line situation was desperate. Beggars could not be choosers.
At worst, the Bears don't have much guaranteed money committed to Sitton so they could theoretically cut him loose if this back problem really extrapolates later. At best, you have an All-Pro guard for the next three seasons slowly declining within what could evolve into a potential window for a championship. This will be something to monitor.
Some speculated that perhaps this was purely a cap move with Sitton on the last year of a deal looking for a contract extension. It could be that everything is perfectly fine with his health, and that the Packers felt they could move on with a younger player. There is such a thing as cutting a player a year early instead of a year too late as we learned with the release of Robbie Gould.
The Packers are confident they can replace a guard on the cheap, while the Bears needed a piece to compete. It might simply boil down to that notion.
There's also the question of Sitton being a voice of dissent in the locker room. As a valued veteran in Green Bay's locker room for eight seasons, Sitton was one of the Packers' primary leaders that felt he had a say in the daily operations of the team. Last year, he criticized Packers' head coach Mike McCarthy for a lack of commitment to the running game following a blowout loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Could the Packers have really cut their best offensive lineman because he publicly criticized their head coach?
It's a theory I have a hard time believing, because players can always publicly vent their frustrations. Plus, as mentioned, Sitton was a valuable member of that locker room. Unless he continued to go after his head coach this offseason, or there were previous instances we don't know about, I wouldn't lend much credibility to this. The Bears likely also wouldn't have added him if they thought he could be divisive.
Sans a few exceptions, how many offensive lineman have you known to be detrimental to team unity? Not many.
We'll likely never know for sure, but I'll bank on Sitton's release being related to age, finances, and a concern over his back. A conclusion I have no doubt the Bears came to as well.
Given their situation, the Bears had to effectively evaluate and add Sitton, ask more questions later.
We'll see the consequences--positive or negative--of their shrewdness with Sitton, likely very soon. And yet, the outlook for this organization looks demonstratively better to compete now and in the near future. Long thought the same of the addition, saying, "I know Jay Cutler probably really appreciates it."
We're still a ways away from grading this regime fairly. At first glance, they've done well to demonstrate flexibility. Soon, we all might appreciate this move towards passing marks.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.