Throughout franchise history, the face of the Chicago Bears has always been the player manning the middle linebacker spot, the captain of the defense. Three hall of fame middle linebackers, and one likely headed to Canton, represent a lineage of excellence in Chicago that exists nowhere else in NFL history.
Brian Urlacher is an athletic freak who has endeared himself to fans with his lightning pursuit and bone-crushing tackles. During his career, he has missed roughly a season and a half due to injury. Each time the defense, without its catalyst, has struggled.
People ask: how do you replace number 54? The answer is: you don't. Instead, you find a player who can eventually succeed him. The Bears have reached that point where they have to start envisioning the defense without Urlacher, who has come to the end of his contract and, quite possibly, the end of his career in Chicago.
Urlacher will soon be a free agent, yet he has said publicly he wants to stay in Chicago. He'll be 35 years old next year and is coming off a knee injury that slowed down his play considerably, as well as a pulled hamstring that ended his 2012 season a month early. Throughout the campaign, he lacked the burst and explosion synonymous with him being one of the best linebackers in the NFL.
Urlacher admitted his knee will never be the same. Using the eye test, it's obvious he'll never be the same player. During the season he struggled to gain leverage, take on blockers and win at the point of attack. He could not drive off of his knee in order to make a tackle and many times was not even playing at full speed.
"Coming back from the injury, there was a time he looked a little rusty," GM Phil Emery said yesterday. "There are times, because of the injury that he had … his ability to stop, re-gather himself and redirect laterally was not there."
As you can see from the two All-22 game film, Urlacher lines up as the weak-side linebacker based on the formation Seattle shows. At the snap of the ball he is standing directly in the hole that Lynch is supposed to run through.
As the play develops he begins to attack downhill to fill the hole. Seeing a free and unblocked Urlacher, Lynch bounces toward another hole. At that moment it becomes clear Urlacher's lack of mobility. He should be able to plant and gather to attack Lynch's cutback but the knee won't allow it. Instead, he lunges and flails at Lynch as the runner scampers by for a 13-yard gain.
This play clearly illustrates that even with Urlacher 15 weeks past surgery, he was still nowwhere near full strength. He had no ability to plant and attack the running back and couldn't run at full speed. Lynch exposes him as the shell of the player he was, as so many other running backs did this season.
So with the future of the Chicago Bears in mind, Phil Emery has to make a decision about the defense and the direction it is headed. Nick Roach wasn't dominant in Urlacher's place, but he was adequate. Yet Roach, like Urlacher, is also set to hit free agency.
There is no way to further gauge his progress, which makes it hard to find a starting point for contract negotiations between Urlacher and Chicago's front office. How can they offer him a fair deal if they don't know what type of player he can be?
Many have asked: how healthy and how much better will Urlacher be once he's had an entire offseason to heal? The answer won't be known until the first game of the 2013 season, which gives Emery little room for error.
Add in the new coaching staff and Urlacher having to possibly learn an entirely new defensive scheme, and his value is diminished even further. No one knew Lovie Smith's scheme better than Urlacher. Nine years mastering the same system means he was as comfortable playing it as Lovie was coaching it. Now any new linebacker will be on the same learning curve as Urlacher.
Certainly he will have more on-field experience, but any youth and potential will far outweigh the unknown factor of his knee.
The unfortunate moment appears to have come: Brian Urlacher's career as a Chicago Bear is likely over.
Brett Solesky has worked in TV, newspapers and, for the last seven years, in radio. He also co-hosts the best Chicago Bears podcast on the Web, Bear Report Radio, which appears on BearReport.com and his blog MidwayIllustrated.com.