BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — Sometimes, when they’re reminiscing about the good ol’ days, Orlando Pace acknowledges he and former UW lineman Olin Kreutz sound like old men.
They share laughs, recall how things were.
“We can almost relate to a lot of stuff,” said Pace, the Chicago Bears’ new left tackle. “We can talk about back in the day, the way things used to be — the way old men talk about football. So that’s kind of exciting. That’s almost what we do every day just to get ourselves through camp.”
They sound just like old teammates, even though they’re new teammates, and Pace is feeling far from old.
At 33, he feels rejuvenated after signing with the Bears and believes he can regain the form that led to seven Pro Bowl selections with St. Louis before being limited by injuries the past three seasons. If that happens, new star quarterback Jay Cutler will be well-protected, as will running back Matt Forte.
Pace, however, sees himself as just another piece on the line, albeit one with an impressive resume. He blocked for three straight MVPs in St. Louis — quarterback Kurt Warner in 1999 and 2001 and running back Marshall Faulk in 2000 — while making the Pro Bowl from 1999 to 2005. Now, the 6-foot-7, 325-pounder is trying to solidify the Bears’ left tackle spot after signing a three-year, $15-million deal with Chicago in April on the same day it traded for Cutler.
With those two big moves, Chicago made one loud statement: It’s serious about contending in the NFC after going 9-7 last season and missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
By adding Cutler and Pace to a mix that already included a six-time Pro Bowl center in Kreutz, along with promising young players such as Forte and tight end Greg Olsen, the Bears believe an offense that ranked 26th will be more productive.
“I think we’ve upgraded,” coach Lovie Smith said.
It would help if the wide receivers, led by Devin Hester, prove the doubters wrong after struggling last season.
But the quarterback and running backs figure to be protected if a line with potentially three new starters lives up to its billing. Much of that depends on the health of Pace and development of Chris Williams, a first-round pick who was limited by back problems as a rookie last season.
“He’s eager to learn; he’s ready to learn,” Pace said of Williams. “I think he’s ready. He wants to be good.”
While Pace believes that he can flash his old form as long as he stays healthy, he also sees himself as just an addition, a player trying to fit in. On the Bears’ line, Kreutz is the dominant personality, and that’s fine with Pace.
“All I do is laugh, because this guy, he keeps it going man,” Pace said. “I always enjoy being around him. He always has something to say, as you guys probably know, so he’s just fun to be around.”
The top draft pick in 1997, when he was the first offensive lineman chosen No. 1 overall in 29 years, Pace spent his first 12 seasons with the Rams. He played in two Super Bowls and helped the 1999 team win the championship while establishing himself as one of the best at his position before the injuries piled up.
Pace missed eight games in 2006 after tearing his left triceps, and 15 games in 2007 with a torn right labrum and rotator cuff. Last year, a sprained knee kept him out of two games, and St. Louis released him after going 2-14.
The veteran had serious discussions with Baltimore, which likely would have moved him to right tackle. Instead, he went to Chicago, where he knew Smith well and got to stay on the left side. Smith was the Rams’ defensive coordinator from 2001-03 and served as an assistant at Ohio State when Pace was there.
“I think coming to a new place has provided new excitement,” Pace said. “Sometimes when you’re in the same place for a while it gets a little boring — not to say St. Louis was that — but just to come to a new place and feel the energy, feel the atmosphere it almost revives me.”