"I was really happy for our three players that got voted to the Pro Bowl, obviously, and particularly for Jerry Azumah being his first time and the other two guys have been there a number of times now," said Coach Dick Jauron. "But Zoom did a tremendous job and I think he clearly deserves to go, so that was a great thing to see."
Azumah's selection marks just the fourth Bears return specialist to make the team in franchise history (Cecil Turner, 1970; Ron Smith, 1972; and Glyn Milburn, 1999) and first since Glyn Milburn in 1999.
The ironic part of Azumah making the Pro Bowl as a kick returner is the fact that he didn't have the responsibility when he was demoted from his starting cornerback role in Week 5. The move seemed to motivate Azumah to not only win his starting role back, but to show everyone what he can do with the ball in his hands.
"I felt like I wasn't really playing to my potential or playing how they really wanted me to play," Azumah said of his slow start. "They had to make some decisions and quite frankly I had to basically take a back seat. But with that it just made me work harder and I just basically wanted to come out and prove myself and say I'm capable of being really productive."
That's exactly what Azumah has done in 11 games as Chicago's featured kick return man. He's averaging an NFL-leading 30.3 yards per kickoff return and, with two games remaining, could become the first returner since 1996 (Michael Bates, Carolina, 30.2 on 33 returns) to average over 30.0 yards per kickoff return (minimum of at least 25 attempts).
Coming into the season Azumah, a former college running back at New Hampshire, had just four career kick returns for an average 16.2 yards per attempt. However this season the fifth-year cornerback has a league leading 13 kickoff returns of more than 30 yards, while also topping 20 yards on 22 of 32 returns and posting five returns of more than 40 yards. Azumah and Dante Hall of Kansas City are the only returners with multiple scores on returns this season, Azumah scoring on 88- and 89-yard runs.
Azumah's success in the return game seems to have carried over to his play in the secondary. He has a career-high three interceptions with two games left on the schedule.
"I would say it kind of boosted my defensive play as well," Azumah said, "My confidence has never really slipped but its definitely skyrocketed."
Does the honor take the edge off a disappointing season?
"Obviously when you make something like that it never gets old," Kreutz said. "It's always a nice honor when they vote you in, but you'd always rather win."
Olin Kreutz, who was a Pro Bowl alternate in 1999 and 2000, earns his third consecutive trip to his native Hawaii and is the fifth Bears player at his position to be selected to the team (Jay Hilgenberg, Mike Pyle, Larry Strickland and Bulldog Turner).
Although Kreutz is known as a gritty performer, who has started 45 of the last 46 regular season contests for the Bears at center with his only absence coming after having an appendectomy (at St Louis) in 2002 after, he insists that he isn't doing anything spectacular.
"People always make a big deal out of it," Kreutz said. "I just think that's expected of someone who plays this game. I think you're supposed to get ready to play the game and you're supposed to work hard to be good."
While Brian Urlacher hasn't made the big plays that most expect of the middle linebacker, he earns his fourth straight selection and is one of only four Bears to be named to the team in their first four seasons in the League. The list includes Rick Casares (1955-59) and Hall of Famers Dick Butkus (1965-73), Mike Ditka (1961-65) and Gale Sayers (1965-69).
The fact that Urlacher hasn't been involved in a turnover in 15 games raises some questions about the validity of his Pro Bowl nod.
"With Brian, he's just such a rare athlete at the position that you come to expect that he's going to make every single play," Jauron said. "When it doesn't happen it does become a disappointment. So the expectations are both the gift and the curse of that great ability. You're gifted with it and then the expectations grow so huge that it's hard to fill them."
Still Urlacher has led the team in tackles in eight of 14 games this season and 30 of the Bears last 40 games overall, posting double-digit tackle totals in six contests en route to a team-high 136 stops, outdistancing Azumah's second-place total (79) by 57 tackles.
The former college safety admits he's still adjusting to the intricacies of playing middle linebacker and believes there is still room for improvement.
"There are still things I can do better," Urlacher said. "Every year I've been in the league I've said ‘I can get better and that's the main thing.' As long as I keep approaching it like that and trying to get better, I think I will continue to get better."
The fourth-year pro out of New Mexico leads in solo tackles (98), assists (38) and tackles-for-loss (9) while also contributing three pass break-ups and one and a half sacks. Urlacher is on pace to record the third-highest tackle total of his career after notching a career-high and team-record 214 last season and has now topped the 100-tackle plateau in each of his four seasons in the NFL.
The trio will represent the Bears in the annual AFC-NFC battle to be played in Honolulu, Hawaii on Sunday, February 8, 2004.