POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jan 18, 2011
To change their fortunes this season, the Chicago Bears have moved offensive linemen around like items in a supermarket display.
They shifted guards, rotated tackles weekly and, sometimes, even made guards into tackles, so desperate was Chicago to protect its quarterback and open up the running game.
Through it all, center Olin Kreutz has been the one constant up front and, as the Bears advance to the NFC title game against Green Bay, that is definitely no coincidence.
Opponents have had trouble budging the 6-foot-2, 292-pound Saint Louis School graduate and, for a decade, the Bears haven't been about to. Kreutz has started 135 games in a row at center and missed just one -- for a 2002 appendectomy -- in nine years.
In the course of his 13 seasons in Chicago, Kreutz has started more regular-season games for the Bears than anybody since Walter Payton.
But Kreutz's importance goes beyond ironman status. In a season that has demanded resilience, Kreutz set a high standard. In a campaign that has put a premium on learning to work together, Kreutz has led the way amid a changing cast that all but required "hello-my-name-is" tags.
More than just one of a handful of holdovers from the Bears' 2006 Super Bowl team, Kreutz, through the force of his personality and dint of dedication, is also a major reason why Chicago, after a 4-3 start, is 12-5 and remarkably in the running for a berth in Super Bowl XLV next month.
He was the rock around which the offensive line was resculpted and, for much of the season, what held it together amid the mixing and matching of lineups.
Much of it is no doubt testament to the way he is wired. It is how he plays the game: all out, all the time. It has been that way since he showed up as a third-round pick out of the University of Washington in 1998 and waged a battle for the starting job from the first snap of training camp. It is still the manner in which he drives himself now.
And, then, too, there is undoubtedly the realization that his days are numbered. In the NFL and Chicago. It is a point that would have been hard to miss when he hobbled to a finish last year, the result of a troublesome bone spur that pained an Achilles' tendon.
The injury impacted Kreutz's push off the line and the leverage he was able to apply, two crucial elements of his game. But because the remedy was a procedure that came with a prescribed three months or more of layoff and a much longer healing period, Kreutz endured the discomfort to finish out last season.
This time last January, when he finally went through with the procedure, there was speculation about how, at age 33, he might come back from it for the last year of his current contract. The answer has been in his performance to date.
After six Pro Bowl appearances, Kreutz was passed over for the all-star game this year, you suspect, because of the Bears' struggles.
Yet, taken in the context of what went on around him and what he has contributed to Chicago being where it is now, in some ways this should stand as one of his best seasons.
Reach Ferd Lewis at email@example.com.