Sorting through the Brian Urlacher contract situation has been “ongoing,” to use GM Phil Emery’s own term. But not “ongoing” as in “complicated,” because it really isn’t all that complicated.
Two base questions: Do/should the Bears want Brian Urlacher back for 2013? Do the Bears need Brian Urlacher back? Answer to both is yes, but for some of the misunderstood reasons.
Assessing Urlacher’s absolute value is less simple and direct and involves looking past knee-jerk reactions, pro or con.
The real question: Can he still play?
Coach Marc Trestman was being more than just courteous or patronizing when he summarized last week that Urlacher is still a “very, very capable” player.
Urlacher’s early 2012 games were substandard, by his, the Bears or the NFL’s measures. He was slowed and hampered by a knee that was universally not fully recovered despite a variety of procedures and rehab. The operative word here is “early.”
Using Pro Football Focus grades strictly for apples-to-apples purposes, Urlacher managed to earn even a barely positive overall grade in only two of the Bears’ first eight games. Yet by that time the Bears were 7-1 and ranked No. 6 in yardage and No. 2 in points allowed anyway. Either the rest of the defense was epically good or Urlacher was contributing in other ways, probably a bit of both.
If the season stopped there, Urlacher’s career as an effective – “capable” – linebacker were clearly done. But Emery said this offseason that by the time of Urlacher’s hamstring injury vs. Seattle, Urlacher was playing at a solid level.
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Just as evaluating J’Marcus Webb by the Green Bay or 49ers games would be to miss a bigger picture, so is the case with 54.
Urlacher’s final four games of 2012 were against Houston, San Francisco and Colin Kaepernick, Minnesota and Adrian Peterson, and Seattle with Russell Wilson – all playoff teams. The NFL doesn’t really grade on a curve, but this might be one for our purposes.
The Texans beat Nick Roach up in particular and Urlacher had a pedestrian game, but did lead the Bears in tackles with nine, including a team-high six “stops.” Against the No. 7 yardage and No. 8 scoring defense, very capable.
Against San Francisco, no Bear had a positive grade on defense. The worst among the starters: Major Wright, Urlacher, Henry Melton and Lance Briggs. A game all sides of the ball would like to forget.
The Bears throttled the Vikings the following week. Only Briggs finished with a notable negative grade. Urlacher had the highest Bears grade in pass coverage and a net negative because of no pass rush. His grade, however, was higher than Julius Peppers’, for comparison purposes.
The Seattle game was Urlacher’s last. He graded out positive in both run and pass defense. Only Melton and Stephen Paea accomplished that (their “pass” grade was on rush, not coverage) for the game.
Negotiating “strategy:” Polite silence
The Bears haven’t jumped out with a pre-emptive contract strike on Urlacher because they and everyone else, including 54, knew they didn’t have to. And left tackle and tight end were more pressing needs.
That the Bears have not publicly made cooing noises about either wanting or needing him, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone with a rudimentary grasp of negotiations. The day that Emery or Trestman definitively declare that the Bears must have 54 back for at least a transition year for their defense is the day that Urlacher's agent Bill Johnson picks up the phone, calls Emery and starts the conversation, “Phil, guess what I just read this morning.” Translation: cha-ching.
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The art of the non-deal here is what the Bears have so far managed: allow that you want a player back, put forward possible parameters of a contract and understand that the player will shop the market first.
Urlacher’s camp has talked to multiple teams. That’s what “shopping” is. The news is not that interest has been tepid and scant. He and they knew it would be. The news would be if a team wants to risk more than a one-year deal on a 13-year veteran coming off knee and hamstring issues. Urlacher is calling teams; they are not calling him. No surprise.
Here is an underlying reality: Whether Urlacher gets one offer, six or none, the Bears are less than unlikely to bump their concept of what his deal should be. Negotiator Cliff Stein and the organization are more than conversant with contract structures that will work. Emery said, indirectly to Johnson and Urlacher, that the Bears are tight against the cap.
They will not get into a bidding war. If they were prepared to ramp up the money to keep him away from somewhere else, most of that already would have been on the table.
One other factor: Urlacher also owes something to the Bears. Having been associated with Brian since he came to the Bears in 2000, my assumption here is that while the NFL is a business and few understand that much better than Urlacher, there is a core sense of “fair” with the guy. Just as there is with Emery.
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The Bears in 2008 gave Urlacher an extension on a deal that still had four years to run. The extension gave him $18 million in new money. If Urlacher hasn’t gone indignant at not getting a contract hug from the Bears yet, it’s in part because he was taken care of in the past.
To suggest that Urlacher could impart his insights, instincts and instructions just as easily by becoming a coach is to fail to understand the immediacy of 54 and the NFL game. Unless every player was equipped with a helmet listening device to hear a coach (and they can’t be), they will not have anything close to the real-time direction they have had for the past 13 years with Urlacher in their ears, in their huddles and in their pre-snap seconds.
Urlacher is unquestionably worth more to the Bears than to anyone else. Same with most senior veterans. Indeed, one former NFL player familiar with new coordinator Mel Tucker told CSNChicago.com, “’Tuck’ would rather have a 34-year-old linebacker helping run his defense and knowing what everybody, including the other team’s offense, is doing than some rookie.
“And can you imagine what a year playing with Urlacher and Briggs will do to launch that rookie’s career?”
And that has absolutely nothing to do with his Hall of Fame credentials, “face of the franchise” notions or anything that nebulous.