Urlacher a reluctant icon in Chicago

Brian Urlacher could have simply owned Chicago, like a Michael Jordan in shoulder pads, but his ugly personality got in the way. John Crist offers his take on this messy saga.

If the original Chicago Bears middle linebacker, Bill George, can play his last season as a member of the Los Angeles Rams after a 14-year run in the Windy City, then Brian Urlacher can wrap up his career in another uniform, too.

Urlacher, one of the most recognizable faces in the NFL since being selected in the first round of the draft out of New Mexico in 2000, could not come to a contractual agreement with the Monsters of the Midway – never before had he even reached free-agent status. The organization announced Wednesday that the eight-time Pro Bowler will not return, so both sides are currently in spin mode.

Soon to be 35 years old and coming off a campaign in which he missed the final four games due to a hamstring injury, Urlacher still felt he was worth a two-year, $11.5 million contract and presented those terms to the team at the Scouting Combine in February. GM Phil Emery, who has focused almost entirely on the offensive side of the football since getting the job two Januarys ago, countered with a one-year, $2 million offer. While the four-time All-Pro assumed the two parties would meet somewhere in the middle, the deal ended up being of the take-it-or-leave-it variety.

Brian Urlacher
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty

Urlacher left it.

Hopping on Twitter for the first time in two weeks, he told his version of the story social-media style once the news became public.

"It was not a negotiation it was an ultimatum," he wrote. "Gonna miss my teammates." Actually, it was his "digital team" doing the tweeting, as his account plainly states that Urlacher has somebody else expressing his 140-characters-at-a-time thoughts for him.

The purpose of Twitter, at least from a "celebrity" standpoint, is to break through the barrier separating Urlacher and his fans. However, since no superstar in Chicago's illustrious sports history has ever been so distant from his supporters – "Two of the people I don't care about: fans or media," he said Dec. 16 to anchor Lou Canellis on WFLD-32 – he acknowledged his friends in the locker room but couldn't be bothered to thank the organization that made him a multi-millionaire, let alone the people that worshipped him on Sunday.

Having personally covered him for six seasons, none of this is especially surprising to me, as he was just as bristling off the field as he was brilliant on the field. No. 54 never did one more interview than necessary, never answered one more question than necessary, plus he had a reputation for being tight-lipped with local reporters because he would rather open up to a more player-friendly national voice, usually FOX's Jay Glazer. During training camp, while former teammates like Tommie Harris signed autographs on a daily basis until their hands cramped, Urlacher almost always walked right by the 10,000-plus attendees without so much as touching a Sharpie.

Emery made his announcement more than a week after free agency began, which means the rest of the league wasn't beating down Urlacher's door trying to obtain his services.

"Don't get me wrong, $2 million is a lot of money," Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune's Vaughn McClure, who is the lone member of the writing community he gives the time of day. "But I'm not going to put my body through what it goes through during the season for that amount of money. Not for anybody. Not at this point of my career. It's not worth it to me."

This despite being paid $7.5 million for 12 games of fairly mediocre play last season, when he was at best the sixth best defender on his own team behind fellow linebacker Lance Briggs, defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Henry Melton and cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings.

Brian Urlacher
David Banks/USA TODAY Sports

Lovie Smith's defensive system is predicated on tackles that penetrate gaps, ends that rush the passer, corners that offer run support and safeties that eliminate the deep ball – perhaps most importantly, it also requires a blazing-fast middle linebacker that blankets the middle. Not only is Urlacher no longer the speed demon he once was due to all the wear and tear, but Smith was sent packing this offseason and new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker brings a fresh scheme to Halas Hall.

In a salary-cap world, franchises can't throw courtesy money at aging veterans as a reward for past performance or a tip of the cap to icon status, which is why the Indianapolis Colts cut ties last year with their best player ever, future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning, after a series of neck surgeries. Emery had already written healthy checks to shore up two positions of need, signing tight end Martellus Bennett and left tackle Jermon Bushrod, respectively, so he probably didn't have the financial flexibility necessary to give Urlacher what he wanted. The Super Bowl-champion Baltimore Ravens just watched Canton-bound safety Ed Reed join the Houston Texans, and he undoubtedly has more gas left in the tank than Urlacher.

He could have simply owned Chicago, been the equivalent of Michael Jordan in shoulder pads, especially since Urlacher followed in the footsteps of George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary in the middle of the Bears defense.

But Jordan – with help from Nike and the birth of sports marketing – understood how to use the media to build his image, answering every question after every game and always looking like a million bucks in the process. Urlacher, on the other hand, just grunted and grumbled for 13 years – his official Web site makes no mention whatsoever of any charity work, but it'll sell you an autographed game-used jersey for $8,332.99 – plus his immature fling with Paris Hilton and ugly text-message war with one of his baby mamas gave the impression he was little more than a tackling Neanderthal.

And now he's gone. No teary-eyed press conference required, a la Manning. Just more snarky comments on his way out the door.

It's a hard lesson for fans to learn these days: While they care more about players than ever, players care less about them than ever.

John Crist is the editor-in-chief of All the Wrong Moves and the former publisher of Bear Report. Send any questions, comments or concerns to him via e-mail at jc@allthewrongmoves.com.

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