BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Before they hired an offensive coordinator, the Chicago Bears turned to Mike Tice to help a struggling line.
Clearly, they believed in him.
Now, the players are buying in, too.
How an offensive line that was woeful at times a year ago performs could determine if the Bears rebound from a 7-9 season and get back to the playoffs for the first time since the team's 2006 Super Bowl run.
With no major additions to that unit, they're relying on improvement from within and a jump start from a veteran coach whom they believe can provide the spark they need.
"Mike's a great coach," six-time Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz said. "I don't want to take a shot at guys who I played for, but he definitely will teach us a lot of stuff. That's just from doing everything. He's been a player, a tight end coach, an O-line coach, a head coach, assistant head coach. He's just done a lot of different things, so the knowledge he has is way different from a lot of guys you play for."
A longtime NFL tight end, Tice has served as an assistant and head coach with the Minnesota Vikings and joined the Bears after a four-year run on Jacksonville's staff, the past three overseeing the tight ends.
At each stop, Tice got big results. And the Bears are hoping for the same.
"It just takes time to change footwork that guys are used to for years and years," Tice said. "It just takes repetition and repetition. And once they get the footwork down and in the heat of battle when they get tired, is really how you know if they're grasping it. (Tuesday) was hot and there were some moments where guys were a little (dragging) and then we revert back. It's going to take some time."
This is a crucial season for coach Lovie Smith and Jerry Angelo, who are operating under a win-or-else mandate from above.
The Bears made some big moves in the offseason, most notably adding Pro Bowl defensive end Julius Peppers. On offense, they brought in Chester Taylor to boost the running game and revamped the coaching staff, with Mike Martz replacing Ron Turner as offensive coordinator.
While that move drew more attention, just as important could be the hiring of Tice. After all, unless the line blocks, quarterback Jay Cutler will be running for cover again and the ground game won't go anywhere.
And with no real additions other than blocking tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, the Bears are hoping Tice can get something out of the blockers that his predecessor Harry Hiestand could not last season.
The Bears ranked 23rd on offense, 29th in rushing. Cutler got sacked 35 times and threw a league-leading 26 interceptions — the most by a Chicago quarterback since Sid Luckman's club-record 31 in 1947 — after being acquired from Denver.
And while the line isn't completely at fault, a unit that ranked 19th gets a good chunk of the blame.
Cutler often had little time and compounded matters with some poor decisions. Matt Forte, meanwhile, ran his way into a competition with Taylor, going from 1,238 yards rushing as a rookie to 929 last season while averaging 3.6 per carry. He finally came clean after the season, acknowledging hamstring and knee problems slowed him. That might explain why he had only two 100-yard rushing games — both against Detroit — but it didn't help that the line was struggling.
That's where Tice comes in, the Bears hope.
Kreutz said he "brings a lot more to the table" than other coaches. But he also inherits a line that's set only at center and left tackle with Chris Williams.
The rest of the spots are up for grabs.
Martz said the rotation should start to come into focus within the next two weeks and that it's not unusual for a line to struggle early in camp with a new system in place, something that has happened to a degree. He has no concerns about Tice, however.
"I think we have the best guy coaching there is, I really do," Martz said. "I can't tell you what a comfortable feeling it is for me. You just know things are going to get done right and you just know their approach, so I'm not worried about it at all."
Players mention Tice's attention to detail, the footwork and hand use. That's been a major focus so far. And they mention his track record, particularly as an assistant. As Minnesota's offensive line coach from 1997-2001, he helped five linemen — Matt Birk, Jeff Christy, Randall McDaniel, Todd Steussie and the late Korey Stringer — make a combined 10 Pro Bowls.
"He brings experience," said Josh Beekman, who's trying to lock down the left guard spot. "He brings a lot of knowledge. He really coaches us to be the best players we can possibly be."