By Chris Emma–
LAKE FOREST, Ill. (CBS) — Eight years of consistency didn’t matter much 180 miles north of Halas Hall. After all, the NFL is a cruel business.
The Packers had tried to trade guard Josh Sitton, set to enter a contract season. They informed him at the end of August that a move could be coming. But nobody could’ve imagined Sitton would be released prior to Week 1 of the 2016 campaign, fresh off three Pro Bowl berths in four seasons.
For all the surprise inside the Packers’ locker room, all the excitement in Lake Forest, the harsh reality of this league prevailed. Sitton signed with the Bears the following Sunday and was their starting left guard the next morning.
“I guess I’ve learned that change isn’t that big of a deal,” Sitton said from his locker stall at Halas Hall on Tuesday, months after his sudden depature from the Packers. “It wasn’t like a huge thing, it wasn’t a huge transition, it wasn’t anything crazy.
“I learned to take the positives with what at the time was a negative thing, after getting cut.”
After Sitton was released, he drove straight south down I-94 from Green Bay to Lake Forest, the most convenient move of any destination for the next chapter of his career. The Bears were thrilled to have landed him. Suddenly, they had six combined Pro Bowls at the guard positions and a promising second-round center in whom they hold great belief.
In looking to move the 30-year-old Sitton, the Packers prioritized the younger players on their offensive line, fearing deals for those players would upset him. Though Sitton had been a mainstay to Aaron Rodgers’ protection, a key cog in the Green Bay locker room, he became expendable. They slid 27-year-old Lane Taylor in at left guard, a player who has struggled during his first season as a starter.
The Packers’ loss has been the Bears’ gain, with Sitton playing at a high level in Chicago. Had it not been for an ankle injury that held him out three games and limited his ability, Sitton would likely be playing in his fourth Pro Bowl in the last five years.
Sitton holds no ill will toward the Packers. Despite the Bears’ disappointing 30-27 loss to the Packers on Sunday, he enjoyed competing against old friends. But losing is something Sitton hasn’t experienced much. He made the playoffs for seven straight seasons as a full-time starter with the Packers. His Bears are 3-11.
“You definitely want to go win every game,” Sitton said. “There’s no question about that. Losing in this business isn’t fun. But I’m definitely enjoying my time here.
“A lot of great guys on this squad. I’ve learned a lot about the guys here and how hard they fight, how hard we just keep playing, no matter what. A lot of adversity, and we’ve fought through it. We got a lot of resilient guys.”
Sitton has been just as resilient. After his unceremonious release from the Packers, he meshed right into the Bears’ offensive line. That requires learning an entirely new language and the ability to fit right between new teammates. It takes a veteran like Sitton, who knows the game better than most.
Bears guard Ted Larsen, a veteran of 63 NFL starts and seven seasons, sees the trend to which many are oblivious. As teams look through the draft for their future on the offensive line, some fail to convert their young players to a pro-style system. In the college game, the spread is the most common offense.
College linemen aren’t being produced the way they once were. They take several years of coaching into NFL systems to reach pro potential. In this upcoming draft, Alabama’s Cam Robinson is viewed as the only first-round lineman lock. He hails from a pro-style offense.
Younger isn’t necessarily better on the offensive line. The Bears have found stability up front with a veteran group.
“The only thing that can help us is that the rookies coming out of college are so bad, so inexperienced with anything besides the zone read, they just can’t play,” Larsen said.
“As long as that keeps happening, I’m fine with that, because that’s called job security for (veterans). They can come in and be crappy players, not get coached up, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”
When Sitton and Kyle Long went down to ankle injuries — Sitton’s causing him to miss three games, Long’s forcing season-ending surgery — the Bears counted on Larsen and veteran Eric Kush to step in at guard. It was a seamless transition. Continuity comes from a number of factors, including a knowledgeable position coach in Dave Magazu, practice reps and a close-knit group. But the veteran influence has proved to be important.
The Bears have allowed just 25 quarterback sacks, which ranks 10th in the league. Rookie running back Jordan Howard has averaged 5.0 yards per carry and is at 1,059 yards — second among rookie rushers — on 99 fewer carries than leader Ezekiel Elliott.
Moving forward, the Bears could look for an upgrade at left tackle, where 2013 seventh-round pick Charles Leno has been effective as a starter. But it seems the offensive line is set for the future.
Sitton knows that the cruel business of the NFL can bring surprises to even the most accomplished players, but he’s happy to have found his next chapter with the Bears.
“Yeah,” he said with a smile. “As long as they’ll keep me.”