NFC North: Brian Urlacher retires

It never seemed likely that the Minnesota Vikings would pursue Brian Urlacher in free agency, given their sharp turn toward youth over the past two years. And now it seems clear that Urlacher had little interest in a mercenary-style role with the Vikings or any other NFL team.

On the day he announced his retirement, Urlacher told ESPN 1000 that he could never get his mind around playing for another team and was especially averse to answering a midsummer emergency call. The Vikings are giving veteran Erin Henderson a spring look at the position, and the thought had been that only a season-ending injury or a complete flop would have prompted the Vikings to call Urlacher.

"I didn't want to put another jersey on for any other team," Urlacher said. "Obviously it wasn't going to be for the Bears this year, so I thought it was the right thing to do to shut it down. …

"We talked to every team in the NFL, and maybe in July or August it would have happened, but I'm not going to wait. I want to be somewhere where somebody wants me. I don't want to go somewhere where, 'Oh, so-and-so got hurt, we need you.' I don't want that to be the situation.

"The Bears offered me the contract they offered me, and that was probably the best contract I was going to get from anywhere. And I'm not going to put my body through what it goes through for what the offer was."

And for those of you wondering if Urlacher could be lured from retirement, he insisted he plans to file his retirement papers immediately and has no interest in a comeback.

You can listen to ESPN 1000's entire 20-minute interview here.
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Reviewing the Pro Football Hall of Fame's list of middle linebackers is a sobering experience.

The position is well-represented, but almost all of the enshrinees -- Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier among them -- are drawn from a long-gone era of NFL defenses. In fact, former Chicago Bears star Mike Singletary is the only current Hall of Fame middle linebacker whose career started in the past 36 years.

The best case to be made for Brian Urlacher's candidacy, now that he has announced his retirement, is that his career reversed the decades-long decline in the value of the position. Along with the Baltimore Ravens' Ray Lewis, Urlacher modernized middle linebacking by adding speed and regular playmaking to the traditional role of helmet-jarring hits and fierce leadership.

Hall of Fame players can't simply be top performers over a period of NFL seasons. In a competitive environment where ballots are limited to five enshrinees per year, candidates must stand out. Some might be the best players in a generation, but if their position is as undervalued as middle linebacker has been over the past few decades, they also would need to have changed or impacted the game in a unique way.

I think Urlacher did that. It helped that he was drafted by a team that soon moved to a scheme that perfectly fit a middle linebacker who could run like a safety. It also helped that in his best years, Urlacher had some stud defensive tackles in front of him who limited free shots from offensive linemen.

Regardless, the Bears' defense in the Lovie Smith era wouldn't have worked without Urlacher covering the deep third of the field while also holding his own at the line of scrimmage. His ability to get 25 yards downfield, in between chasing runners from sideline to sideline, was a new development for the modern-day middle linebacker.

When Urlacher was sidelined, for 15 games in 2009 and four games last season, the Bears' defense dipped noticeably and obviously, especially against the pass. In the games that Urlacher missed over that stretch, opponents' Total Quarterback Rating (QBR) rose from 39.5 to 60.1 (on a scale of 0-100), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

He is one of four players in NFL history with at least 40 sacks and 20 interceptions in his career, as the chart shows, and he is one of seven players to win the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year award. Of the other six, three are in the Hall of Fame and two others aren't yet eligible.

Urlacher's résumé of sustained elite performances, even after his 2009 wrist injury, and his notable impact on how the game is played merit Hall of Fame enshrinement. How long it will take for him to be elected is almost a silly discussion. We don't know what the backlog will be like in 2018, but there is a pretty strong group of players who will be eligible for the first time alongside Urlacher. The group includes Lewis, Steve Hutchinson, Ronde Barber and perhaps Randy Moss.

Timing, of course, is but a detail. I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion between now and then. But you would think Canton has room for Brian Urlacher. Frankly, he made that space for himself.
Congratulations to the Arizona Cardinals, who for the time being at least have won the unofficial contest for best reaction to Brian Urlacher's retirement with this tweet:
You were who we thought you were. Congrats. RT @BUrlacher54: It was an honor to play my entire career for the @ChicagoBears.

The reference, of course, is to what almost certainly was the best game of Urlacher's career. In the Chicago Bears' legendary 24-23 victory over the Cardinals, Urlacher finished with 25 tackles (according to the Bears' coaching film), two quarterback hurries, two pass breakups and a forced fumble.

