Rozner: Cutting Slauson tough for Bears to swallow
It's always worth remembering that the business of professional sports is precisely that, a business to those who own the teams and those paid handsomely to operate them.
There is very little space for heart, and rarely can you locate the humanity.
Still, the dismissal of Matt Slauson by the Bears on Sunday was particularly cold.
Slauson was the Bears' most important offensive lineman in 2015, a rather remarkable feat considering he kept his body together with chewing gum, tobacco spit and duct tape.
And we're not even talking fresh duct tape. We're talking half-twisted, quarter strips of recently used duct tape.
He's an NFL offensive lineman. That's just what they do. They hold it together, get filthy and do the heavy digging while those with clean jerseys and hefty contracts get the bright camera lights.
Slauson was the epitome of such a player. He was beloved, respected and cherished among his position group.
"That guy is my hero," said Kyle Long last season. "I don't know what this year would have been like without him."
Long was speaking of his switch from guard to tackle with about 15 minutes' notice before the 2015 season.
The changes all season were borderline comical, perhaps no game more telling than a midseason game at Soldier Field against Minnesota. Left tackle Jermon Bushrod and center Hroniss Grasu were inactive. Patrick Omameh went to right guard for Vladimir Ducasse. Slauson moved to center for Grasu. Ducasse was at left guard for Slauson. And Charles Leno entered at left tackle for Bushrod.
That doesn't even include Long, who was trying to keep his head above water while learning right tackle on the fly.
Yet, on that Sunday, despite the complicated Minnesota defense, and with two or three defenders frequently lined up over his helmet, Long never once picked the wrong player to block.
How was it possible?
"Thank God we have a center who's telling me who to block, because I'd be trying to block both guys if I didn't know," Long said of Slauson. "There's a lot of communication on every play.
"With the multiple picks, fronts, looks and stunts that the Vikings run, you need to have a guy in the center of the line that can make the call."
In the Adam Gase offense, Slauson was locked in.
"I'm just very, very comfortable and familiar with our offense as far as our identifications. Everyone is going off our identifications and following the rules," Slauson said. "When you have a lot of moving parts -- guys moving, switching positions, guys out, new guys in -- everybody just has to follow the rules.
"It falls on the center and quarterback to make sure everyone has the identifications."
Slauson, however, would not accept credit for Long's best games of the season.
"Kyle is just a freak," Slauson said. "He can be one of the best offensive linemen to ever play in the NFL, and I just want to give him the opportunity to be that guy. I just want to make sure that everyone has the right assignments."
The offense was at its best in the middle of the season, with Slauson at center and the line begging to run the football.
"We don't make excuses," Long said. "We're offensive linemen. Throw us in there and we make it work. We're the Mushroom Club. Keep us in the dark and feed us (manure), and we're supposed to come out with a good product."
In the first five games after Grasu returned to center and Slauson shifted back to guard, the Bears lost four of five and the offensive line struggled.
It was a development year and the kid needed to play. No one should blame Grasu, but the reality is the line wasn't as good. In the Washington game, the line committed 4 penalties, Jay Cutler was sacked 3 times and hit twice that number.
Long had a particularly rough day.
"As far as I'm concerned, yes, we have the guys to get it done," Slauson said bravely that day, "but that's a question for someone who gets paid a lot more than I do."
That question has been answered.
Slauson's best days at guard are behind him. With a high draft pick at guard and some free-agent signings, the handwriting was on the wall, but there's something to be said for a guy who started 16 games and was the leader of a young and disheveled group.
The two most important voices on the offense, Cutler and Long, adored and trusted Slauson. Maybe most crucial, they looked up to and respected the veteran who was willing to do anything to help his team.
After the final game of 2015, Long spoke prophetically of the inevitable changes that would occur, as they always do in the NFL, win or lose.
"That's the business for coaches and players," Long said. "It's a meat grinder. That's the NFL. Players are meat to be eaten and then they bring in new meat that tastes good. That's the nature of the game."
He has never been so sorry to be so right.
• Listen to Barry Rozner from 9 a.m. to noon Sundays on the Score's "Hit and Run" show at WSCR 670-AM.