Roberto Garza has always had a habit of paying close attention to the duties of each position along the offensive line. This season, working as the starting center and the Bears' offensive captain, Garza is finding the effort he put in earlier in his career is paying off now.
"I spent a long time watching everything I could, whether or not I was out there on the field," Garza said. "The end result of that is that I've been able to step in fairly seamlessly since Olin [Kreutz] left the team."
Kreutz was Chicago's starting center and offensive captain for 12 years, leaving late this summer for New Orleans over a reported $500,000 contract dispute with Bears management. Both fans and local media expressed considerable skepticism as to Garza's ability to fill the void, both as a player and a leader, left by Kreutz's departure.
"You know, I tend not to pay too much attention to what is written or said about me. So it didn't really have too much of an affect on my performance," said Garza. "But I had my own expectations and I know the other guys on the line felt the same way. They knew I was a professional who wanted to give 100 percent all of the time, so I think they trusted me. Olin was an excellent teacher in every respect. As an offense we had an excellent basis for communication among ourselves both on and off the field."
Garza likely felt considerable frustration after the offense had shaky performances against Detroit, New Orleans and Green Bay. But if so, he never let on.
"I guess that in many ways I am the public face of the O-line," Garza said. "Of course when the offense in general is under discussion most of the attention goes to Jay Cutler, as it should. But when there are questions about the line, the focus is on me. I am happy to communicate what I am thinking about that and I do tend to focus on the positive."
What Garza sees now is tremendous improvement in all phases of protection. Against the Vikings last weekend, Cutler had ample time in the pocket, completing 21 of 31 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns, good for a quarterback rating of 115.9. And in the run game, Chicago was able to gain a respectable 119 yards on 28 attempts.
The Bears head to London this week to take on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who rank 23rd in the league defensively. They are allowing 24.2 points a game and gave up a 48-spot against the San Francisco 49ers two weeks ago. If Chicago's offensive line performs well for a second week in a row, the Bears will have a good shot at putting up enough points to come home with a victory.
"It's a must win game for us, but of course you say that about every game," said Garza. "If you didn't go in there with the intention of beating your opponent, what would be the point? But yes, I do see opportunities for us there."
Chicago will leave for London tomorrow. There has been some concern that traveling to Europe just three days before the upcoming game will adversely effect the team.
Garza respectfully disagrees.
"It's going to be a very busy week for us with the travel involved, but we've been very concentrated on our game plan and we have some interesting things in place right now. Cutler is playing great, the receivers are spot on and Forte is having tremendous production.
"I honestly don't think that arriving in London yesterday as Tampa did, or arriving there Friday as we will do, will affect things ultimately. Personally I'm happy to have the extra days practicing here and sleeping in my own bed."
A win against the Bucs will put the Bears at 4-3 heading into the Week 8 bye. The club had the same record going into the bye last year and went 7-2 to finish the season, earning an NFC North title and a first-round bye. With all of the problems the team has encountered up to this point, a 4-3 record will put them in good position to make a similar second-half run to the playoffs.
"Everybody is a professional here," Garza said. "We are in this together. If anything I can do or say to these guys can help push us to that win, I'll give my best to accomplish that. In a sense I'm the cheerleader of this offense and that's a role I'm happy to fill."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.