Afterward, then-Cardinals coach Dennis Green unloaded with his own legendary reaction, saying the Bears "are who we thought they were" and that the Cardinals "let them off the hook." It wasn't the proudest moment in Cardinals history, so kudos to them for making light of it to honor an opponent's retirement.
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What made Brian Urlacher special? You have to start, of course, with the way a 6-foot-4, 258-pound man could run, hit and organize a defense on the field. But even an occasional in-person observer of the Chicago Bears over the past decade could notice the reverential stature Urlacher held with his teammates.

If he had enemies, they never surfaced. Urlacher mixed equal doses of dry humor, man's-man competitiveness and two-way respect to keep the Bears' locker room humming smoothly and largely conflict-free during his tenure. So in the moments after Urlacher announced his retirement, I caught up with former Bears defensive lineman Dusty Dvoracek -- who now hosts a sports radio talk show on The Sports Talk Network in Norman, Okla. -- to get a better sense for how Urlacher managed to cast such a popular web.

"Once you became a teammate of Brian Urlacher, you would get the best teammate you could ever ask for," Dvoracek said. "He was one of the biggest superstars in the NFL, but he acted like an average Joe, even to people coming in as a rookie. That matters to people and they don't forget it.

"The first week I was there, he opened up his house and invited me over. It wasn't just me. It was everybody. Not just me. Everybody. He tried to make it as easy and as comfortable for everyone. He was very accepting if you were on his team. He wanted you to do well so the team would do well."

In big media settings, of course, Urlacher could be as grumpy as any player I've covered. His answers could be short, snippy and designed to end the questioning altogether. I told Dvoracek that it was always fascinating to me that a player who seemed as cranky as Urlacher could be so universally hailed and beloved as a leader.

"He is about as opposite of that as you can be in personal life," Dvoracek said. "He really is as nice and as kindhearted a guy as you're going to find in the NFL. A lot of guys put on a show for [the] camera, and behind it they're a jerk. I don't want to say that Brian was the reverse because I don't think he was a jerk to the cameras, but what we saw behind the scenes was genuine and real.

"I mean, he really is a happy guy. He loves to compete at everything he does. He's good at everything. It ticks you off. Whether you're playing pingpong, shuffleboard, basketball or golf, he's really good at everything he does. He's super competitive but really just likes to have a good time with the guys."

Even competitors recognized and appreciated that approach. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune earlier this spring that "I always appreciated his ability to enjoy the game while being competitive. He plays the game with a lot of class and professionalism. He does it the right way."

Rodgers added that when playing the Bears, "you never had to worry about cheap shots around the pile or after the whistle. They played the right way and it was led by Brian."

Emotions always run high when a superstar retires, and those who spent time around him tend to wax nostalgic. They are already beginning the work toward cementing a legend. Based on what we've heard about Urlacher over the years, that work shouldn't be hard.

Reaction to Brian Urlacher retirement

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
12:11
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In the wake of Brian Urlacher's announcement that his 13th NFL season would be his last, current and former NFL players took to Twitter to send out tributes to the future Hall of Fame Bears linebacker.

Fans also sent their thoughts via our NFC North Twitter account (@espn_nfnblog). Here are some of the highlights.


Congratulations to linebacker Brian Urlacher, who found peace and satisfaction with his 13-year career Wednesday rather than extending it beyond what felt organic to everyone -- most importantly him.

The assumption has always been that Urlacher, who turns 35 on Saturday, would play for the Chicago Bears or no one in 2013. He parted ways with the Bears in March, and on Wednesday he confirmed the latter part of that supposition. In announcing his retirement, Urlacher acknowledged with stark honesty that "I'm not sure I would bring a level of performance or passion that's up to my standards."

Many potential Hall of Famers change teams before ending their careers, but few were in the position Urlacher faced this offseason. The Bears appeared ambivalent at best about his return, and if he received an offer from another team, it has not been reported. In essence, Urlacher was waiting for another middle linebacker to suffer a season-ending injury or for another team to grow dissatisfied with its starter.

In either event, Urlacher would have been nothing more than a low-paid mercenary after 13 years as one of the NFL's top players. I don't blame him a bit for feeling conflicted about those prospects, especially considering the value he placed in his statement to having played exclusively for the Bears over the years.

We'll have more on Urlacher's career a bit later on the blog, including the obvious question: Will he be elected to the Hall of Fame? But for now, let's recognize and praise Urlacher for accepting his lot rather than allowing pride to cloud his judgment.

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