For all of the deserved hype surrounding Mitchell Trubisky, Allen Robinson, and a new-look Bears’ skill position group, none of it matters without the big boys up front. An offensive line that took collective steps back in 2017 needs to get back on a track of ascendance if Trubisky and company are to have any chance of living up to expectations.
That’s where the return of noted guru Harry Hiestand comes in. One of the most renown offensive line coaches in football, not just the NFL, his presence is the ultimate determining factor into how this Chicago front holds together. The track record of previous success Hiestand has enjoyed speaks for itself.
It’s not as if Hiestand is working with a bare cupboard. While it’ll never be confused for the best offensive line in the league, there are a bunch of malleable names for him to work with. Charles Leno Jr. hasn’t missed a start in two seasons and continues to grow. 2018 second rounder James Daniels looks to shine immediately. Kyle Long, after much injury adversity, finally has a clean bill of health. Each talented balls of clay for a veteran coach to touch up where necessary.
With training camp only a little over a week away, let’s examine the unit that keys a Bears’ offensive resurgence. The unsung beefy heroes.
Fun fact: the last time the Bears had two consecutive playoff appearances in 2005 and 2006, Hiestand had just begun his first tenure as Chicago’s offensive line coach. While it would be silly to attribute 24 wins in two years to Hiestand’s presence alone, there’s no denying the dynamic effect he had on a solid line featuring John Tait, Ruben Brown, and Olin Kreutz among notable names.
The peak of former coach Lovie Smith’s top Bears teams always featured his opportunistic defenses first. But it was the offensive line that keyed powerful running games led by Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson. It’s no coincidence that Kreutz enjoyed his best season as a First-Team All-Pro in 2006, and that Brown returned to a Pro Bowl level after a three-year absence under Hiestand. Hiestand was and is still consistently instrumental in getting every last drop out of his players.
Kreutz, who has stayed visible in the Chicago media since retirement, couldn’t stop gushing about Hiestand’s impact on his individual career and what he could do for the Bears’ offensive line now.
“He gets the most out of his guys,” Kreutz said to the Chicago Tribune in January. “He totally buys into you, which makes you totally buy into him. He’s all about the offensive line and he has no other agenda. He just wants to help you and help the team win.”
Flash forward to the present and some Bears have similar potential for Hiestand to maximize.
After making the PFWA All-Rookie Team in 2016, Cody Whitehair showed potential to become one of the best centers in the NFL as a rookie. Steps back in 2017 along with occasional positional jostling had Whitehair instead regress last year. For a young center like Whitehair, Hiestand’s presence will make the difference in stabilization and putting him back on a quality trajectory.
What seemed like an incredibly bright start to a career has since faded away for Long, and through no fault of his own. Three Pro Bowl appearances and a Second-Team All-Pro selection from 2013 to 2015 has morphed into the 29-year-old missing 15 starts in the last two seasons due to a variety of ankle, shoulder, and neck injuries. If there’s anyone ideally suited to get a healthy Long back to form, it’s Hiestand.
No one will confuse him for an elite bookend, but Leno has proven to be a reliable anchor for the Bears’ offensive line during his four-year career. A 2014 seventh round pick, the Bears have received more value from Leno as a starter than they could have dreamed of. 46 starts in three seasons accomplishes that. And every year, the still-only 26-year-old Leno has steadily refined his game. The presence of Hiestand can help Leno piece together the final pieces of his repertoire as he enters his physical prime.
Teaching is more than imparting knowledge, it is inspiring change. No one better understands that dichotomy of player evolution than Hiestand.
Since leaving the Bears in 2009, it’s not like Hiestand has lounged around on his couch waiting for work. He’s been busy building some of the great offensive linemen of the NFL’s tomorrow in the college ranks. His ledger of development is unmatched in his profession in that time.
At Tennessee from 2010 to 2011, Hiestand had the privilege of coaching current Dolphins starting left tackle Ja’Wuan James and Texans center Zach Fulton. In six years at Notre Dame from 2012 to 2017, stalwarts in the Cowboys’ Zack Martin, Ravens’ Ronnie Stanley, Texans’ Nick Martin, Colts’ Quenton Nelson, and 49ers’ Mike McGlinchey each emerged under Hiestand’s watchful eye. Coaching offensive linemen is about patience, understanding, fundamentals, and drilling technique. A simple understanding for a veteran extremely well-versed in development like Hiestand.
What does that mean for the Bears’ offensive line puzzle?
The bright Daniels and Whitehair in particular, are in good hands, maybe the best hands. That’s not to say that Bears veterans aren’t also in a position to benefit from Hiestand, but more that the young guys are more spongey in their absorption of material and coaching. You want to take your front to the next level, you teach them and bring them along in a rigid but necessary fashion. You set a timetable, precedent, and work with the foundational basics: like Hiestand always has from college to the NFL.
The most important position coach for a football team is the offensive line and Hiestand places Chicago on a launch platform as that man. The position coach that needs to be the best teacher and knows how to relate to his players. Not every individual coach can prove as crucial, but the Nagy Bears have this move down pat.
Setting a comfortable bar
2014 was the last time the Bears allowed more than 40 sacks in a season. The offensive line hasn’t been an egregious issue of late for Chicago, but also hasn’t been an immovable wall the way a team would prefer.
Part of that was due to the constraints of a John Fox modus operandi that veered from a conservative attack that protected the quarterback in 2015, to an unbalanced, conservative offense that put the quarterback in harm’s way routinely in 2017. It’s a crazy thought, I know, but defenses eventually telegraph that you’re going to run on first and second down and put yourself in obvious third down passing situations.
No longer do the Bears have that issue of playcalling with Nagy, ideally anyway. Good offensive coaching is putting everyone in a position to thrive. It’s balance and challenging your players to a limit. That means not only making it easier on Trubisky, but keeping defensive fronts on their toes so your offensive line can get an effective jump in their matchups. Everything works in rhythm and plays off itself, the most of which along the unified offensive line.
It’s on Hiestand and his group to take advantage of the favorable methods Nagy inevitably utilizes. If they can, there’s enough inherent ability present along this Bears’ offensive line to believe they’re prepared for occasionally stellar play. Consistently elite play won’t come until they have a minimum of a year with Hiestand under their belt.
Trubisky, Robinson, and friends are going to get the headlines and glory. It’s Hiestand’s offensive line that will have done the dirty work for them, and is more than capable of galvanizing the offensive jump the Bears are waiting for.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.