LAKE FOREST, Ill. - Olin Kreutz is not known for his fondness for carefree banter, but as he talked with reporters before practice Wednesday, the veteran Chicago Bears center was actually moved to laughter.
I’m not sure what inspired Kreutz to open his mouth and emit an uncharacteristic noise associated with merriment, but he seemed to appreciate the event more than the sportswriter who posed an abrupt follow-up question.
“C’mon,” admonished Kreutz. “Can you at least let me finish my laugh?”
The Bears went to work Wednesday on polishing their game plan for the Seattle Seahawks, and aside from quarterback Jay Cutler raising the possibility he may throw 60 times – a joke, I think, offered by somebody else who’ll never be a candidate to perform stand-up at The Improv – the big surprise was the laugh produced by one of the toughest and meanest players in the history of an NFL franchise that regards tough and mean as bedrock virtues.
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That Kreutz remains the anchor of the Bears’ offensive line after 13 seasons is no surprise to any of us who followed his career at the University of Washington. But even those who admired the gameday intensity Kreutz regularly brought to the Huskies practice field didn’t expect the third-round draft choice in 1997 to challenge Bears durability records.
His 191 games ranks second on Chicago’s all-time list, behind the 205 of teammate Patrick Mannelly, a long snapper. If Kreutz returns to the Bears for a 14th season – he’s scheduled to become a free agent after the playoffs – he’ll need only two starts to surpass Walter Payton’s team mark of 184 in the regular season.
Kreutz hasn’t missed a start since 2002, when he underwent midseason surgery to remove his appendix. A year ago, he played through a painful bone spur in his Achilles’, and this past November he sat out a few practices with a tight hamstring but answered the call of duty on Sunday.
And then there was a $50,000 broken jaw. Kreutz didn’t suffer it – the hurt was put on 6-foot-7, 320-pound teammate Fred Miller during an off-the-field function in 2005 – the volatile center merely threw the punch that drew the fine. But he didn’t miss a game.
Even though he’ll turn 35 in June, Kreutz is the glue holding together a Bears offensive line that’s been patched up since setting standards for ineptitude during a 10-sack mismatch against the New York Giants on Oct.3.
Two weeks later, the Bears line wasn’t much better against the Seahawks.
“Obviously, the line play was at fault,” Kreutz said of the six sacks it allowed in a 23-20 defeat to Seattle at Soldier Field. “We’d like to play better than we played in that game. They did a great job of abusing us, and it starts with me.
“The games the blitzes have gotten us, those are the games the offense hasn’t contributed. We have to show up and pick up the blitz. If we do that, we’ll be OK. I have a feeling they’ll show up, and we’ll show up with what we’ve got.”
Working through some patchwork revisions – rookie J’Marcus Webb took over at right tackle on Week 5, and veteran Roberto Garza, who began the season at left guard, moved to right guard on Week 8 – have gradually stabilized things.
“You could tell we were young and all,” said Kreutz. “You could tell by watching there were a lot of guys who weren’t sure what they had and what they had to do. Now we’re a little farther along.”
Still, it’s fair to wonder if the Bears even advance to the playoffs without Kreutz, the only Chicago lineman to hold down his position for 16 games.
“Olin is one of the best,” Brian Urlacher, the Bears’ seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker, told reporters on a conference call to Seahawks headquarters. “And I get to play against the best every day in practice. It makes me better, it makes our defense better. It’s fun because he’s competitive out there.”
That he’s past his prime is without question: In his prime, the six-time Pro Bowl selection was among the 10 offensive linemen named to the NFL’s All-Decade team of 2000-2010.
But he’s still a wise guy and a smart player – the coach on the field capable of sharing his football acumen with such inexperienced players as Webb and third-year guard Chris Williams.
And he hasn’t lost his edgy streak. When the topic strayed from the nuances of protecting Cutler to, well, Cutler himself – the quarterback’s aloof public persona versus the rugged competitor popular with teammates – Kreutz shrugged.
“Does anybody,” he asked, “have a football question?”
He’s all business, all the time, although Wednesday revealed another glimpse of Olin Kreutz: the happy-go-lucky Bear capable of a laugh so genuine it discourages interruption.
He’ll be here all week.