As the blizzard of words and images surrounding Brian Urlacher abates, now seemed like a better, calmer time to assess the entire body of work that defined Urlacher the player. Because that’s what you do with great players, and Urlacher was indeed a great player.
But compared to what? Or rather, to whom?
Whether Urlacher is a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection isn’t really the measure, or the point. Voters do not always cast ballots strictly on the basis of excellence, as any of the selectors will candidly acknowledge.
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He will be inducted into the game’s Honor Roll at some point. So a constant question over the past few days has been: Where would you rank Urlacher among the middle linebackers the game has ever seen?
CSNChicago.com’s Bears guy – me – places him No. 4 among all of the game’s middle linebackers.
Two notes here:
The obvious difficulty is comparing players from different eras. The game has changed, caliber of player has changed, rules have changed, even the shape of the football has changed over the years. But if you factor in and out some elements here, it’s actually not all that big a problem.
The second thing relates to that: I’ve had the good fortune to see virtually every Hall of Fame middle linebacker play either in person or on television. That doesn’t make me ancient, since the position really only dates back to Bill George and I was of age when George and the Bears won the ’63 NFL Championship over the New York Giants, who happened to have Sam Huff as their middle linebacker. Chuck Bednarik played in the first NFL game my father ever took me to. I watched the Detroit Lions and Joe Schmidt handle the Green Bay Packers and Ray Nitschke in 1962.
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Where this is going is that Urlacher is indeed one of the truly elite middle linebackers I have ever seen in a long time of watching professional football. He is by far the best I’ve ever seen in pass defense; Butkus is No. 2, Willie Lanier No. 3 and Ray Lewis No. 4, but they all finish up the track from “54.” Urlacher had 22 interceptions in 182 games; Butkus had 22 in 119 games; and Lanier had 27 in 149 games, with Lewis collecting 31 in 228 games.
Physicality vs. the run is a debate topic but Urlacher gets unfair short shrift there simply because he was not as violent as Butkus or Lewis. Anyone who could run down Michael Vick doesn’t lose heavy points for being run over by Jerome Bettis; that happened to more than just Urlacher anyway.
The group of Nick Buonoconti (Miami), George, Huff, Lambert, Nitschke, Les Richter, Schmidt and Mike Singletary all belong in the Hall of Fame. Bednarik and Bulldog Turner, too, even though they were arguably better centers and were ahead of the true middle-linebacker era. Singletary and HOF inside linebacker Harry Carson were arguably not even the best linebacker in their corps, playing inside of Lawrence Taylor and Wilber Marshall, respectively.
But Urlacher played at 6-foot-4, 258 pounds, and was possessed of speed that none of those had. That combination of size and speed is why only three middle linebackers in the history of the NFL rate higher on the list:
No. 1: Ray Lewis
Forget the hype and the pregame histrionics. Lewis was underrated in pass coverage and the platinum standard for run and overall defense. Find a superlative and it fits. Simply the best.
No. 2: Dick Butkus
He was two inches taller than Lewis and even a shade better in coverage, not insignificant when he was facing Detroit Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders twice a year and backs ranging from Calvin Hill, Leroy Kelly, Don Perkins, Larry Brown, Ron Johnson and even Larry Csonka and John Brockington in the course of his career.
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No. 3: Willie Lanier
The “knock” on Lanier is that he played behind two Hall of Fame defensive tackles in Buck Buchanan and Curly Culp. Same size as Lewis – 6-foot-1, 245 pounds – and if you were fortunate enough to see the Kansas City Chiefs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, you were seeing not only the first black middle linebacker, but also one of the best ever to play the position.
No. 4: Brian Urlacher
He didn’t rule by fear and intimidation the way Butkus and Lewis did, which somehow counts against him in the general tally, though I’m not exactly sure why. Every coach and opponent game-planned and accounted for him, even when the play was not going into his area. The reason was that the entire field was his “area” more than any other middle linebacker. How many middle linebackers remain in on “dime” packages?
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If he does not go into Canton on the first ballot it will be because detractors cite failure to win a Super Bowl, although that was not a deal-killer for Butkus -- and also because Lewis is on the 2018 ballot as well, and selectors are sometimes difficult to talk themselves into two players from the same position going in the same year, although it has happened.
It should this time.