Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010
By John Mullin
Veterans will tell young players dealing with injuries that the long view is the way to look at those setbacks. "Think of it this way," a Bears veteran once told a rookie offensive lineman who was down about being ticketed for injured reserve with an injury. "You just got a year added onto your career."
The bromide does not just apply to young players. And sometimes it seems to add more than just one year to a career.
Brian Urlacher was lost for the 2009 season less than two full quarters into it when he suffered a fractured wrist in Game 1 last year against the Green Bay Packers. The 11-year veteran was 31 at the time and the immediate question of a fixture at one of the high-impact positions in professional football was whether he could in fact come back at his advanced NFL age.
The questions were proved right. He has not come back to the level he was playing at before the injury.
"Time machine" timeframe
He has, in the eyes of someone studying him very closely, come back better.
"He's got a time machine somewhere because he dialed it back three or four years, and he's playing at a really high level," said Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz. "I don't know if there's a middle linebacker playing at a higher level in the NFL.
"He's good against the run. He's good against the pass. All those things," Schwartz said. "There's not a whole lot of holes in his game. One-trick ponies, you can take out of the game plan. But Urlacher doesn't have those kind of weaknesses."
The only NFC linebacker playing at Urlacher's level, based on initial Pro Bowl votes at inside linebacker, might be San Francisco 49er Patrick Willis. But Schwartz and the Bears might call for a recount that plays out and Urlacher is not selected for his seventh Pro Bowl.
It would be his first since the 2006 season, meaning Schwartz's time-machine timeframe is just about right.
"I'm sure the year off didn't hurt me any," Urlacher said. "The way coach Lovie Smith structures our practices and training camp and the bye week, it gives us a chance to maintain your health. You're going to get banged up in the season but for the most part, knock on wood, we've been pretty healthy for the most part. The way he does practice lets us maintain that health."
Urlacher is the only member of perhaps the NFL's top defense to have at least one entry in every Bears defensive playmaker category: tackles (89, leads team), tackles for loss (9, leads team), QB pressures (3), sacks (2.5), interception (1), pass breakups (7, second to Charles Tillman), forced fumbles (1) and fumbles recovered (3, leads team).
Julius Peppers is missing just a fumble recovery; Lance Briggs lacks only a quarterback pressure.
"Everybody knows what Brian brings to the table, an incredible player and a key part of this defense," said defensive end Israel Idonije. "He's a leader. When you have your leader and your core back and doing what he does, he's like the quarterback of our defense, so it's big to have him back."
Urlacher is one of the reasons Peppers cites behind the defensive end's desire to play in Chicago.
Urlacher has posted double-digit tackle totals in three of the last four games (all Bears wins; coincidence?) and in five of the Bears' 11 games this season. In another indication that the time machine is fully operational and doing some reverse-aging, Urlacher had 10 double-digit games in 2006, seven in 2007 and three in 2008.
Yet not everyone is necessarily surprised by Urlacher's return from the wrist injury, but also ramping back to Super Bowl levels at age 32.
"I'm impressed by him every year," said Briggs, second to Urlacher with 81 tackles. "Injuries are a part of the game. When they happen, you have to bide your time until you're able to come back. Then once you're back, it's for a guy like him, there's no change.
"You just stay hungry. Once you get back out on the field, you get back out and you make plays because you're a playmaker."
Baltimore middle linebacker Ray Lewis has maintained his high level of play with the help of yoga. Urlacher told CSNChicago.com that his program is not specifically yoga but it is doing for him what yoga has done for Lewis.
"I've been doing a program that's pilates and yoga and stretching mixed in," Urlacher said. "I've been doing it for three years and my body feels great. It's a lot of core work and a lot of the guys on the team do it, too. When my back was hurting a couple years ago, I tried five, six things trying to feel better and it wasn't working.
"Then I found people who helped make it better. Thirty minutes a day and I feel great. I do it and my hips can move right, my back feels better, I can move again. I'll do it the rest of my life."
The Bears are seeing a lot of that life right now.
"We talked about him in training camp the same way," Lovie Smith said. "When you're Brian Urlacher and you're healthy, No. 1, you have a good chance of good things happening for you. Brian is a heck of a football player, one of the best around. He's played like that from the start of the season to now.
"We need those guys for this push right here. He played outstanding ball this week but we've talked about him; his grades from every game are about the same. He's capable of really taking a game over but that's just a matter of time before that happens."
John "Moon" Mullin is CSNChicago.com's Bears Insider, and appears regularly on Bears Postgame Live and Chicago Tribune Live. Follow Moon on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bears information.