It’s time to face the harsh reality of legendary Chicago Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher: His best days are behind him. Urlacher is the heart and soul of this team and has been the face of this franchise for 10 seasons. He is the poster boy for the Monsters of the Midway, the most popular player on the Bears since Walter Payton.
It’s truly is hard to see a legend begin a slow and painful decline in the twilight of his career—especially since all Chicago Bears fans typically day dream of Urlacher big hits during weeks leading up to a game.
On top of Urlacher’s greatness, he mans the one position that three previous Hall of Famers have held down for this franchise. It began with Bill George, who was the original. The roots traced on through to the greatest and most feared defender in the history of the league in Dick Butkus, who struck fear into opponents on a level never seen before or since. Through the great years and Super Bowl championship under samurai Mike Singletary, the middle linebacker position has defined the franchise of the Chicago Bears.
It’s defined the reason I’m a Chicago Bears fan, given my father played middle linebacker during his high school and college career and yours truly mixed it up as a linebacker for a few of his own years. It’s the position that doles out the most punishment on defense, and not by coincidence is in the middle of everything.
Everyone wants to be like their heroes, and everyone wants to play the position their heroes played. For me and many Chicago Bears fans alike, that position has always been the MIKE ‘backer position.
However playing such a position of punishment takes its toll and opponents and yourself alike. The biggest hits typically come from this position, and the most frequent collisions happen at this position. This is a given, since most great middle linebackers lead their teams in tackles.
As is the case with Brian Urlacher, that toll has begun to wear down another all-time great. While we are used to seeing our heroes play for many years and having the live and play with a aura of invincibility, the fact of the matter is the greats who man this storied position typically have a career that lasts a shorter span than most.
While we may have to suffer through another season of watching the geriatric Brett Favre play for one more year of glory and a possible championship with the Vikings, we will never see Brian Urlacher’s career last as long as Favre’s 18-year tenure in the NFL.
Why? Because for all of the talk that Brett Favre is one of the toughest players ever, the fact is a quarterback can go almost a whole season without getting his jersey dirty.
Urlacher will not last 18 years. We may be lucky to see him last another three given this arthritic back problem and his surgery on his neck—subtle signs that his career of collisions has taken its toll on one of the most dominant defenders in the league the last decade.
I have been one of Urlacher’s harshest critics during the last two seasons. I have on numerous occasions called him out for lack of taking on the pile, squaring up on a blocker and plowing into the line of scrimmage. In the heat of every NFL season, I have judged Urlacher’s play harshly, sometimes within reason, and sometimes outside the bounds of acceptability. But my love for Urlacher as a Chicago Bears player and middle linebacker will never waiver.
However Urlacher’s sense of legendary invincibility already has, and I must accept that.
Brian Urlacher is one of the greatest defenders of his generation. Sure, there has been Ray Lewis, Zach Thomas, and others. But not many have been as consistently productive as Urlacher has been for as long as he has. Lewis and Thomas both are exceptions to the rule, rather than the norm.
So we must as Bears fans accept the fact that Urlacher is no longer the best linebacker on this team, nor is he the best linebacker in the league. Urlacher will likely be allowed to retire a Chicago Bear, and it should be that way. Unquestionably, he has been the Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, Dan Marino, or John Elway of our beloved franchise. He is unquestionably the hero of this team for the first decade of this century—the defining player who represents all that is great about the Chicago Bears.
Urlacher’s play has faltered. Last year, he at times struggled to make plays he otherwise would have. He looked a step slower, look a bit weaker at the point of attack, and his back pedal and coverage in the open field weren’t what we are used to seeing from him. All sure signs of his age and heavy price he has paid by causing collisions.
This year, we must measure are expectations for this all-time great player. Urlacher should be more of a mentor to the younger members of this franchise, be the type of coach on the field that we lost in Mike Brown. Expect a solid level of production and consistency, but not for Urlacher to compete for the Defensive Player of the Year honors he won in 2005.
There is some hope that Urlacher will exceed our expectations. He has stated publicly he feels better this offseason than he has in any offseason in years. He says he’s fully recovered from last season’s offseason neck surgery, and that this in turn has allowed him to hit the weight room like he had in previous years.
I take him at his word, and hope for the best for this upcoming season. He should be a cog in a defense that again stops the run like it did last year, when it was fifth-best in the league at doing so. He should once again don the captain’s "C," and his ability should continue to benefit the play of Lance Briggs.
Urlacher, I hope, will have one maybe two more great years, years that will surprise us all. Hopefully a year that gets this all-time great another chance at a Super Bowl title. Maybe he’ll be able to play with less pressure and more rest while knowing that the Bears have potentially a new face to the franchise in quarterback Jay Cutler.
Cutler’s guidance to the offense should help keep the defense fresh and healthy by spending more time on the field—a stat that has plagued this defense for far too many seasons. The Bears have been one of the worst teams in the league at generating first downs over the last five seasons.
From 2005 to 2008, the Bears have been middle of the pack only ONCE in generating first downs. In 2006, their Super Bowl year, they were 14th in the league in total first downs. In 2005 they were 31st, and the last two seasons they have been 27th in the league in arguably one of the most overlooked and important stats, one that truly shows the efficiency of an offense and shows exactly how much rest a defense gets.
Cutler’s addition BETTER improve that stat, thus helping to improve the overall play of the Bears’ defense in 2009. By proximity, a better rested unit will be better at shutting down opponents in the fourth quarter. Also, having more gas in the tank will improve a fourth-quarter pass rush and the defense’s ability to stop the run when they may be behind in games, giving the offense another crack at a come-from-behind victory, or scoring again to put a game out of reach.
So with all the previous offensive stats in mind, I hope Urlacher can lead this defense to a level of play that allows them to have a couple playoff games at Soldier Field. Because as we know, playoff games in Chicago in January give the Bears one of the best chances in the league to win. The fans at Soldier Field provide one of the best home-field advantages of any team in the league, which means come January, anything can happen.
While Brian Urlacher’s play may not live up to a level that is expected of him, we must still respect him. Urlacher has given a lot for this franchise and has conducted himself with a high level of class during the strong majority of his career as a Chicago Bear. We may never see the once-great player we have enjoyed for nine seasons in the NFL thus far. However, we will see a player dedicated to goal of winning a Super Bowl title.
Sadly, as with many great legends of the battle field—and with the words of five-star general of the Army Douglas MacArthur squarely in mind—we will eventually see another great Bears player fade away.