Any fan of American pro football knows that Brian Urlacher is one of the Chicago Bears' marquee players; the kind of stalwart middle linebacker that might someday have his name enshrined in the Hall-of-Fame, alongside other Bears greats like Mike Singletary, Dick Butkus, and Bill George.
Losing Urlacher for the season hurts, there's no question about it. Not only are the Bears losing a captain and leader on and off of the field, but more importantly, you can bet that the Bears' remaining 2009 opponents are going to look to capitalize on his absence any way they can.
The extent of the negative impact of losing Urlacher for the season is like a dark, bottomless pit; it's uncharted territory since he has been a fixture on the Bears' defense for a decade.
But at the same time, even Urlacher's most staunch supporters must admit that his career is approaching its end. The next time Urlacher suits up to play, he will be 32-years-old.
Pro football can be a cruel game to aging veterans, and it's hard to think of a position more unforgiving of a player's age than middle linebacker. While placekickers, punters, quarterbacks, and even some offensive linemen can get away with playing at a high level well into their 30's, the physical punishment delivered to and by linebackers on a weekly basis takes a huge toll on their bodies, especially in a defensive system built around the "Mike" position like the Bears' scheme is.
It might hurt us to admit it, but at some point, a player like Urlacher inevitably will reach a point where his on-field production no longer warrants the huge investment in cap space dedicated to him. Tough decisions like that simply have to be made, and while the Bears are probably one of the more loyal organizations, when it comes to rewarding star players regardless of their long-term potential for future success, at some point, money talks and loyalty walks...along with veterans on the wrong side of 30.
So maybe it's time for Jerry Angelo and the coaches to start trimming the Bears roster and build a solid foundation of younger players who will be the future of the franchise.
On defense, this might mean cutting ties with players like Nate Vasher, Adawale Ogunleye, and even Tommie Harris to clear the way for guys like Zachary Bowman, Mark Anderson, and Marcus Harrison who have all shown tremendous potential and have at times surpassed their older and higher-paid counterparts, when given the chance to play.
If the thought of doing this seems scary to coaches or fans, they should first ask themselves if they truly noticed Mike Brown's absence in Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. Personally, I didn't, because while Brown remains one of my favorite Bears of all-time, Al Afalava and Danieal Manning played more than well enough to make up for the loss of the injury-plagued Brown at the conclusion of the 2008 season.
Finding someone to fill Urlacher's shoes might only happen in one of the next couple of drafts, but make no mistake, it needs to happen.
If they opt to stick with the players they currently have on their roster, then perhaps Jamar Williams' contract with the team should be extended so that he could be eased into the "Mike" role for the long-term. After all, Williams performed very well throughout the last couple of offseasons and has been a solid contributor on special teams since his arrival in Chicago.
Offensively, the infusion of youth seems to be underway already.
Younger players like Jay Cutler, Matt Forte, Chris Williams, Greg Olsen, and Devin Hester should comprise the backbone of the Bears' offense in coming years. But an offense is usually only as good as its line. Olin Kreutz is approaching his final year under contract with the Bears, Orlando Pace is on his way out, and probably on his way to Canton as well, while Roberto Garza has certainly seen younger and more productive days.
As for addressing the interior offensive line, the Bears' coaches would have us believe that Josh Beekman will eventually step in as Kreutz's replacement when his number is called. However, seeing as how they replaced him with Frank Omiyale at the starting left guard position this season, they haven't exactly shown fans or Beekman himself that they realistically see him as anything more than a decent backup. After watching him struggle with the likes of Pat Williams and Albert Haynesworth last season, I'd tend to agree.
Since the Bears have very little young depth on the offensive line, addressing this in the draft becomes a priority. To some analysts, the prospect of having too many young players on the offensive line is a frightening proposition.
But anyone who watched the performance of the Buffalo Bills' offensive line against Bill Belechick's vaunted defense, on Monday Night Football, will tell you that young offensive linemen can indeed make an immediate impact. Dick Jauron had three rookies starting up front who were downright dominant at times against the Patriots' front seven.
The time for the new era is rapidly approaching, if it isn't already upon us.
Clinging to the past and the last vestiges of the 2006 squad that went all the way to the big dance can do nothing, but hurt this team. Some of the pieces are in place already, and the organization seems to have learned its lesson. After all, this time around, the Bears have a franchise-caliber quarterback, the lack of which proved to be the Bears' undoing in the damp and dreadful waning minutes of Super Bowl XLI.
But the team's metamorphosis shouldn't stop there. Sure, there will be growing pains along the way as young players adjust to their new roles and to the spotlight. That's inevitable, but it's also a necessary rite of passage for any team that wants to be a consistent playoff contender.
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