(670 The Score) At the mid-November bye week of a season becoming increasingly lost, the Bears were desperate to create a functioning offensive line.
They had nearly run out of options up front, with poor play from the unit and injuries contributing greatly to the team's offensive struggles. It was then that the Bears turned to second-year center Sam Mustipher to lead a reshuffled line, and they soon found something that worked. The Bears topped the 100-yard rushing mark in their final six regular-season games with the new offensive line combination after failing to reach the century mark in the previous seven contests.
Mustipher taking over at center allowed Cody Whitehair at left guard and Alex Bars at right guard to play their more comfortable positions and led to better pre-snap communication for the group. By the end of the season, Mustipher showed that he may be the Bears' starting center moving forward.
"I feel like I made the most of my opportunity," Mustipher said last week. "I had a great group surrounding me, a great group of coaches believing in me to lead an offensive line. I feel like I proved that I belong in this league.
"I'm going to work harder than I ever have. I didn't just get here (to only) just get here. It took a lot of hard work, and it's going to take a lot of hard work to stay here -- not just to stay here but to get even better."
The Bears have struggled to shore up the center position in general manager Ryan Pace's six-year tenure. Hroniss Grasu first filled that position in 2015, then Whitehair stepped in a year later. Whitehair slid over to left guard in 2018, making way for rookie James Daniels at center. But Daniels struggled in that role, so the Bears shifted him to left guard and returned Whitehair to center.
Given those previous struggles, the Bears seem likely to give Mustipher an opportunity to grow at the center position and build the offensive line around him. In the 2021 season, the competition on the offensive line will be at guard and tackle.
Daniels is expected to be healthy after suffering a pectoral tear in October, which puts him in line to compete with Whitehair and Bars for the two guard positions. The familiarity between Bars and Mustipher, college teammates at Notre Dame, could give Bars an edge at right guard. The veteran Whitehair, who signed a five-year extension in 2019, has started 78 games in Chicago.
The Bears' most pressing questions come at tackle, where they have received inconsistent play on both sides of the line. Charles Leno Jr. struggled before Whitehair's move to left guard helped stabilize that side of the line. Bobby Massie played in just eight games at right tackle before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Germain Ifedi and Rashaad Coward faltered in filling that void.
Massie, who turns 32 in August, is a candidate to be released this offseason given his recent injury history. Leno seems less likely to be released, but the Bears could look to the draft for an upgrade at left tackle.
"The offensive line is something we’re always going to look at, and there’s a variety of ways we can continue to improve it and it’s on us," Pace said.
Given the struggles of this Bears offense these last two seasons, they must enter 2021 with greater certainty on the offensive line. The time spent attempting to solidify this group resulted in poor play for the entire offense, part of Chicago's 8-8 record.
With the line centered around Mustipher, it seems the Bears found something to work with in 2021.
Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.