There are few players in the history of the NFL that become synonymous with a specific team. From the Vikings' glory years, names like Tarkenton, Page, Eller and Yary come to mind. In more recent years, players like Randy Moss, Cris Carter, John Randle and Adrian Peterson have taken that mantle as the "face of the franchise."
In Chicago, it can be argued that Walter Payton is the greatest Bear of all time – any argument to the contrary could be pretty easily refuted – but the mainstay of the Monsters of the Midway persona the Bears and their fans have embraced has been largely due to its ferocious defense. Even during the lean years of the franchise, the Chicago defense was always one that was feared and respected, especially when it came to the middle linebacker position.
In the closing stages of the 20th century, that position was defined by Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary. In the 21st century, that tradition has been carried on by Brian Urlacher. A first-round pick in the 2000 draft, in his 13 NFL seasons, Urlacher has been hailed as a throwback to the Black and Blue Division style that permeated what used to be known as the NFC Central Division. However, there is a cold wind blowing in Chicago that Urlacher's time may be running out.
On Tuesday, reports surfaced that Urlacher is going to be shut down for the remainder of the regular season with a significant hamstring injury suffered Sunday against Seattle. While Urlacher remains confident that he can heal up in time for what the Bears hope will be a significant playoff run, there is a growing feeling that he may not be able to return and that his career may potentially be over.
On Wednesday, some of the Vikings spoke of the significance of not having Urlacher in the lineup Sunday when the Bears meet the Vikings at the Metrodome. Cornerback Chris Cook echoed a sentiment shared by many of his teammates that Urlacher is a special player whose leadership will be sorely missed.
"It's a big deal for them," Cook said. "He's a leader of that team – on and off the field. I think it would be the equivalent of us losing Antoine (Winfield) or Chad Greenway. You have guys to replace them, but you don't have players with the ability and experience that they bring to the table."
Vikings coach Leslie Frazier, himself a member of the Chicago Bears during their heyday in the mid-1980s, wouldn't speculate on how much the Bears defense will be impacted by the shelving of Urlacher, but was quick to note that his loss will be significant.
"He's an excellent player and has been a leader for their defense for a while," Frazier said. "We'll see what kind of effect that has. You would think it would have an effect for sure, because of the impact he's had as a player. It's unfortunate for him. You don't ever want to see a player get injured, but we'll see how it impacts their defense."
On the offensive side of the ball, players like guard Brandon Fusco said that you can't replace a legend like Urlacher. With no disrespect thrown the way of Nick Roach, who will take Urlacher's place in the starting lineup Sunday, teams suffer when they lose someone as critical as Urlacher is to the opportunistic Bears defense.
"He's a veteran who has earned his place in the history of the National Football League," Fusco said. "You don't replace a guy like that easily. He's an all-time great and I think they're going to miss him. He's up there in age, but he still plays at a high level and you don't lose a player like that and not feel it."
A Viking that has a much better insight to Urlacher's importance to the Bears is wide receiver Devin Aromoshodu, who began his career in Chicago and was teammates with Urlacher at the start of his career.
"He's a leader," Aromashodu said. "He's one of those players who makes everyone around him better. What I remember about him was that he worked hard all the time and expected that from everyone else. Whether it was a game, a practice or away from the field, he was a guy that I always looked at as a leader."
Urlacher's absence won't cripple the Bears defense, but Aromashodu feels that his loss to the defense may be similar to Chicago's offense losing Jay Cutler. The other 10 starters are still there, but something will be very different.
"It's big, because he's a middle linebacker, so he's considered like the quarterback on defense," Aromashodu said. "Him not being there, I'm sure they're going to have to make some adjustments. He's the guy who sets up the defense."
From the Vikings' perspective, not having Urlacher barking out assignment audibles on the defense will be missed, but it won't bring Chicago to its knees.
"This Bears defense is a great with him or without him," Fusco said. "We have to be ready for anything they throw at us because they're going to be counting on other guys to make plays with Urlacher out. Sometimes that brings out the best in a team when you face adversity like losing a star player, but their defense is very good from front to back."
Asked which end of the Chicago defense will be more adversely impacted by the loss of Urlacher – the run defense or the pass defense – Fusco believes it will be both, but his innate ability to blow up run plays is the hallmark of the Bears defense, which gives an edge to opponents in the run game.
"I think it will probably hurt them more in the run defense because he has such good instincts as to where the ball is going and doesn't get fooled very often," Fusco said. "But he's also pretty good in pass defense, too. He has had his share of interceptions in his career, but I think they'll feel the loss more in the run game. He's a physical guy who likes to get after it."
Chicago will take the field Sunday without its legendary No. 54 in the lineup. The void his absence will leave will be pronounced, because he's not simply the quarterback of the defense. It goes much deeper than that.
"He's the heart and soul of their defense who sets the tone on the defensive side of the ball and maybe the whole team," Cook said. "He's a legendary player and he demands a lot of respect just on his name. They'll definitely be missing him on the defensive side of the ball."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
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