Regularly after offensive plays in the Bears' last game against the Lions, fullback Jason McKie noticed left guard Ruben Brown would return to the huddle grimacing in pain.
"Sometimes, I just thought he was mad at the play or something,'' McKie said. "You couldn't always tell that he was hurt.''
Yes, you could.
The first clue might have been the Bears owning the league's second-worst rushing offense and giving up 21 sacks at midseason. Something was wrong.
Brown's injured right shoulder that will require surgery and forced the Bears to place him on injured reserve Thursday doesn't explain everything. But it's a good start.
All that talk in NFL locker rooms about the need for five guys on the offensive line needing to work as one isn't just rhetoric. It's real. For offensive linemen, the communication, the technique all rely on working in synch with the guy planting his hand in the grass next to you.
When one part of the machine is defective, as Brown clearly was for most of the first half given his teammates' revelations Thursday, the whole machine malfunctions.
Through eight games, the Bears offensive line most certainly has malfunctioned.
"He definitely was playing hurt [all season],'' center Olin Kreutz said. "That's just the kind of guy he is. He's a warrior. He couldn't even use his arm most of the time in the fourth quarter, but he was just going anyway. I don't know if you could see him out there [but] sometimes in the fourth quarter, he would have the rest his arm on somebody. He couldn't really use it.''
Another stunning admission came from McKie.
"Sometimes, he would be in the huddle and would be rubbing his shoulder and moving his arm around,'' he said. "So I knew something was wrong with him. I knew he had some shoulder problems before, but I didn't know it was to the extent that it is now. But he stuck it out.''
That probably makes Brown one of the toughest players to ever put on the navy-and-orange uniform, and you don't make nine Pro Bowls being soft.
But his teammates' testimony also raises legitimate questions about why the Bears continued to trot out damaged goods for eight straight starts despite Brown's warrior-like mentality that would have made sitting him difficult.
If Bears players recognized how badly Brown was hurting and how it might have been affecting his performance, why didn't Bears coaches do something about it? How much of them hoping it would get better only make it worse?
Kreutz acknowledged knowing about Brown's limitations "for a while,'' and the Bears didn't just wake up Thursday and decide it was time to shut down a Hall of Fame-caliber guard whose performance was substandard. They knew.
"Whose to say what was a factor? We didn't play as well we needed to, period,'' Smith said. "For us to try to figure why and if that really mattered, it doesn't really help us right now.''
Smith talked like a guy who expected Brown to return in 2008 but that doesn't seem realistic for a team possibly two months away from starting a rebuilding project. The next time you see Brown, 35, he might be wearing a yellow blazer and giving an induction speech in Canton, a realistic possibility for a popular 9-time Pro Bowl selection.
He nearly left the game once in 2004 after a messy exit in Buffalo but came to the Bears for the chance to play alongside Kreutz. It was a good run, but hard to imagine the team bringing back a 36-year-old guard with high mileage in '08.
The Bears have to get younger on the offensive line and find out what they have in 29-year-old replacement Terrence Metcalf, to whom the Bears have committed $3.4 million for the three seasons following this one.
No way Metcalf supplies the same quality of blocking or leadership Brown did. But he will supply a healthy body fully able to attempt to move people every play of the game, which was more than Brown's bum shoulder allowed him to do in recent games.
The Bears making Thursday's move actually helped answer a question about the offensive line. Here are some others from readers about the rest of the team.
If Jerry Angelo really believes Cedric Benson is giving his "top effort,'' and that's the best he is going to be, what does that say about Angelo's ability to evaluate talent? --Dick H., Chicago.
Angelo's public support of his embattled running back did two things: 1. It implied the offensive line must be just as responsible, if not more, for the running-game woes because he was satisfied with Benson and 2. It suggested that maybe we have seen the best Benson has to offer and it's just not good enough. If the latter turns out to be the case after a second half when Benson will get every chance to excel, then it further harms Angelo's reputation as a guy who can't draft offensive skill players in the first round. Tight end Greg Olsen fell into the Bears' lap at the end of the 2007 first round but apparent misses on Benson and Rex Grossman only will cast doubt on the draft day next April if the Bears go after a wide receiver or running back in the first round as they may need.
Am I the only one who doesn't take the running stats of Bears backup running back Adrian Peterson too seriously? Yes he averages [4.5] yards per carry but he usually gets those yards in third-and-long when the defense is playing back. Maybe the Bears should keep Benson in their for those yards, or how about just let him play the entire game just once, just for the sake of it and we can then end all this speculation talk of ifs and ors. --Erik Anderson, Jenison, Mich.
