Is this Brian’s swan song? Only Urlacher can tell
BY NEIL HAYES Twitter: @bynhayes December 5, 2012 11:38AM
What do you think — Is this the end of the line for Urlacher?
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Updated: December 5, 2012 9:44PM
Whether Brian Urlacher plays for the Bears next season or ends his career elsewhere isn’t a matter of management doing the so-called “right thing” so much as it will be a decision that must be made by the future Hall of Fame linebacker.
Urlacher is expected to miss at least three of the Bears final four games while recovering from a strained right hamstring. There’s no guarantee Urlacher will recover in time for the Bears to make the playoffs. There’s not even a guarantee that Lovie Smith’s slumping team will make the playoffs, for that matter.
Since Urlacher is in the final year of his contract, he may have played his last game in Chicago. The image of him hobbling off the field the play before Russell Wilson threw the winning touchdown pass in Sunday’s overtime loss to the Seahawks at Soldier Field might not be how we want to remember an iconic player the likes of which an iconic franchise has infrequently seen, but rarely do players choreograph their exits. Far more often, they are awkward, unworthy affairs, the memories of which are best left to the musty depths of history.
Fox broadcaster Chris Meyers told his television audience during Sunday’s game that No. 54 would retire immediately if the Bears won a Super Bowl. Otherwise, he would like to play for a year or two more if he believes he can still compete.
Whether his latest injury will change his opinion is not known, probably not even by Urlacher himself, but everyone would agree that it would be fitting for him to end his career in Chicago, where his shaved dome has become the most recognizable symbol of the franchise since Mike Ditka’s mustache.
The problem is, the Bears shouldn’t pay Urlacher anything close to the approximately $9 million per season he has made for the past five years, not when they need to find at least two starting offensive linemen and a serviceable tight end while also auditioning replacements for the athletic freak who has anchored their defense for the past 13 years. They can’t afford it and, sadly, he’s not worth it anymore. Sunday’s game was only the latest example.
Urlacher has continued to play at a high level but has lost more than a step. He has lost his quickness. It’s not so much his straight-line speed that has suffered since injuring his knee in last year’s season finale. He proved he could still run when he chased down Golden Tate from behind after Tate’s 49-yard gain in the second quarter of Sunday’s game. It’s brakes that he lacks. He struggles to plant his feet and re-direct himself. It has looked like he has been playing on ice all season.
Never before in a season have we seen Urlacher overrun plays he used
to make routinely.
The Bears can expect to hear plenty of advice about how they should handle this. Some believe Urlacher “deserves” the right to play as long as he wants and end his career in Chicago, even if it comes at the expense of upgrading other positions. Others will want to make a quick break, like ripping off a band-aid.
The truth is, Urlacher’s future has more to do with what he believes is fair compensation and how much other teams might be willing to pay a 34-year-old whose best years are shrinking in the rear-view mirror.
All Bears’ general manager Phil Emery can do is offer Urlacher a one-or-two year deal worth more than the veteran minimum and far less than he’s making now. That way, funds once directed to Urlacher can be used to secure players at other positions.
Whether he wants to play for that kind of money will be his decision, not the Bears’. It’s possible some other team could offer him significantly more, of course, but that is starting to seem unlikely.
Urlacher has thrived in Smith’s cover-2 defense but few teams rely on that scheme like the Bears do. Urlacher has never been an effective blitzer, which means he might not be as effective in a more aggressive attack.
In all liklihood, Urlacher’s years of earning top dollar have ended. Emery should make a fair offer while letting Urlacher know how much he means to the franchise and how much he would like him to retire a Bear.
Beyond that, the decision isn’t up to the Bears. Whether he ends his career in Chicago or with some other franchise will be Urlacher’s alone.