When Brian Urlacher suffered a bizarre wrist injury in the opening game of the 2009 season and subsequently missed the rest of the year, the rest of that Bears season looked and felt awfully strange and I’m sure that will be the case for at least the opening stretch of the 2013 season as well. 2012 Urlacher was a shell of his 2001 self athletically and the Bears will likely find an adequate middle linebacker who can replace what he brought to the field (on the other hand, no one man will probably be able to replace what Urlacher brought to the locker room). Phil Emery was right to play hardball with him and offer him a contract strictly based on what his future performance was likely to be. And after season-ending injuries in two straight seasons (and, I suppose, three out of four, counting ’09), it’s tough to pay a middle linebacker $5 million when you’re not sure that he’s going to be around for all 16 games. It was time to move on for both parties.
My original point in writing this post, as a Bears fan was to highlight my favorite all-time Urlacher moments…but after thinking about it for a while, I’m not sure I have that many. It’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed watching him play in Chicago or appreciated having a perennial Pro Bowler playing one of the highest profile positions on defense. It’s just that when I think of most of my favorite moments as a Bears fan from the past 10 or 12 years, I tend to think of plays made by three guys: Devin Hester, Mike Brown and Peanut Tillman. It was that triumvirate that scored all the non-offensive touchdowns in the Monday Night Miracle win in Arizona back in 2006. Brown symbolized the 2001 Bears’ incredible good fortune by scoring back-to-back game-ending pick-sixes. Hester’s rope-a-dope missed field goal return against the Giants (also in 2006) was arguably the coolest single play in Bears history and his brilliance was the sole reason the 2007 season was watchable. And just say some combination of the words “Peanut,” “Tillman” and “ball punch” and I’ll have all his forced fumbles running on a loop in my mind.
Urlacher, on the other hand? It’s tough. There’s this pick-six of Favre in 2007 that was mighty enjoyable (especially because of Joe Buck’s most monotonous call ever), but it came at the end of a game the Bears won 35-7 at the end of the season in which they went 7-9. His pick-six last season against the Titans was a lot of fun because of the way it highlighted how much he had to chug nowadays – but again, a blowout win for the Bears in a midseason game against a bad opponent isn’t exactly stuff you remember for the rest of your life. Honestly, the two plays that first spring to mind when I think of Urlacher are pretty negative ones – Jerome Bettis trucking him during the season he won Defensive Player of the Year (2005) and Tom Brady (TOM BRADY!) juking him out in the open field the next season. I’m not mentioning this because I want to suggest Urlacher was overrated – he probably was, but only because he was mentioned in the same breath as Ray Lewis for most of his career and you’re always gonna look bad in a comparison with (possibly) the greatest middle linebacker ever. I just find it interesting that Keith Traylor has a more memorable Bears moment than the guy who defined the franchise for a decade.
Perhaps Urlacher made so many other plays that after a while (i.e. 2002), we just got used to it and said, “About time Urlacher showed up” instead of “HOLY CRAP WHAT A PLAY!” Maybe the man’s brilliance was more about the little things on every down than making spectacular plays occasionally. After all, truly great players tend to make tough plays look routine. And now that I look upon Urlacher’s Pro Football Reference page , I can actually say that I vividly remember all four of the touchdowns he’s scored in his career: the two aforementioned pick-sixes, falling on the ball in the end zone in the opening game of the 2011 season, a return of a Michael Vick fumble in 2001 and the touchdown pass he caught from Brad Maynard on a fake punt that same year. Just took a little jogging of the memory to get there. Eventually, that’s what happens to most great players after they stop playing for our team. We remember the name and the good times, but we can’t necessarily put any images to those times unless you give us a few hints. Sad fact of life, for all you past, present and future Hall of Famers out there. Good luck at your next destination, Brian.