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NFL teams usually in tough spot when ushering a star toward the sunset

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher scores fumble recovery third quarter. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan lost ball while under pressure from Bears

Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher scores on a fumble recovery in the third quarter. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan lost the ball while under pressure from Bears defensive end Julius Peppers. The Chicago Bears defeated the Atlanta Falcons 30-12 in the season opener September 11, 2011 at Soldier Field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 25, 2013 7:20AM



In making personnel decisions, Bears cornerback Charles Tillman would err on the side of experience.

‘‘I’m all about vets,’’ Tillman said, referring to the Bears’ decision to part ways with linebacker Brian Urlacher last week. ‘‘I like that Bill Belichick attitude.

‘‘But every GM does their own thing, and Phil [Emery] is doing what he feels is right. Hey, they don’t pay me to make those decisions. They pay me to play.’’

For more than a decade, Urlacher was the face of the Bears, continuing a proud lineage at middle linebacker and establishing himself as one the game’s best and most popular defenders. But he doesn’t run like he used to and doesn’t make game-changing plays like he used to, which is why many evaluators project he’s nearly at the end of his otherwise-brilliant career.

Emotions always run deep when a popular player approaches the end of his run, which puts the team in a precarious position based on the swan-song contract it offers.

Give too much, and a team may pay the price for several years. After an MVP season, the Seattle Seahawks rewarded running back Shaun Alexander with an eight-year, $62 million contract. But he had two subpar seasons after the monstrous deal, then was released and quietly finished his career with the Washington Redskins.

Offer too little, and a team may offend the respected player and his many fans. The Denver Broncos let seven-time Pro Bowl tight end Shannon Sharpe leave via free agency after the 1999 season. But Sharpe earned one more Pro Bowl nod and, more important, helped the Baltimore Ravens win Super Bowl XXV, leading them in catches (67), receiving yards (810) and receiving touchdowns (five).

‘‘There were some pretty hard conversations that had to be made with a player who helped us win two Super Bowls,’’ said Ted Sundquist, the Broncos’ general manager from 2002 to 2008. ‘‘But a lot of the football discussions, it was hard, cold facts.’’

Few defensive players in recent memory represented their franchises with more distinction than the late Junior Seau. Born in San Diego, Seau was drafted fifth overall by the Chargers in 1990, embraced the community and earned 12 Pro Bowl and eight All-Pro selections.

But he was traded to the Miami Dolphins during the 2003 offseason. And although he played seven more seasons with the Dolphins and the New England Patriots, under Belichick, he didn’t make more than $1.1 million in his last five NFL seasons.

One AFC personnel executive said the key is to take nostalgia out of the equation. The San Francisco 49ers did that with quarterback Joe Montana and wide receiver Jerry Rice, two of the greatest players in NFL history.

The Broncos might have had some tough decisions to make with John Elway, who was nearing the end of his Hall of Fame career in 1998, when, at 38, he led the Broncos to a victory over the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, running for one touchdown and throwing for another while racking up 336 passing yards. He was named the game’s MVP.

Months later, Elway announced his retirement.

‘‘He walked off the field, and he had made his own decision,’’ Sundquist said. ‘‘He went on his own terms.’’

Asked what would have happened if Elway had wanted to return, Sundquist said, ‘‘It would have been complicated.’’

The Broncos avoided a headache and, possibly, heartache.

As the game grows, Sundquist said, long-term star players are rare but serve a key role. They help the team’s brand, they help the team’s image and they even can help with efforts to secure stadium funding. As the Minnesota Vikings struggled for years to gain support for a new stadium, perennial Pro Bowl players Adrian Peterson and Jared Allen stumped to generate fan support.

‘‘As you look back on a player like an Urlacher, or some of these players who have had careers of 12 or 13 years, they help with stadiums or, in the case of Chicago, a renovation of Soldier Field,’’ Sundquist said. ‘‘They had a big part in the business part of that.

‘‘I look at how the NFL has exponentially grown, and these type of players are a big part of it — what they’ve meant to your organization and the identity of your organization.’’

But as the NFL’s popularity has grown, so have salaries and contracts.

‘‘You write some of these free-agent deals, and you pump up the back end,’’ Sundquist said, referring to a practice of inflating non-guaranteed base salaries in the later years of a contract. ‘‘But eventually you’ve got to pay the piper.’’

The market is softened this offseason, with only a couple of players landing massive deals — none of them a linebacker who doesn’t rush the quarterback. There’s a glut of veteran linebackers looking for work and only a handful of teams with an obvious need.

It’s a buyer’s market, which is why New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma just accepted a huge pay cut, dropping his 2013 base salary from $4.8  million to $1 million.

Urlacher is unsure of his market but still confident he’ll find a new NFL home.

‘‘I’m going to play for sure,” he said last week.

Teams aren’t tripping over themselves to sign him, but he and his agents know it only takes one suitor to give him a chance at redemption.

Two that let go at the right time

Green Bay Packers

After contemplating retirement several times, quarterback Brett Favre finally dragged things out too much, and the Packers elevated Aaron Rodgers into the starting position. Favre changed his mind, but the Packers held firm, and he was eventually traded to the New York Jets, then later signed with the Minnesota Vikings. He had a brilliant 2009 season, but the Vikings lost in the NFC title game. Rodgers led the Packers to a victory in Super Bowl XLV.

San Francisco 49ers

If you’re going to shove a four-time Super Bowl champion, six-time All-Pro quarterback out the door, then you’d better have a strong plan in place. The 49ers replaced a Hall of Fame quarterback (Joe Montana) with another Hall of Fame quarterback (Steve Young). Young only led the 49ers to one Super Bowl, but he did so in style, winning MVP honors by throwing a Super Bowl-record six touchdown passes.

Two that let go too late

Seattle Seahawks

They rewarded three-time Pro Bowl running back Shaun Alexander with an eight-year, $62 million contract. But he averaged 3.6 and 3.5 yards per carry the next two seasons and finished well short of 1,000 yards each time. He was released and meekly finished his career with the Washington Redskins, appearing in just four games and averaging 2.2 yards per carry.Baltimore Colts

Johnny Unitas had a long Hall of Fame career. But many would fairly argue that it was too long. In his final six seasons, after he turned 35, Unitas always tossed more interceptions than touchdown passes. But with 14 touchdowns against 18 interceptions, he did lead the Baltimore Colts to a Super Bowl victory at the end of the 1970 season. He finished his illustrious career in San Diego.



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