If you are a superstar in the National Football League, then one of your duties is to spread the praise around to some lesser-heralded teammates when things are going well. But when things aren't going so well, you need to accept responsibility for letting down your fans.
However, Brian Urlacher, still the face of the Chicago Bears and one of the more marketed players in the entire league, considers himself exempt from this important part of his job description.
The Monsters of the Midway missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year since getting defeated by the Colts in Super Bowl XLI, despite being loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber performers on defense and playing six games per year against rather weak divisional foes in the NFC North. The Bears were No. 2 in total defense in 2005 and then No. 5 in '06 with Ron Rivera at the controls, but they fell all the way to 28th in 2007 and then 21st in '08 under the direction of Bob Babich. For a franchise that prides itself on playing rough-and-tumble D – and getting All-Pro play from Urlacher's middle linebacker position – those rankings simply aren't going to get it done.
There is more than enough blame to go around at Halas Hall. Babich, who probably wasn't qualified to take over for Rivera in the first place, could be the sacrificial lamb – especially after both head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jerry Angelo spoke so highly of recently-fired Lions front man Rod Marinelli. Like Smith, Marinelli is a Cover 2 disciple but brings more of a resume to the table than Babich.
Whether or not Babich was up to the task or not, several defenders deserve to have their 2008 called into question, too. Tackle Tommie Harris didn't provide much return on the front office's $40 million investment, cornerback Nathan Vasher has suited up for a grand total of 12 games – and didn't play particularly well when he did put on a uniform – after signing a $28 million extension in June 2007, and safety Mike Brown hasn't been healthy enough to play a full 16-game schedule since George Bush's first term in office.
But whatever you do, don't even intimate that Urlacher contributed to the Midway Monsters' fall from grace.
"I'm tired of criticism that is unwarranted," Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune's Vaughn McClure this week. "People who say stuff about me, they don't know our defense. They don't know football."
Keep in mind that McClure is the only member of the Chicago media Urlacher talks to on a fairly regular basis – and McClure should be commended for that, by the way. Urlacher saves most of his comments for the national big shots like Jay Glazer of FOX Sports or the ESPN cameras once Monday Night Football makes its way to the Windy City. Six-time Pro Bowlers of his ilk apparently don't need to waste their time with the local beat writers charged with covering the Bears on a daily basis.
So not only are people like myself unworthy of speaking to No. 54 week in and week out, but now we can't inform our readers of what looks to be fairly obvious to anyone with a basic grasp of football: Urlacher isn't nearly the player he used to be.
"Yes, I wish I would have made a lot more big plays," he said of his performance this past season. "Obviously, everyone could say that on our defense. I wish I was around the ball more, but I wasn't. Just the way things worked out this season."
Not much worked out well for the Bears on defense in 2008. Their 21.9 points per game allowed was only good enough to tie them for 16th with lowly Cleveland. They struggled mightily against the pass, finishing 30th – two spots behind 0-16 Detroit – at 241.2 yards allowed per game. Just 28 sacks tied them with all-O-and-no-D New Orleans for 22nd. Be it a poor pass rush up front or soft coverage in the secondary, Urlacher and Co. were far from monstrous most of the year.
And when a playoff berth was miraculously still within reach in the finale at Houston, Chicago stood idly by and watched the Texans rack up 455 yards of offense in a 31-24 clean-out-your-lockers defeat.
You're supposed to win as a team and lose as a team at this level, but don't tell that to Urlacher.
"Yeah, that was my fault," Urlacher said "with sarcasm," according to McClure, when questioned about Steve Slaton's 47-yard run in the fourth quarter that effectively ended the Houston contest. "Every long touchdown we gave up this season, it was my fault. Every time a receiver caught a pass for a touchdown, it was my fault too. In Atlanta, when the guy caught that pass that allowed them to kick the field goal, that was my fault."
Whether it was his fault or not, the numbers don't lie when arguments are made that Urlacher is indeed a player in decline.
Tackles are not an official statistic in the NFL, but Urlacher was credited with 107 of them – just third on the team – upon coaches' review of game film. He did intercept two passes and knocked down 10 more, but he did not record a sack or a forced fumble all season long. His tackle output was the lowest of his career aside from 2004 when he totaled only 105, and he missed seven games to injury during that campaign.
Urlacher was not named to the Pro Bowl for the second straight time. Reputation alone can earn some high-profile players a trip to Hawaii even if they put together mediocre years, so the fact that Urlacher was no better than a second alternate speaks volumes. Not only are fans not punching his name on ballots automatically anymore, but neither are his peers.
Still, Urlacher has convinced himself he's every bit the difference maker he was in 2005, when he was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
"I don't think I've lost any of that," he told McClure.
Urlacher certainly didn't think he'd lost any of that this past offseason, when he whined his way into an $18 million contract extension from Angelo despite four years remaining on his deal. That transaction looks like a glorified convenience-store robbery at this point, as he is now signed through 2012 and has salary-cap numbers of $9.7, $9.8, $11.3, and $9.2 million the next four seasons. And all this talk about trading Urlacher before 2009 rolls around can be stopped right now – dumping him would cost the Bears more than $6.6 million in dead cap space.
I'll never begrudge a man for doing what he has to do to make a living, especially in professional football since the window of opportunity for doing so is always one play away from shutting forever. Give Urlacher credit for playing the face-of-the-franchise card just after neck surgery and taking advantage of Angelo's desire to keep the core of the defense intact. Urlacher bluffed with a low pair, and Angelo folded despite three of a kind.
All that aside, if you're going to be paid like a superstar, then you have to accept the responsibility of being a superstar. That means getting too much praise when you're winning and getting too much blame when you're losing. And when you're expected to be a playmaker but simply aren't make the plays anymore, don't act so surprised – or so smug, as Urlacher did with McClure – when fans and media alike suddenly stop speaking about you in such glowing terms.
The Bears are once again nowhere near the postseason, and any blame thrown at Urlacher is both warranted and deserved.
John Crist is the Publisher of Bear Report and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America. To read him every day, visit BearReport.com and become a Chicago Bears insider.
Urlacher Refuses to Take Responsiblity
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