TELANDER: Brian Urlacher carried on proud tradition of Bears’ MLBs
BY RICK TELANDER email@example.com May 22, 2013 9:39PM
Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher (54) waits for a play to begin against the Seattle Seahawks in the second half of an NFL football game in Chicago, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
Who is the Bears' greatest middle linebacker?
Updated: June 24, 2013 2:23PM
When you think of the Bears, you think of middle linebackers.
And when you think of middle linebackers, you think of Brian Urlacher. Or, you should.
Bill George, they say, started the position. Dick Butkus turned it into performance art for sadists. Mike Singletary made it into religion.
Urlacher continued the legacy of that disparate trio, picking up the baton of toughness, leaving his own grip on the position and leading the Bears’ defense through the first decade of this millennium.
Urlacher always has had plenty of detractors, even right here in Chicago — critics who said he didn’t hurt running backs, didn’t shed blockers, didn’t snarl or slobber or pontificate about hellfire and brimstone and the coming rain of cheese from Green Bay.
What he did do was play the famed Chicago position in a way that was his alone, even as it paid homage to the past. At his prime he ran a sub-4.6 40, and it’s doubtful any of his Bears predecessors could do that. Plus, he was big. Real big.
George, the middle guard who allegedly stood up one day in the Bears 5-2 defense, thus creating the modern 4-3 defense as well as the MLB position, went 6-2, 230. Singletary was a crablike 6-0, 230. Butkus — the crude, vicious neck-twister — was a bruising 6-3, 245.
But Urlacher was — is — 6-4, 258. When he announced he was retiring Wednesday at age 34, he still looked, and claimed he felt, ready to play again.
With long arms and a safety’s agility (he played safety at New Mexico), Urlacher was without question the most athletic of the Bears great middle linebackers.
Butkus had extremely long arms, too, and was a pretty good swimmer. But George and Singletary seemed to have had one thing they did well: play football. Urlacher could smash-dunk a basketball from pretty far out, and his soft hands were why he played wide receiver until he had a growth spurt in high school.
His agility and size are reasons he finished his 13-year career with 22 interceptions, while Singletary finished with seven.
Comparing and contrasting can go on forever with position players in the NFL, yet no era is like another. Rules change. Offenses evolve. Defenses counter. And the arms race continues.
It’s coincidental but telling that two of the best middle linebackers of all time — Urlacher and Ray Lewis — are retiring in the same year. Their two different styles showed the extremely different ways a man in the middle of all the chaos could dominate. It’s just talk-show gibberish trying to determine which is better.
What I’ll remember about Urlacher is that, like all good middle linebackers, he had a neck as big as a stump and a seeming imperviousness to head-banging. I can only hope he feels no ill effects down the road from his collisions.
I am reminded of a lengthy story I did on the retired Butkus for Sports Illustrated in 1993. On the cover was a photo of a roaring Junior Seau. The headline? “A BLAST FROM THE PAST: San Diego Charger Linebacker Junior Seau: the New Butkus.’’
I only hope the best for Urlacher. He was a quirky guy, who never truly won over Chicago with his random snootiness. But he was a great Bears teammate, player, and — at his best — a funny, almost sweet guy.
All told, the four great Bears middle linebackers have given us 48 seasons of excellence, 34 Pro Bowls, three Hall of Fame busts and the feeling of brute force, desire and will that all true Chicagoans believe they have.
Oh, and that fourth Hall of Fame bust is five years off. And the search for the next Urlacher is on.