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Bears face chore replacing Olin Kreutz; Roberto Garza has résumé

OlKreutz says Bears’ offensive line will be fine with veteran RoberGarz(63) as unit’s leader this season.  |  Joel

Olin Kreutz says the Bears’ offensive line will be fine with veteran Roberto Garza (63) as the unit’s leader this season. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: November 14, 2011 12:17AM

BOURBONNAIS, Ill. — An NFL locker room with 50-plus players can get unruly. It requires a handful of leaders to maintain order, and each unit often appoints or elects one.

For as long as any Bear can remember, there has only been one leader at Halas Hall: center Olin Kreutz, who departed over the weekend after he and the Bears couldn’t come to terms on a new deal.

Teammates respected his toughness, appreciated his sense of humor, emulated his professionalism and admired his willingness to invite criticism and deflect credit.

‘‘Olin’s value to this team goes much deeper than people may see or hear,’’ linebacker Lance Briggs said. ‘‘Olin is a natural-born leader, and it kind of oozes out of him. You can see that. He says something, and he means it, and you fall in line. You fall in line or you get out of the way. That’s why [players] respect him so much — because he’s a real man.’’

The Pro Bowl isn’t the greatest measure, but the last of Kreutz’s six selections was in 2006.

Yet many of the Bears’ top players wanted him back and shared an anecdote of awe.

Playing through a serious injury. Arriving early in the morning and leaving late at night. And, once in a while, inspiring with his words.

‘‘He had an ability to rally people when things weren’t going well,’’ defensive tackle Israel Idonije said, remembering the October 2006 game when the Bears rallied from a 20-0 halftime deficit to beat the Arizona Cardinals 24-23. ‘‘I remember that game when we were behind, and he gave a speech, and we came back, sure enough, to win that game. He’s really a leader.’’

On Sunday, Bears safety Chris Harris deviated from the usual team M.O. and questioned a team decision that ‘‘won’t sit well in the locker room for a few days.’’

Kreutz normally would address that player, except the comment on Twitter was about him.

‘‘They have strong leaders in that locker room’’ Kreutz said, rattling off names that included Brian Urlacher, Jay Cutler, Patrick Mannelly and Julius Peppers. ‘‘They’ll move on. Their locker room is extremely strong. Sometimes I think my leadership was overplayed in there.’’

Current Bears insist that’s not the case, with many, including Urlacher, Briggs and Matt Forte, making it clear Kreutz was the unquestioned team leader.

So while general manager Jerry Angelo and coach Lovie Smith believe in the leadership of others, the players believe it’ll have to be a collective effort to fill Kreutz’s void.

‘‘We have great leadership on this team, but there will never, ever be another Olin Kreutz,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘Let’s get that right out.’’

Urlacher wondered about the future of the offensive line without Kreutz, a 13-year veteran. But Kreutz said there’s no question who will take over his unit.

‘‘It’s got to be [Roberto] Garza, no doubt,’’ Kreutz said. ‘‘But Garza has been a leader there. People give me credit, but half of it he deserves. The O-line is going to be fine.’’

Garza, 32, played his first four seasons with the Atlanta Falcons before signing with the Bears in 2005. He said Kreutz showed him, day in and day out, how to make it in the NFL.

‘‘When you have a leader like that, it’s special, so I’ve had the privilege of working with him and seeing how he does things, and obviously I’m going to use everything he taught me and continue to do things the way he did,’’ Garza said. ‘‘But I’m not Olin. I have to do things my way, but I can’t shy too far away from what he was doing.’’

Garza has several of Kreutz’s qualities. There’s no question he’s tough — he doesn’t have an anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee — and there’s no question he’s a hard worker who represents the Bears well.

Kreutz pushed the offensive line to be the hardest-working unit on the team, a goal Garza wants to keep.

‘‘That’s what he started,’’ Garza said.

The next task will be to welcome in Chris Spencer, who was signed Sunday to a two-year contract. Although he has played center and guard, Spencer likely will be the Bears’ starting center, putting him in a difficult position.

But Briggs said Bears players won’t have any resentment toward Spencer.

‘‘This is a good locker room,’’ Briggs said. ‘‘We’re not like that. We’re not petty.’’

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