A few days before the start of the season, the Bears invested in Cody Whitehair to the tune of a lucrative five-year contract.
"Cody embodies everything we look for in a Chicago Bear," general manager Ryan Pace said when the contract was announced, "and I'm excited for us as an organization to extend him five more years. He is a great talent and unselfish teammate with a ton of pride in being a leader for us."
Last week, with the Bears sitting on a 3-5 record, the Bears looked to shake things up by asking a little more of the soft-spoken lineman from rural Kansas. Whitehair moved back to center, his position for his first three years in Chicago.
According to offensive line coach Harry Hiestand, the move had less to do with the individual skills of Whitehair or James Daniels–with whom Whitehair switched places--than the need for experience in the middle of the line. On Whitehair's left, there's Daniels, 22 years old and in his second season. On his right, Rashaad Coward, 25 and playing guard for the first time.
"Moving [Whitehair] over there now kind of balanced us up a little bit," said Hiestand, "Instead of [Daniels] and Rashaad learning on the job next to each other, now you've got a guy that's been in their situation considerably more, and that's a help for Rashaad and his development."
The 27-year-old Whitehair has relished the opportunity to step into a leadership role. He sees responsibility as one of stabilizing and gentle instruction.
"Just keeping them calm, letting them know that they're doing the right things," said Whitehair. "They've done a great job up to this point. Just keep encouraging them and helping them out when they need help."
On Wednesday, Whitehair said that he was starting to find the rhythm of his old position and that the line was settling into the change. He remains focused on improving his shotgun-snapping, an activity he had not done between last January's Pro Bowl and the beginning of last week.
"Obviously, there's a little rust, as you saw Sunday if you were on the ground," said Whitehair. "I'm excited about the opportunity. It's kind of like riding a bike, so you've got to knock the rust off a little bit and get back at it."
Against the Lions, a few of Whitehair's snaps went off target, though none resulted in a turnover or backbreaking loss of yards. Still, Whitehair--a tackle in high school and guard for most of his career at Kansas State--is determined to minimize mistakes as quickly as possible without dwelling too much on any single snap.
"I think if you tend to think about it," said Whitehair, "it gets in your head and becomes a mental issue, so it's just a matter of getting back into the routine of things. That will come."
Whitehair will find himself tested this Sunday when his responsibility will include facing off against one of the league's premier tackles in Aaron Donald.
"I think that's the hardest part of being a center," said Whitehair. "It's one of the hardest blocks in football, to be able to snap the ball and get your hands on a zero nose."
With Whitehair now 1-0 in 2019 as the Bears' starting center, the team will lean on his leadership and field savvy as they attempt to mount a late-season run. That's precisely what Whitehair wants.
"The coaches believe in me," said Whitehair. "I'm in a really fortunate spot. I look forward to that opportunity."