Recapping Brian Urlacher's Hall of Fame Career

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Recapping Brian Urlacher's Hall of Fame Career

Brian Urlacher walked away from the NFL on Wednesday, having announced his retirement via his official Twitter feed.

The 6'4", 260-pound linebacker left behind an incredible legacy: He played 13 seasons and 182 games for the Chicago Bears and was one of the best linebackers in football for almost the entirety of that span.

Urlacher set franchise records for linebackers in solo tackles (1,052), assisted tackles (306), sacks (41.5) and tied Dick Butkus for second place in interceptions (22). Among all defenders, Urlacher's tackle totals are tops in Chicago Bears history. Urlacher's sack total is sixth best, and he's tied for 10th in interceptions.

With eight Pro Bowls and four first-team All-Pro appearances, Urlacher is unquestionably one of the best linebackers of his generation and should be mentioned among the all-time greats. The question is not if he'll be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but if he'll be inducted on the first ballot. 

As Urlacher himself said in his announcement, his "passion and performance" last season had not been up to his usual standards. No. 54 was out there, as always, but his left knee—after undergoing multiple procedures in 2012, per Mike Mulligan of the Chicago Tribune—robbed him of the freakish sideline-to-sideline athleticism that made him so terrifying.

If Chicago Bears fans couldn't recognize their middle linebacker as the Monster of the Midway he'd always been, what would they have thought of seeing the name "URLACHER" on the back of a 5'9", 160-pound wide receiver?

During his sophomore year in high school, that's exactly what Brian Urlacher was.

 

Untapped Potential

In tiny Lovington, N.M., Urlacher was a natural athlete, excelling in football, basketball and even ping-pong. On the football team, he was used all over the field: receiver, running back, kick returner and defensive back.

That said, Urlacher wasn't much more than a natural athlete. Then-assistant and current head coach Jaime Quinones saw the incredible football player Urlacher had the potential to become.

As Urlacher told USA Today's Greg Boeck in 2007, Quinones was "like a father-figure to me football-wise." Quinones got Urlacher in the weight room and challenged him to reach his great potential.

Urlacher, as Boeck explained, not only made a habit of attending 5 a.m. weightlifting sessions, but he also pledged to abstain from alcohol and partying until after high school—easier said than done in a small town with few other ways for its hardworking folks to blow off steam.

In two seasons, Urlacher grew to become a spectacular 6'4", 214-pound wrecking ball. No slower or less agile than before, Urlacher took over the game on both sides of the ball.

"He was a man among boys in big games," Quinones told Boeck. "If you threw it to him, he would catch it. If you kicked it to him, he'd return it. If you tried to throw a pass at him, he'd intercept it."

He led Lovington to a 14-0 season and the 3A state championship as a senior, receiving All-State honors at receiver and safety in the process.

 

Overlooked Ability

Unfortunately, his mother and stepfather couldn't send him to a major college without a scholarship. Urlacher hoped for an offer from Texas Tech, but he never received one; only the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State extended offers.

Marc Piscotty/Getty Images

Urlacher accepted New Mexico's offer, where he was immediately shelved for two seasons. Then-coach Dennis Franchione preferred to play upperclassmen, according to the bio on Urlacher's official site. Franchione was replaced by Rocky Long before Urlacher's junior season, and that made all the difference.

Long deployed an attacking, aggressive defensive scheme that called for the best overall athlete to roam the field and make plays. Urlacher, with the speed and instincts of a safety but the size of a defensive end, was a perfect fit.

According to Sports Illustrated, Urlacher racked up 332 tackles in the next two seasons. His senior year, he even caught six touchdown passes and averaged a monstrous 15.8 yards per punt return. According to New Mexico's official athletics site, Urlacher was named the Mountain West Player of the Year and a consensus first-team All-American.

When Urlacher arrived at the Senior Bowl, his 6'4" frame had swelled up to an incredible 258 pounds of lean muscle, 20 pounds heavier than he'd been at the end of his senior season. According to the Albuquerque Tribune, Urlacher's fellow pro hopefuls immediately nicknamed him "The Freak."

Urlacher's draft-prep trainer, Chip Smith, raved about Urlacher's potential. "He's a new class of athlete," Smith told the Albuquerque Tribune. "For somebody Brian's size to be as athletic, fast and strong as he is, it's scary. His acceleration for a man that big is really scary. It's a wonder he didn't decapitate somebody in college."

Smith trained Urlacher well. Despite lots of advice to avoid running at the combine, as Urlacher told Sports Illustrated's Jeffri Chadiha, Urlacher cut a blazing 4.57-second 40-yard-dash time. He followed it up, per NFLDraftScout.com, by bench-pressing 225 pounds 27 times, leaping 34 inches vertically and broad-jumping 10'2". 

Chicago has long been the home of impact defenders, and with defensive-minded Dick Jauron then coaching the Bears, mock drafters everywhere pencilled Urlacher's name next to the Chicago Bears at the No. 9 overall slot.

As Urlacher revealed in an April 14, 2000, chat session at SI.com, he took a pre-draft visit to Chicago and "loved it." He raved about the team and facilities—and despite being born and raised in the Southwest, he said he "could adjust" to playing in the Windy City.

That was obvious from Day 1.

 

Impossible to Ignore

As a rookie, Urlacher exploded on the NFL scene, racking up 101 tackles, 24 assists, eight sacks and two interceptions. The Associated Press named Urlacher NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and he made the Pro Bowl that season—as he would in six of his first seven years in the league.

In his second season, Urlacher led the Bears to an incredible turnaround: from the 20th-ranked scoring defense to the first overall. The Bears went 13-3 in 2001, as opponents could only muster an average 12.7 points per game against them.

