Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
As it turns out, when Mike Tice put together the Bears’ offensive line during training camp, he had only one spot out of five right.
And 12-year veteran Olin Kreutz at center was a no-brainer — like the free spot on a bingo card. Tice was so enamored with 2009 seventh-round pick Lance Louis as a right guard that he moved veteran Roberto Garza to left guard.
‘‘If I look up right guard in the dictionary, I see a picture of Lance Louis,’’ Tice said in August.
Louis might be a starting guard someday, but not this year. With Louis at right guard, Frank Omiyale at right tackle, Chris Williams at left tackle and Garza at left guard, the offensive line was a mess.
But not for long. Tice proved adept at not only acknowledging a mistake but correcting it — both rare commodities at Halas Hall in recent years. It took the Bears four years to realize Mark Anderson wasn’t a starting defensive end. It took Tice four games to realize Louis wasn’t a starting right guard.
And it took Tice only seven games and injuries to Williams and Garza to find the right offensive line combination: Omiyale at left tackle, Williams at left guard, Kreutz at center, Garza at right guard and 2010 seventh-round pick J’Marcus Webb at right tackle.
The Hogs they are not. But the continuity and weekly improvement has paid measurable dividends. The Bears allowed 31 sacks in their first seven games but only 19 in their next eight before being overwhelmed by the Green Bay Packers’ desperate onslaught in Week 17.
Matt Forte averaged 3.8 yards per carry in his first nine games and 5.3 in the final seven — four of them against top-11 run defenses.
‘‘We have the best offensive line coach in the league, period,’’ Kreutz said.
With some breaks along the way and extraordinarily good health, coach Lovie Smith and his staff managed their personnel better this year than ever. Devin Hester was re-emphasized as a kick returner; Israel Idonije replaced Anderson in Week 2; Matt Toeaina was moved ahead of Tommie Harris in Week 3; Tim Jennings replaced Zack Bowman in Week 4, and Webb was made a starter in Week 5.
But nobody had a bigger job than Tice, who — typical of almost any Bears success — put himself in a big hole early and then pulled himself out of it. That’s why the offensive line coach of a team that led the NFL in sacks allowed (56) and ranked 22nd in rushing yards per game is the Bears’ best assistant coach of 2010. Could the Bears have won the NFC North without him?
And now, the rest of the awards, highlights and memorable moments from the Bears’ season:
Best individual performance
Jay Cutler completed 14 of 21 passes for 247 yards (11.8 yards per attempt), four touchdowns and no interceptions for a career-best 146.2 passer rating in a 31-26 victory over the Eagles in Week 12.
A well-timed bye week was crucial to the Bears’ success. Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher were injured and the offense was out of whack when the team went into the bye at 4-3.
Urlacher and Briggs were rejuvenated, and the offense found its rightful balance as the Bears won five in a row and seven of eight.
The golden touch
Jennings turned a missed tackle into gold when Urlacher forced James Jones to fumble in the fourth quarter of a tie game against the Packers in Week 3. Jennings recovered, and the Bears kicked a field goal to win 20-17.
Earl Bennett sent Seattle Seahawks punter Jon Ryan flying with a show-stopping, blind-side block that helped spring Hesterfor an 89-yard touchdown returnin Week 6.
Best clutch plays
Offense: Cutler’s back-to-back quick-hitters to Hester (19 yards) and Greg Olsen (39-yard touchdown) to thwart a vicious Cowboys rush in a 27-20 victory in Week 2.
Defense: Jennings looked like he was beaten for a big gainer against the Bills in Week 9, but he reached out at the last second and tipped the ball five times before intercepting it and returning it 39 yards to set up the go-ahead touchdown.
Special teams: Hester’s 62-yard punt return for a touchdown — his first kick-return touchdown since 2007 — gave the Bears a 14-10 lead against the Packers in Week 3.
Julius Peppers’ best plays
1. Tipped a Jimmy Clausen pass, then leaped to intercept it in the first quarter of the Bears’ 23-6 victory against the Panthers, his former team.
2. Sacked the Lions’ Matthew Stafford, forced a fumble and knocked Stafford out for five weeks with a shoulder injury in the opener at Soldier Field.
3. Sacked a harried Michael Vick for a 14-yard loss on third-and-goal at the 3-yard line, forcing Vick to lose a shoe and the football. He recovered both, but the Eagles had to settle for a field goal that got them within 14-13.
Ode to Tommie Harris
Harris isn’t what he was, but he still can make plays. He turned the momentum against the Eagles in Week 12 when he tipped a Vick pass that Chris Harris intercepted in the end zone. The Bears responded with a touchdown en route to a 31-26 victory.