MORE 54 FAREWELL NEWS
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It all ended abruptly, the same day that coach Marc Trestman said that Brian Urlacher “can help us win.”
Later Wednesday afternoon, it was decided that no agreement could be reached on a new contract for one more year in Chicago.
In a statement from the Bears, the end was announced:
“We were unable to reach an agreement with Brian and both sides have decided to move forward,” Bears General Manager Phil Emery said. “Brian has been an elite player in our league for over a decade. He showed great leadership and helped develop a winning culture over his time with the Bears. We appreciate all he has given our team, on and off the field. Brian will always be welcome as a member of the Bears.”
Bears Chairman George McCaskey acknowledge the same standard set by Urlacher:
“Over the last 13 years Brian Urlacher has been an outstanding player, teammate, leader and face of our franchise,” McCaskey said. “As Bears fans, we have been lucky to have such a humble superstar represent our city. He embodies the same characteristics displayed by the Bears all-time greats who played before him and he will eventually join many of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. We thank Brian for all he has given our team and our city. He will always be a part of the Bears family. We wish him the very best.”
The Bears, as Emery said earlier this month, are tight against the salary cap. A veteran signing is expected, however, as is a play for linebacker help in the draft.
The immediate challenge is to put one of the great Bears careers in some sort of perspective. Such as:
• NFC defensive player of the year in 2005, fourth-place finisher in 2006;
• Eight Pro Bowls; tied for third in Bears history;
• 1,779 career tackles, most in franchise history, 292 more than Mike Singletary (No. 2), 365 more than Lance Briggs (No. 3);
• Seventh in career sacks (41.5);
• Voted to ESPN All-Decade team (2009).
But the measure of Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bear, wasn’t his 40-time, number of tackles, sacks, interceptions or any numerical total. It was inside the huddle and the locker room that outsiders never saw.
''More even maybe than his playmaking ability is just the fact that he's been sort of the heartbeat of our team for a decade,” said Hunter Hillenmeyer, who played alongside Urlacher from Hillenmeyer’s 2003 arrival until his retirement after the 2010 season.
Taken for granted
Indeed, Urlacher’s presence seemed at times to be almost taken for granted, a freakish mix of physical skills, visible love of the game and intangibles that made those around him better.
When Urlacher went down with a wrist injury in the first half of the 2009 opener in Green Bay, it didn’t matter that the Bears had traded for a Pro Bowl quarterback. What they lost was considerably more significant.
Teammates couldn’t say so during the season; that was excuse-making. When it was all over, the obvious was finally spoken.
[RELATED: Bears settled for Urlacher in 2000 draft]
''I don't think people really understand how important ‘54’ is,'' defensive end Alex Brown said in a season post-mortem. ''I haven't talked about it a whole lot because [fill-in’s]Hunter [Hillenmeyer] and Nick [Roach] have done a great job in there.
“But having 54 means a lot. If you bring it up during the season, people tend to say it's an excuse, but take Peyton Manning off Indianapolis and see what happens.”
Manning was taken off the Colts in 2011 and Indianapolis collapsed. Now the Bears, who were 9-18 in the 27 games Urlacher missed over 13 seasons, will see what happens when Urlacher is no longer part of the defense he was the face of virtually his entire career.
All-Pro in any system
Systems generally play to certain strengths of players. It didn’t particularly matter what system Urlacher played, however.
His NFL breakout (and break-in) came in 2001 behind a massive front four that played a two-gap scheme under coach Dick Jauron and coordinator Greg Blache. The front four consisted of giant tackles Keith Traylor (340 pounds) and Ted Washington (360) and ends Phillip Daniels (290) and Bryan Robinson (290).
Their job was in part to occupy offensive linemen and let fast linebackers run to the football.
“That definitely was a different defense,” Urlacher said, laughing. “Ted and Keith, B-Rob, they’d just hold guys up and I’d run. That was fun.”
Fun indeed, In his first full season starting (2001), Urlacher finished with 148 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions. Washington was injured much of 2002; Urlacher made 214 tackles, seven pass deflections and four-and-a-half sacks.
When Lovie Smith arrived in 2004, the scheme changed dramatically. Smith was a proponent of smaller, faster linemen tasked with controlling one gap, getting through it and disrupting.
Urlacher lost his “protectors” and was himself assigned a gap in addition to pass coverage in the middle of the field. It didn’t make a great deal of difference.
He missed seven games in 2004 with injuries but returned in 2005 to the Smith scheme: 171 tackles. Six sacks. Five pass break-ups.
“I’m not a huge fan of [Smith’s Cover-2], but it works. It works,” Urlacher said in a 2010 conversation with CSNChicago.com. “I don’t like running deep down the middle. Who does? I’ve made a lot of plays there but it’s hard.”