It's a fair point. Of Peterson's 28 carries for 127 yards this season, 17 for 71 yards of them have come out of three wide-receiver formations when defenses typically have five defensive backs on the field and don't stack the box with an eighth defender. That naturally widens most running lanes. According to STATS, Peterson also has carried eight times for 40 yards in the final two minutes of a half or game when defenses have been in a prevent mode. Benson can't get in the game in those situations, however, because he can't be trusted yet to catch the ball consistently or pick up a blitz. Until that happens, those yards considered easier to come by will keep going to Peterson.
What do you think of the Bears alternating starts between Benson and Peterson for the final eight games? The Bears should treat these final eight games as an audition with Benson and Peterson each starting four games to see if either should be their back of the future or if we need to look elsewhere. --Sam Fuller, Marshalltown, Iowa
At this point, only if Benson gets hurt or the Bears conclude they will sever ties with him before the 2008 season should Peterson start. It makes no sense for the Bears to pull the plug on Benson before they are entirely certain he is a bust and, despite overwhelming evidence indicating that is true, they have little to lose by giving him the ball 20 times a game the rest of the way until they have reached a conclusion beyond reasonable doubt.
If leadership can be defined as the ability to influence, motivate, and inspire others to achieve a common goal, shouldn't Lovie Smith be held more accountable? --Larry, Peshtigo, Wis.
Ultimately, nobody in the Bears organization will be held more accountable than Smith this season. His leadership has been under daily scrutiny, really, since the day last winter he signed the $22 million contract extension. Every decision he has made in the off-season, training camp and on Sundays this fall has been dissected, second-guessed, praised or criticized. He accepts that challenge. And, trust me here, Smith will be held accountable for how well he meets those kind of challenges over the remaining eight games.
Is Garrett Wolfe even going to be given a chance? Cedric Benson is an overpaid joke. --Mary, DeKalb, Ill.
Those are mutually exclusive ideas. Benson's disappointing season really has little to do with Wolfe's development, or lack thereof. Wolfe didn't even dress for the Lions game and shown enough in five carries for six yards to generate much excitement. He did show an ability to play on the special teams but expectations usually are higher for third-round draft picks. If Wolfe gets more of a chance in the second half, it will be in specialized situations on the perimeter, perhaps in the passing game on third downs or late in blowouts to get him some needed experience.
In your recent article about rebuilding the Bears, you stated that you'd not be interested in another first-round running back. In light of Adrian Petersen in Minnesota's success, how could the Bears not try to get a guy like Darren McFadden who is incredibly versatile AND makes SEC defenses look slow? --David Hickory, West Des Moines, Iowa
Agreed, McFadden looks like the closest thing to a 2008 version of Adrian Peterson that college football has to offer. He's so good that he likely will be gone in the first three picks, too high for the Bears to draft him barring a total second-half collapse. The point was the Bears, like many teams have, would be better off finding a capable starter at running back in the second or third round and letting him flourish without the pressure, scrutiny or salary structure of a first-round pick such as Benson. Examples? How about Maurice Jones-Drew of the Jaguars (second round) or Frank Gore of the 49ers (third)? They show NFL teams can develop runners too.
Do you think the Bears would be interested in Derek Anderson, seeing the Browns have a lot of money wrapped up in Brady Quinn? --Josh Havens, Elkhart, Ind.
Interest won't be the question. Affordability will. So might the Bears' level of desperation at the position. The Browns, who would be foolish to part ways with Anderson given every NFL team's need to keep two quarterbacks, could almost guarantee Anderson would stay by giving him the highest tender. That would be worth $2.562 million and assure the Browns a first- and third-round draft pick for any team that signs the restricted free-agent. If the Browns put the next-highest tender on Anderson ($2.017 million) it would guarantee them a first-round pick. A new tender ($1.417 million) would bring a second-round pick and the minimum would cost Anderson's next team a sixth-round choice. An aging, underachieving team such as the Bears face so many off-season needs that they might not be able to afford giving up such a high pick for a quarterback who could be a one-year wonder.
Think the Chargers would trade straight up: Michael Turner for Cedric Benson? --Michael, Louisville, Ky.
If they would, then San Diego GM A.J. Smith is as bad of a judge of talent as Marty Schottenheimer says he is.
I have a better slogan than the current "I Believe!!!" printed on T-shirts. How about "Still Something To Prove"? --Jeffrey Sippy, Cherry Valley
Not bad, but here were some other slogan and T-shirt suggestions offered: "SEIZE THE DAY,'' "FINISH(ED)!!!", "1 & DONE", "4TH & LONG", "LOVIE 'EM OR LEAVE 'EM,'' "PLAYING FOR THE PICK,'' ''IF WE LET THEM SCORE, THEY HAVE TO KICK TO HESTER,'' "IF THEY CAN'T COVER 2, HOW 'BOUT COVER ONE ANYONE,'' "JERRY-RIGGED,'' "3.1 YARDS AND A CLOUD OF DUST,'' "BRAD MAYNARD FOR PRESIDENT,'' and "WAIT TILL NEXT YEAR.''