Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Olin Kreutz talked and laughed with linemates as he walked off the practice field at the Walter Payton Center on Thursday afternoon. Although he didn’t practice, he’s healthy and happy — the beneficiary of a veteran’s day off.
He’s not as grouchy these days because his team is back in the playoffs, his body feels fine — especially after he had a bone spur removed near an Achilles tendon last January — and his unit has weathered a seasonlong storm of criticism.
‘‘It’s been a great year,’’ Kreutz told the Sun-Times. ‘‘Playing with the guys on the offensive line and playing for coach [Mike] Tice has been a good experience for me. It’s been fun.’’
But Kreutz is experienced enough to know his next game, Jan. 16 at Soldier Field in the NFC divisional playoffs, could be his last with the Bears, the only team he has known in 13 NFL seasons.
The Bears quietly engaged in contract discussions with about eight players and only reached a deal with two: defensive tackle Matt Toeaina and long snapper Patrick Mannelly. On Thursday, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo wisely steered clear of comments about contracts during his news conference. But the offseason promises to be an active one, with more than a dozen players to address, not to mention hard decisions on several high-salaried veterans.
The notion may have been farfetched a year ago, but the Bears now may have to prioritize re-signing Kreutz, who turns 34 in June.
The six-time Pro Bowl selection hasn’t earned a free trip back home to Hawaii, courtesy of the NFL, since the 2006 season, and his standing among NFL centers is debatable. But players and coaches alike insist he remains the Bears’ best lineman.
‘‘He’s our best offensive lineman, and he’s playing at an extremely high level,’’ guard Roberto Garza said. ‘‘He sets the standard really high for us.’’
But what does that mean, since the Bears’ offensive line isn’t regarded anywhere close to the NFL’s elite?
One NFC personnel director said the Bears’ unit is playing better of late and that Kreutz is its best player. But separately, that official ranked him in the ‘‘lower half’’ of the NFL’s starting centers.
What isn’t debatable is that the Bears still need Kreutz. He leads the unit, he leads the offense, and he provides a consistency at a key position that can’t be overlooked. One of the many issues for the Minnesota Vikings this season was the health of center John Sullivan, who missed much of the preseason and struggled through the regular season with a calf injury.
‘‘We’ve gotten steady, good play — great play at times — from Olin,’’ Bears coach Lovie Smith said. ‘‘You know what you’re going to get each week. I have confidence knowing that we have a guy like Olin Kreutz on the team.’’
The offensive line is clearly a work in progress, a unit with more questions than answers that’s relying on Tice — one of the league’s most respected line coaches — to build it up.
But the Bears’ window for a championship is closing more than it’s opening, with many of the best players already in their 30s. Would they really roll the dice by counting on Garza or Edwin Williams to play center next season?
More than anything, Kreutz has intangibles that aren’t easily replaced. Chris Williams said Kreutz has been helpful in Williams’ transition from tackle to guard and added that the younger players look to him ‘‘in any situation.’’
‘‘He always knows how to coach guys, and he’s always watching,’’ Williams said. ‘‘It’s another set of eyes on you.
‘‘He’s the leader of the group and, really, the leader of the team. He’s irreplaceable.’’
Tice said Kreutz helped him gain credibility with the linemen.
‘‘For a player to buy into what you’re selling, especially a player of his caliber, is important for the group,’’ Tice said. ‘‘When you get a leader like him to buy in, it helps you as a position coach.’’
Kreutz, who said he has learned plenty from Tice, embraces his leadership role.
‘‘We have a great group of guys who took a ton of criticism but never turned on each other and just kept trying to improve,’’ Kreutz said. ‘‘We’re satisfied, but we don’t want to talk about being satisfied right now. We want to keep getting better.’’
Naturally, Kreutz didn’t want to talk much about his future beyond the next 10 days. But he made clear that he wants to keep playing and that he prefers not to move.
Asked if he will test free agency, he said, ‘‘If forced to, you do what comes your way. Everything is year by year. I always say the NFL will let you know when you’re done, so when no one wants me, that’s when I’ll be done playing. But I still feel I can play.’’
As for staying in Chicago?
‘‘I’ve chosen the Bears how many times over other teams? Everybody knows, all things equal, but . . . I’m not tremendously worried, and we’ll just go with what happens.’’
The market for centers has increased dramatically, especially after Nick Mangold signed a seven-year, $55 million deal with the New York Jets in August that included $22.5 million in guarantees.
Kreutz can’t command anything remotely close to that amount, but his price may be closer to the deal the Baltimore Ravens awarded six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk: three years, $12 million, half of which is guaranteed.
But Kreutz’s focus is on the here and now — the hope that the Bears can win the Super Bowl. And his immediate goal is modest.
‘‘I just try to be the same guy every day,’’ he said, ‘‘and when it’s over, it’s over.’’