Urlacher Rested and Ready for Season

Even though Hall of Famer Gale Sayers questions whether or not Brian Urlacher can still be the player he used to be, the simple truth is that the Chicago Bears are a better team with him on the field.

Last season was the most frustrating of his football life for six-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher, who by halftime of the 2009 opener was finished for the year with a dislocated wrist.

That injury snapped a streak of 65 straight starts dating back to 2004, when he missed seven games with hamstring injuries. Those were the only games he had ever missed in the NFL until last season.

"It sucks," Urlacher said at the end of last weekend's minicamp. "I got a lot of perspective. I don't want to do it again. It's very frustrating. I hadn't missed a season in my life, high school, college, nothing even close to that. The closest I ever came was back in '04."

The positive spin from the injury is that it occurred so early in the season that Urlacher, who turns 32 on Tuesday, is already back to full participation on the field and in the weight room.

"It's great," he said. It feels good, man. I did everything football-wise I was supposed to do."

That's sweet music to the Bears' coaching staff, which was forced to utilize every bit of a deep linebacker depth chart last season.

"We're better with him," coach Lovie Smith said. "He's a great player. He makes our defense work. When you're the quarterback of the defense and they're used to hearing you, that's important. For the seven years I've been here, I've heard him giving the signals. And the players have too."

A year ago, two years removed from the Pro Bowl after he made it in six of his first seven seasons, Urlacher and the Bears were anticipating a bounce-back season because he had a healthy offseason, free of injury rehab. He feels the same way now.

"I had a year off, so I feel pretty good," he said. "I'm just excited I get to practice again."

Urlacher missed football so much that he was thrilled to be able to return to the less glamorous aspects of the job: the grunt work of practice and lifting weights.

"I missed not being up here [at Halas Hall] all the time, being around my teammates," he said. "I missed football, obviously, but the most fun you have is being around your teammates. When you don't have it, that's when you appreciate it the most. When it's taken from you, you miss it the most.

LB Brian Urlacher
AP Images: Nam Y. Huh

"Even this offseason, when I got to go to workouts, it was great just to be back around the guys again, joking around with them, working out. I missed it. I don't know if they missed me, but I missed them last year. It's fun to be back, especially on the football field."

The Bears missed Urlacher, too, even though Hunter Hillenmeyer stepped up with arguably his best NFL season filling the void.

"He's the face of the franchise," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said in regards to Urlacher. "I would never take anything away from [Hillenmeyer] now, because he did a heck of a job, too. But [Urlacher] has a presence in the huddle. He can communicate, he can run the defense, and that's a confident feeling. That huddle is about confidence. He gets everybody aligned and set, and then his play will speak for itself."

Quarterback Jay Cutler and the other members of the Bears' offense are still learning new coordinator Mike Martz's scheme, but they're already excited about it.

"We never really know what play's going to be called," Cutler said after last weekend's high-energy, up-tempo minicamp practices. "We've got a good idea. But Mike does a great job of mixing things up and keeping the defense off balance, putting guys in matchups where they can win. It's exciting. It's always changing. It's always different."

Martz's offense puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback, but it also gives the quarterback a lot of opportunities for success.

"Quarterbacks have to make quick, precise decisions, and you have to be really accurate with the ball," Cutler said. "It puts a lot on the quarterback, puts a lot on the receivers. But it's going well. The guys are picking up and they're really receptive to it." ...

Cornerback Charles Tillman, who was absent from most of the voluntary workouts prior to last week, lined up with the second team in last weekend's first minicamp practice, a temporary "demotion." And he was also on the right side instead of his customary left side.

Zack Bowman and Tim Jennings, who was let go in the offseason by the Colts, lined up with the first team. But Tillman's demotion didn't last long. He was back with the ones in the afternoon, though still on the right side, and he's still the starter, as he has been since his rookie season of 2003.

"There's no second or first team right now," Smith said. "There's a starting rotation that you have. It's kind of based on who's been here the most right now. When some of the players haven't been here the entire time, you don't know exactly what type of condition they're in and you have to get them out here and see. Charles Tillman is one of our guys. Every day that I've been here that's been the case, and that won't change." ...

There were several notable absences from the practice field at Halas Hall on Friday when the Bears conducted the first two of their five weekend practices.

Defensive tackle Tommie Harris did not participate in the morning, but he was back during the afternoon session. Newly acquired tight end Brandon Manumaleuna was a spectator after having arthroscopic knee surgery five weeks ago. He's expected to be at 100 percent well before the start of training camp.

Defensive tackle Marcus Harrison was held out from all practices with a non-specific "illness." Wide receiver Earl Bennett was limited in some team activities after recent arthroscopic knee surgery, but he did most of the individual work.

Center Olin Kreutz, who is coming back from offseason Achilles surgery, did not practice during the minicamp but is expected to be back on the field in time for training camp. Linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa (knee) practiced in the mornings but not in the afternoons. ...

Smith weighed in on the Urlacher-Gale Sayers war of words that has already been blown out of proportion since Sayers criticized the lack of success of recent Bears teams.

"Those are guys in the Bear family," Smith said. "When you're in a family, ideally you would like to keep things in [house]. But when you're in the Bear family, no one in the Bear family is happy with where we are right now. That's why you need minicamps and things like that. Our football team is better, and when we play better this year, everybody will be happy."

The Bears have missed the playoffs the past three seasons. But they missed the playoffs in all seven of Sayers' seasons while compiling a cumulative record of 41-54-3.

"Last year at this time, Johnny Knox was using a map getting to Halas Hall. Now he feels a lot more comfortable in our offense." – Coach Lovie Smith on second-year wide receiver Johnny Knox.

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