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Cutting Brian Urlacher a real option for Bears

The secrecy surrounding Brian Urlacher’s left knee doesn’t bode well for his effectiveness field this seasbeyond. The Bears could save

The secrecy surrounding Brian Urlacher’s left knee doesn’t bode well for his effectiveness on the field this season and beyond. The Bears could save his $7.5 million salary if they cut him before next Sunday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 27, 2012 11:24AM

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — He didn’t play.

And the question is: Can he play?

Brian Urlacher may be the heart of the Bears, but if the pump in the middle of the machine is busted, you either fix it or get a new one.

Nick Roach filled in for Urlacher at middle linebacker against the New York Giants — doing what he has been doing this preseason — and was . . . OK.

One play stood out early on. It was a sweep that Giants running back David Wilson took around left end for 15 yards. Roach was blocked to the ground on the play.

Then, early in the second quarter, Roach broke up a pass from Eli Manning to running back Henry Hynoski, and the Giants were forced to punt. Nice job.

But is this what it’s come down to: Nick Roach for Brian Urlacher? Six-one, 234 pounds for 6-4, 258? Good for superior? Steady for Hall of Fame?

Sure, you can say such speculation is premature. Urlacher just needs more time to rehab his injured left knee. He’ll be fine by the season opener, 14 days from now, at Soldier Field against the Indianapolis Colts.

That’s what Urlacher has been saying. That’s what coach Lovie Smith has been saying. That’s what teammates have been saying.

But how do they know?

They don’t.

And here’s the thing. The Bears have to decide no more than 13 days from now — the Saturday before that opener — if Urlacher is all that he’s supposed to be, all that he once was, or at least a good-enough replica of his eight-time Pro Bowl self that he can hold down his expensive spot in the middle.

That Saturday, Sept. 8, is the last day the Bears could release Urlacher and be off the hook for his $7.5 million 2012 salary. Keep him until Sunday and they owe him everything.

You could say, what’s the harm in just keeping the guy, no matter what? He’s been a great leader, a great representative at the position the Bears are known for, middle linebacker, the position of Bill George, Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary?

And you would have a point.

But $7.5 million is a lot of cap space. It’s money that can’t go to free agents. It’s money that can’t be used to tie up quarterback Jay Cutler for more years.

People, this is a bottom-line business. If the 34-year-old Urlacher can’t regain his speed and sideline-to-sideline range and his drop-back quickness, he becomes a very nostalgia-laden, shiny-headed cheerleader.

All the secrecy and irritability emanating from questions about Urlacher’s healing knee have made Halas Hall seem like more of a closed camp than usual.

Smith is halfway in love with Urlacher, and releasing him would be akin to taking his favorite dog and shooing it off a cliff. Indeed, the very thought of it ending like this for Urlacher in Chicago is painful.

But how is that knee?

We don’t know.

The best answer is, not good. Eight months of rehab for a bad sprain? A secret trip overseas to — maybe or maybe not — get blood-cell therapy? Arthroscopic debridement surgery two weeks ago?

And then, what, the guy is supposed to come back with barely any team practice and no game time-ups and lead the way?

Urlacher will be an unrestricted free agent after this season, which means he could go anywhere he wants for whatever he could wrangle. And he could just continue rehabbing and take his Bears millions this season.

Yes, he wants to play. And, yes, he came back from that serious wrist injury three years ago — the one we thought might ruin him — and has been a rock. Indeed, except for that 2009 season, Urlacher has started 96 straight games over seven years.

But so what?

Bottom line, baby.

In fact, this is a poker hand combined with high-stakes chicken.

Over here you’ve got Urlacher. Over there you’ve got first-year general manager Phil Emery.

Urlacher’s good at bluffing. Rookie Emery, well, what do you think?

Would you have the stones for your signature move to be releasing the greatest Bears linebacker of the last quarter-century? Would you be soft enough to keep him if he’s done? While realizing nobody will know if you’re right, either way, for months or years?

Imagine No. 54 retiring. Imagine him starring again for the Bears. Imagine him as a Green Bay Packer. Gag at the thought.

But anything’s possible when your cards are down and nobody knows what’s in the hole.

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