By Chris Emma–
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) — A hush went through Solider Field on Saturday as a Bear went down on the field.
Coach John Fox was first to the scene, with the freak injury occurring right in front of him. Then came confirmation from the PA announcer.
The injured player is Hroniss Grasu.
An audible groan followed. As Grasu was helped to a cart, teammates Kyle Long and Jay Cutler each went to his side and offered words of encouragement. They realized their worst fears would come true.
Grasu suffered a torn ACL, which will require surgery and force him to miss the 2016 season. It was a tough blow to the Bears, not only on the field but in the locker room. Cutler called Grasu a “favorite,” and many teammates would agree.
“I had a hard time with that one yesterday, getting over that,” Cutler said. “I think guys are probably still feeling the effects a little bit today. He’s so selfless. He’s everything you talk about when you talk about a team guy. ”
What can be considered the biggest loss is how a young, developing player like Grasu misses out for a year on growth. He had bulked up to more than 300 pounds and worked hard to gain a grasp of the playbook.
Monday brought the beginning of a new look for the Bears. While Grasu will be present with the team all season — at games, practices, meetings and more — they’re moving on without him.
With Grasu out, the Bears have made the decision to keep second-round pick Cody Whitehair at left guard and instead plug in veteran Ted Larsen to center.
“He’s started in the league before,” Fox said. “That’s why we signed Ted. He’s an experienced lineman, he’s a veteran guy, came from a winning team. We have great confidence in what Ted can do.”
In making this move, the Bears have again expressed confidence in Whitehair’s future at left guard. Their first nod toward this was drafting him in the second round, and that was followed by the surprising decision to cut veteran Matt Slauson to open up opportunity for Whitehair.
So when Grasu’s void needed to be filled, the Bears opted to develop Whitehair at his position of the future, left guard, and move fellow interior lineman Larsen over to center. A six-year NFL veteran, Larsen last played center in 2013 with the Buccaneers and started 13 games there in 2012. He started at guard for the Cardinals the past two seasons.
Larsen’s transition comes in training camp instead of the season, so he has ample time to settle into a new role. The newcomer has already developed a reputation as a hard-nosed player, partly because he’s instigated four different fights in camp, most recently a brawl in Saturday’s Family Fest that preceded Grasu’s injury.
“It’s hot out and guys’ tempers flare,” Larsen said. “I’m not a guy who’s going to take crap from anybody or stand down, so that’s probably the crux of it.”
In Larsen, the Bears have a capable, experienced veteran who can help ease the transition. Yet, his role was supposed to be as a reserve, and now the Bears are short-handed with depth. Amini Silatolu and Garry Williams each have starting experience, but they were both called upon only a pair of sudden retirements, first from Manny Ramirez, then Nate Chandler, the roster replacement to Ramirez.
The Bears are being tested on the interior line early into the preseason. Fortunately, there’s a positive development taking place. Whitehair has looked the part of an NFL starter.
“The good thing is we don’t talk about him much,” Cutler said of Whitehair. “He’s doing his job over there. He’s quiet. He’s steadily becoming a pro, even at a young age. He’s going to be good on that left side for us.”
The Bears are trying to forge an offensive line for the future, with second-year general manager Ryan Pace making it an emphasis to find younger, more athletic players. The team believes in Charles Leno at left tackle, and Kyle Long and Bobby Massie create a daunting duo at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
Ideally, the Bears would’ve liked to see Whitehair and Grasu work well in the interior. Those plans changed on Saturday. By keeping Whitehair at left guard, he can begin to work toward a long career at the position, then Grasu can be plugged right back in at center next season. The Bears can continue developing a young offensive line in 2017 while counting on Larsen to fill the void in 2016.
All will be fine if the Bears’ offensive line can avoid the injury bug moving forward. Larsen is a capable starter, and Whitehair has great upside. The two most important questions to the line could be answered.
Losing a beloved teammate like Grasu leaves the Bears with a gut-wrenching feeling, but they hope to move on with stability on the offensive line.