Despite having one of the worst offensive lines in the league for the past four seasons, the Bears have given indications that they may instead focus on playmakers and hope their coaching staff can help improve the offensive line play.
General manager Phil Emery talked openly about the offensive line in his postseason press conference. He said several times that they need to get better, saying he used websites such as Stats Inc. and Pro Football Focus to compare them to other teams.
Emery said the Bears finished 26th in the league in pass blocking, according to Stats Inc., then noted three of the six teams below them were in the playoffs and that the San Francisco 49ers ranked 25th.
After talking about how the Bears ranked 22nd according to Stats Inc. in dropped passes, Emery offered an interesting quote:
"Sacks and drops, are they a factor? Yes, I would say, but it doesn't look like they are the ultimate determining factor," Emery said. "I still think it comes down to how many playmakers do you have opposed to the team you're playing. And are they making plays that are game-changing instances in the moment of truth moving forward."
I don't think that means Emery is going to ignore the offensive line; in fact, he has already tried to improve them through his coaching hires.
In his eight seasons as an offensive coordinator, new head coach Marc Trestman's teams have ranked in the top half of the league in sack percentage four times, according to Pro Football Reference.
His teams also ranked 20th or lower four times; on two occasions they had massive overhauls of the roster the following season. In 2002, the Raiders had four of their starting linemen miss six or more games.
Three of the four teams Trestman coordinated saw an improvement in sack percentage. The Browns went from 14th in 1988 to ninth in '89, the 49ers went from 18th in '94 to 10th in '95 and the Cardinals went from dead last in '97 to 21st in '98.
Trestman's most impressive work came north of the border. According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Montreal Alouettes gave up 68 sacks and an average of one every 9.2 pass attempts in 2007. In Trestman's first season, their sack total dropped to 22, one every 32.4 attempts.
To further show the Bears are serious about improving their offensive line play, their first hire was former New Orleans Saints' offensive line coach Aaron Kromer as their offensive coordinator/offensive line coach.
Kromer was Trestman's offensive line coach in Oakland and has held that position with the Saints since 2009. In that time, the Saints have never ranked lower than fourth in sack percentage. In 2011, they were first, according to Pro Football Reference.
Kromer wasn't just a one-trick pony, as the lines he's coached regularly ranked amongst the best in run-blocking as well. The Saints ranked in the top five in terms of yards per carry twice in his tenure as their line coach and were 12th in 2012, according to NFL.com.
Since 2009, the Bears never ranked higher than 26th in the PFF rankings.
Kromer accomplished this without having a single first round pick along the offensive line until this past season when they signed Ben Grubbs—taken 29th overall by the Ravens in 2007—as a free agent.
This is not to say the Saints didn't have talent. Their front office deserves a ton of credit for finding guys like Jahri Evans and Carl Nicks in the fourth round, but it was Kromer and others who helped those players reach their potential. But, if you believe what new assistant offensive line coach Pat Meyer said in an interview with ESPNChicago's Michael C. Wright, the Bears also have enough to work with.
Last week I wrote about the talent of J'Marcus Webb, but Lance Louis is also considered a talented player, and Gabe Carimi was a first round pick not that long ago. Cory Brandon and James Brown were also considered to be talented players; perhaps Meyer sees potential the Bears previous coaching staff couldn't reach.
I don't think the Bears are going to completely ignore the offensive line. If they can get a free agent for a good price or a player falls to them in the draft, Emery wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't upgrade the roster. However, I don't think they intend to break the bank or use other assets to specifically focus on the line.
If the general manager doesn't necessarily believe the offensive line is the key to success and they have coaches who have been known to get the most out of the talent—in addition to another who thinks there is plenty of talent to work with—it seems highly likely the Bears may look elsewhere in the offseason.
Whether they get new players or not, the Bears need to improve their play up front if they're going to contend next season. Both Emery and Trestman have spoken on the importance of protecting the quarterback. Perhaps they have a different plan for doing that than most think.
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