After 13 years and six Pro Bowls with the Bears, the Olin Kreutz era is over.
The Bears broke off negotiations with Kreutz, an unrestricted free agent who was looking for a $4.5 million salary and instead signed ex-Seahawks center Chris Spencer as his replacement. The Bears reportedly would not go higher than $4 million for Kreutz who, for the better part of a decade, was the unquestioned leader, not only of the offensive line, but of the team as a whole.
"It was easy to follow (him)," offensive tackle Frank Omiyale said. "He was always the one out front, always the one in the weight room, so if you had any question about what you needed to do to get ready, all you had to do was check out and see where he was at."
Kreutz, a third-round pick out of Washington in 1998, has a current streak of 134 consecutive starts at center and a total of 183 starts, second in franchise history to Walter Payton's 184. Kreutz started all 16 games in 10 different seasons, and in the past 10 seasons, he missed just one game. The game he missed was a week after undergoing an appendectomy, and he was back in the starting lineup the following week.
Even Bears general manager Jerry Angelo, who pulled the plug on Kreutz, admits the Bears will miss Kreutz.
"Is it going to be a loss? Yeah, it's going to be a loss," Angelo said. "It's going to be a temporary loss, but we have to regroup. We're bringing in Chris Spencer to come in here and compete for that starting center spot."
Spencer is entering his seventh NFL season and has started 70 games, including 16 last year, just the second time that he has started every game in a season. The 29-year-old Mississippi product is 6-foot-3 and 309-pounds.
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The Bears' offensive line allowed more sacks than any team in the NFL last season and was a big reason the team was a lowly No. 30 in total yards and No. 28 in passing yards.
Without Kreutz, that group is worse off than it was a year ago, even though the Bears used this year's first-round draft pick on Wisconsin offensive tackle Gabe Carimi. Because of the work stoppage that wiped out the off-season, Carimi has had just a couple days to learn the Bears' playbook and receive coaching, so it will be difficult for him to make an early impact.
Kreutz, who took $2 million less from the Bears than the Dolphins offered him the last time he was an unrestricted free agent, would have provided the glue for a group in flux. It defies explanation how the same team that forked out a combined $13 million to tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and running back Chester Taylor last season would decide to pinch pennies when it comes to a loyal, long-time employee who may wind up in the Hall of Fame.
For that $13 million, the Bears got a 2.4-yard rushing average from Taylor (267 yards on 112 carries), who could soon lose his roster spot to recently signed Marion Barber. They got five catches for 43 yards and a handful of blocks from Manumaleuna, who failed his physical and was waived last week.
"I think Olin is a must," safety Chris Harris said a day before the Bears gave up on Kreutz. "We must get him back here. His presence ... I can't really put it into words. He's the leader of this team. He's well respected. He's one of the most well-respected guys on this team. It would be a way different look without him out here."
Later, when the divorce was finalized, Harris tweeted: "In my 7 yr. NFL career Olin Kreutz is the toughest football player I have EVER played with. PERIOD."
Angelo admitted the fallout from long-time teammates spoke to Kreutz's value on the field and in the locker room.
"It just tells you how revered he was, and you could put me first in line on that," Angelo said. "He meant a lot to this football team, but there comes a time where there's going to be closure. Nobody lives forever; nobody goes on forever, that's just the nature of the business. Whether it's next year or the year after that, there's going to be this moment. This is the time."
Harris was far from the only player angry and disappointed about the loss of Kreutz and the way he went out.
Long-time right guard Roberto Garza, who has lined up next to Kreutz for the past six years, filled in at center the first two practices in training camp, but Garza hadn't snapped in an NFL games since 2005.
"It would be a tough position to fill," Garza said when asked Friday about the possibility of going into the season without Kreutz. "His leadership, his skills and what he brings to this team, he makes everybody around him better. And hopefully we don't have to go through that.
"He means a lot to the guys who have played with him. We have a lot of respect for him as a player and as a person, with what he brings to this team."
Asked if Spencer represented an upgrade over Kreutz, Bears coach Lovie Smith said: "Spencer is a good football player. I can't compare him with Olin. Olin is not an option for us right now. We weren't able to come to an agreement with him. It didn't work out. This is a good option for us. We're always trying to improve our ball club. That's the position that of course we need a player and we feel good about him.
"Every year is a different year, is a different team. You have to move on, which we are going to do. We have a good football team. Other guys will move into that role."
The Bears have plenty of players who can snap the ball, but none of them fill the role that Kreutz played.
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