"I may not be good as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.” -- Toby Keith
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. – Lance Briggs is in the final year of what could well be his final contract as a Bear. This is the extension year, added in the 2012 offseason after Briggs had earned his seventh straight Pro Bowl appearance.
Ironically perhaps, his performance that year, his last alongside Brian Urlacher, was among his career best, regardless of how the Pro Bowl voting went: 128 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two interceptions returned for touchdowns, and nine tackles for loss.
Last year saw him suffer a fractured shoulder in Washington and miss seven games. He still managed to tie his career high in tackles for loss (10) and had a career high in sacks (3).
But at 33 and after 12 NFL seasons, regardless of whether coaches declared him the only “set” starter among Bears linebackers, the same question is before him that was in front of Urlacher going into 2012:
Can Briggs still play?
“I don't know,” Briggs deadpanned, tongue firmly in cheek. “I lost a couple of steps. Now I'm literally…like, sometimes I have to fall into a tackle. If I'm lucky a tackle will fall and I'll put my hand on him and I'll get credit for it. That's where I'm at in my stage in my career.”
He doesn’t believe that, and neither do the Bears. Briggs may indeed not be as good as he once was, but the thinking is that he’s as good once as he ever was, if not necessarily in the same raw athletic ways that defined him for a decade.
“He’s now older and wiser and can put himself in the right position quicker with less ability,” said linebackers coach Reggie Herring. “That’s about where he’s at.”
Where Briggs still is is on the field as part of the nickel defense, alongside Jon Bostic now rather than running mate Urlacher. That means he is a de facto every down linebacker as he always was; Lovie Smith even left Briggs in with Urlacher in dime packages, reasoning that Briggs was a better pass defender than the fourth cornerback or safety.
Whether Briggs holds onto that spot is problematic. Bostic and Shea McClellin were regularly the nickel linebackers through the offseason.
And it would not be out of character or wrong for coach Marc Trestman, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker and Herring to set Briggs where he always has been and have him there until some young linebacker proves he’s better.
In other words, the old warrior shouldn’t lose his job on theory, only on the field. Herring and the Bears have not written Briggs out of the lineup, particularly with no one establishing that they are, if not the new sheriff in town, at least worthy of a deputy’s badge.
“He still has the quickness [to play nickel],” Herring said. “And right now the experience helps the knowledge how to play certain routes, how to put his body in position where other guys don’t.
“You’re better off saying this: Is he still effective? Yes. Yes. Is he experienced? Yes. He brings an experience. And still a production level. When the production stops, that’s when you’ve got to look back and scratch your head.
“At the end of the day is he older? Yes. Is he as fast as he was when he was 23? I’m not. He’s probably not. So that’s a normal evolution and process. I think what we’ve got to ask, is he still productive? He’s fast enough to play the position. When he’s not, then we’ve got to get him out of there. So right now he still does possess the quickness and instincts and knowledge to put himself where he can make a mistake and overcome in the younger days.”