Urlacher's 2001 season, as measured by Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value stat, is the third-most-valuable linebacker performance of the last 20 years. His 90 solo tackles, 27 assists, six sacks and three interceptions earned him a trip to the Pro Bowl and a first-team All-Pro nomination. In his first taste of playoff action, Urlacher racked up nine tackles and a sack.

The next two seasons were rough for the Bears, as Jauron and his staff had a harder time leveraging their offensive and defensive talent. Urlacher set a franchise single-season record for tackles in 2002 with 153, but the Bears went 4-12 and 7-9 in Urlacher's third and fourth seasons, respectively.

Jauron was let go, and new head coach Lovie Smith was the perfect hire.

 

Impossible to Stop

Urlacher's size, speed and extensive experience at defensive back made him a perfect fit for Smith's Tampa 2 defense.

Able to cover sideline to sideline against the run and drop back deep to smother tight ends and slot receivers over the middle of the field, Urlacher only got better as time went on.

The Bears had the 32nd-ranked (i.e. dead last) scoring offense in 2004, so wins were tough to come by in the early days of the Lovie Smith era. Urlacher also missed seven starts due to injury; it was the first time he'd missed since becoming a full-time starter early in his rookie year.

In 2005, though, it was obvious that Urlacher was still getting better—and so were Smith and the Bears. The Bears went 11-5 and won the NFC North division title; Urlacher was again named to the Pro Bowl, first-team All-Pro and was even named NFL Defensive Player of the Year by the Associated Press.

Urlacher's 98 tackles, 24 assists and six sacks stood out—even on a defense that was, once again, the top scoring defense in the NFL. Despite allowing just 12.6 points per game, though, the Bears were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

In 2006, Urlacher finally approached the NFL's summit: the Super Bowl. Behind the running of Thomas Jones and the unleash-the-dragon passing of Rex Grossman, the Bears finally paired their suffocating defense with a capable offense. The 2006 Bears outscored their opponents by an average of 10.8 points per game and rolled to a 13-3 record.

After beating the Seattle Seahawks in overtime, the Bears knocked off Drew Brees and the storybook New Orleans Saints. Then, in Super Bowl XLI, the Bears met an offense they couldn't stop: Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

Though cold comfort, Urlacher was again named a first-team All-Pro; this would be the last of the four times he received the honor.

 

The Beginning of the End?

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

In 2007 and 2008, the Bears struggled. A three-ring circus at quarterback between Grossman, Brian Griese and Kyle Orton hamstrung the offense, and the offense hamstrung Urlacher and the defense.

Though Urlacher had a career-best five interceptions in 2007, along with five sacks and 92 solo tackles, he wasn't named to the Pro Bowl in either 2007 or 2008.

In 2009, Urlacher's season was over almost before it started. He dislocated his wrist in Week 1, and the subsequent surgery and nerve-damage rehab kept him out for the remainder of the year.

 

Revitalized

With a year to rest his body and the acquisition of monster defensive end Julius Peppers, the Bears defense again became one of the most feared in the NFL.

In 2010, the Bears' fourth-ranked scoring defense led the team to an 11-5 season and another NFC North crown. The Bears were bounced out of the postseason by the rival Green Bay Packers, but Urlacher made a triumphant return to the Pro Bowl.

Urlacher again led the defense with 97 solo tackles, adding 28 assists, four sacks, one interception and 10 passes defensed.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

In 2011, Urlacher continued to produce. He tied fellow linebacker Lance Briggs for the team lead with 86 solo tackles and added 14 assists, three interceptions and six passes defensed.

As Urlacher's body began to age, his between-the-tackles run-stuffing—something he was never a natural at—began to decline. Despite again making the Pro Bowl as an inside linebacker, Urlacher was graded by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the 48th best out of 51 middle linebackers in stopping the run.

He was still a difference-maker in coverage and still a perfect fit for the scheme. But Urlacher's days as an unstoppable force who must be accounted for were over.

 

The Beginning of the End

As Mike Mulligan explained, Urlacher's knee was killing him, causing him to regularly seek out shots of the controversial painkiller Toradol.

Seeking a permanent fix, he allegedly flew to Europe for a procedure called Regenokine, unapproved in the U.S. but increasingly popular among athletes with degenerative joint conditions. In an interview with FOX-32 (relayed via Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune), Urlacher admitted that his knee was "never going to be the same."

Urlacher returned to the field in 2012, but it was apparent that he wasn't going to be the same, either. 

After again captaining a Top Five defense (the Bears were the third-best scoring defense in 2012), again racking up double-digit wins, again failing to achieve postseason success (the Bears didn't make the playoffs) and again missing time due to injury, Urlacher has finally called it quits.

 

The Legacy

Despite playing for a Chicago Bears franchise whose storied history is filled with legendary Hall of Fame defenders, Urlacher might be the greatest of them all. Some of the units he led were every bit as nasty and stingy as the storied Monsters of Midways past.

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Were it not for Ray Lewis, Urlacher would be the greatest middle linebacker of his generation. Urlacher's terrifying combination of size, speed, instincts and athleticism enabled him not only to rack up tackles, but also to scythe down quarterbacks and gobble up downfield passes.

Unlike some middle linebackers who devolved into two-down thumpers late in their career, Urlacher remained a playmaker and a difference-maker right up until the end. He not only belongs in the Hall of Fame—he belongs in the Class of 2018.

A stunning athletic talent with an oil worker's approach to the game, and a Chicago Bear from draft until retirement, Urlacher is the kind of throwback player in all too short supply these days.

The game, and Bears fans everywhere, will miss him.

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