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Gabe Carimi might hold key to Bears’ offensive line

‘‘It’s feeling great’’ said Gabe Carimi who returned from knee surgery Tuesday. ‘‘I feel like I’m explosive off it right

‘‘It’s feeling great,’’ said Gabe Carimi, who returned from knee surgery Tuesday. ‘‘I feel like I’m explosive off of it right now, and hopefully I’ll keep progressing.’’ | Jonathan Daniel~Getty Images

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:29AM

Bears general manager Phil Emery inherited a playoff-caliber team when he succeeded Jerry Angelo, but also a skeptical fan base conditioned to expect the worst when it comes to three areas in particular: 1. first-round draft picks; 2. offensive linemen; and 3. injuries.

So forgive a slight touch of dread at the sight of Gabe Carimi wearing a Bears baseball cap and cheerfully offering moral support but not participating in drills at practice Wednesday at Halas Hall.

Carimi, who suffered a partially dislocated right kneecap in Week 2 last season, represents a dubious Triple Crown that marked the Angelo era: an offensive lineman drafted in the first round who suffered a significant injury as a rookie. Whether he likes it or not, Carimi will have to live with comparisons to previous Triple Crown victims Marc Colombo (2002) and Chris Williams (2008) until he proves otherwise.

Carimi practiced for the first time since undergoing surgery in November at the organized team activity Tuesday at Halas Hall. He sat out Wednesday but said it was nothing to worry about.

‘‘I woke up, and [the knee] felt great,’’ he said after practice Wednesday. ‘‘But we always had a plan that we weren’t going to practice [Wednesday]. So I get to come out [Thursday] and do what I did on Tuesday.

‘‘I’m not behind at all. The doctor said since the surgery, it would be six months. Six months was three days ago. I’m right there.’’

Carimi said he participated in 50 percent to 75 percent of practice Tuesday — all part of the plan.

‘‘We’re taking it slow right now,’’ he said. ‘‘But it’s feeling great. I feel like I’m explosive off of it right now, and hopefully I’ll keep progressing.’’

It’s always difficult to judge injury rehabilitations, especially with the Bears. But for what it’s worth, Carimi doesn’t sound or act like a player unsure about his future. He was noticeably upbeat at practice, and when it was over, he stayed on the field for media interviews until the last question was asked. He’s as realistic as he is optimistic. He’s not predicting anything regarding his comeback, from a timetable to performance.

‘‘We’re just trying to get in and see how it is with the OTAs and then reassess,’’ Carimi said. ‘‘It’s going to be a constant reassessment, but it feels pretty good, and the trainers are happy with my progress, and the coaches are, too.’’

While much of the Bears’ fate in Emery’s first year as general manager rests with Jay Cutler, Brandon Marshall and Matt Forte, the Carimi situation might be a more crucial indicator of long-term success.

Until Carimi starts the opener against the Indianapolis Colts on Sept. 9 at Soldier Field, the specter of Colombo still hangs over the Bears. Carimi’s prognosis went from a month to ‘‘an extended period of time’’ after suffering the injury
Sept. 19 against the New Orleans Saints. He returned to practice Oct. 26 in preparation for a post-bye-week return
Nov. 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles. But he suffered a setback (‘‘A freak thing,’’ he said Wednesday), never returned to the field and was put on injured reserve Nov. 18.

Carimi’s return is critical. While Emery has shored up key positions, he has left himself open to criticism by leaving an average offensive line virtually untouched. The line is better than critics think. With a makeshift lineup, the Bears were ninth in the NFL in rushing, and Jay Cutler was sacked nine times in is final seven games last season. But disastrous games with Cutler running for his life against the New York Giants in 2010 and the Detroit Lions in 2011 still define our image of the line.

Still, the Bears unabashedly point to Carimi as their key ‘‘upgrade’’ for 2012. He was their best offensive lineman for the five-plus quarters he was healthy last season. He has a chance to make the biggest difference of all. The Bears say he’ll be there. All we can do is keep our fingers crossed.

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