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Brian Urlacher’s sore left knee now ‘a concern’ to Bears

Brian Urlacher twists his left knee seasfinale Jan. 1. “It’s always concern when you have an injury end year” Lovie

Brian Urlacher twists his left knee in the season finale Jan. 1. “It’s always a concern when you have an injury at the end of the year,” Lovie Smith said. | Andy King~AP

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Updated: September 7, 2012 6:18AM

BOURBONNAIS — Even Lovie Smith no longer could blow off questions about Brian Urlacher’s sore knee after the eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker missed his fourth consecutive practice Sunday.

‘‘It’s always a concern when you have an injury at the end of the year and you miss some time in the offseason,’’ Smith said, referring to the sprained ligaments Urlacher suffered in his left knee in Week 17 last season. ‘‘But he should be OK.’’

Even that lightly guarded prognosis is a little disconcerting coming from Smith. His famously unbreakable optimism generally is inversely proportionate to fans’ panic. But even he couldn’t say there’s nothing to worry about.

That doesn’t mean Urlacher is injured.

‘‘It’s not like he hurt it any more,’’ Smith said. ‘‘You assume he’d have some soreness and he’d miss a few of these training-camp practices.’’

Maybe that’s the way it looks now, but that’s not the impression Smith gave when he was asked at the beginning of training camp how cautious he would be with Urlacher.

‘‘Not at all. He’s ready to go,’’ Smith said July 24. ‘‘We’re cautious with players when they’re not fit and full-speed ready to go. But once we get them out there, we’re never trying to take out any of our players in practice.

‘‘You have to know how to practice, first off, to try to avoid injuries. I feel like we can do that, and if injuries happen, they just kind of happen.’’

After three padded practices in a four-day span — not exactly a grueling start to camp, even considering the 90-degree-plus heat — Urlacher has missed the last four practices.

Even if Urlacher hasn’t hurt the knee any more, he hasn’t hurt it any less, either, and that has to be a concern. It’s an indication that at the very least, Urlacher will have to be managed a little more closely than the Bears might have thought. If he’s sore after three practices, how is he going to feel after a game against an opponent who knows he’s playing on a rehabbed knee?

At 34 and in his 13th NFL season, Urlacher is smart enough to know how to manage himself and his game and still play at a Pro Bowl level. He might end up going the Julius Peppers route and just be ready to play on Sunday.

But this is not 2010, when Urlacher returned from a dislocated wrist he suffered in the 2009 opener at Green Bay and was a second-team All-Pro selection. That wasn’t a knee, and Urlacher had almost a full year to recover. That not only allowed his wrist to heal, but it rejuvenated his body and his career.

This is likely to be a challenge all season. We also have to consider the worst-case scenario: What if Urlacher can’t play? It was devastating in 2009, when Hunter Hillenmeyer did everything he could in Urlacher’s place. But it was what he couldn’t do that ultimately cost the 7-9 Bears a playoff berth: He couldn’t be Brian Urlacher.

The Bears would be in a similar spot this year, with Peppers a notable difference. If Urlacher is out, starting strong-side linebacker Nick Roach likely would move to the middle. Newcomer Geno Hayes, a three-year starter with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, would replace Roach on the strong side.

If Urlacher can hang in there, the Bears have better options in the future. Second-year pro Dom DeCicco, making the transition from a hybrid safety in college to linebacker in the NFL as Urlacher did, has potential but isn’t there yet. Rookie defensive end Shea McClellin fits the Urlacher mold better than anybody on the team. He’ll probably find his way there by mistake, just as Urlacher did.

One key to NFL success is constant: Timing is everything.

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