Commentary

No need to sugarcoat situation

Even at less than 100 percent, Brian Urlacher still a first-tier linebacker

Updated: September 5, 2012, 11:57 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

LAKE FOREST, Ill. -- One of the great sports myths is that players would not be on the field if they were not fully healthy. Truth is, an 85 percent Brian Urlacher is better than most 100 percent middle linebackers in the league.

If only the Chicago Bears would admit this.

Instead, they act as if the harder they try to make Urlacher seem perfectly healthy, the closer to full strength he'll actually be.

"He did everything we asked him to do," Bears coach Lovie Smith said after practice Monday. "He was one of the guys. ... Today was back to the normal routine as much as anything."

All of which told us little as to how Urlacher's left knee actually held up to his first practice in five weeks, which is the only thing that really matters.

[+] EnlargeBrian Urlacher
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhBears linebacker Brian Urlacher admits that he is feeling his age a bit this season.
How did he feel while practicing? Because the last time he tried, before arthroscopic surgery on Aug. 14 for an injury he sustained in the last game of last season, it swelled up and caused him pain.

And even more important, how will it feel Tuesday when Urlacher wakes up?

Chances are Urlacher is not going to be 100 percent all season. Even if he avoids practicing every day and has restrictions in the practices he does participate in, the 34-year-old's knee "just isn't the same anymore," as he told Fox-32's "The Final Word."

While some of his teammates skirted the issue of Urlacher being at anything less than full-strength -- "Obviously when he's on the field, he's ready to play. & He's not going to put himself in a situation not to be successful," said center Roberto Garza -- others acknowledged that the eight-time Pro Bowler's presence alone is a benefit.

"If you're the offense, when you see Urlacher out there it's just different than seeing anybody else out there," said Bears cornerback D.J. Moore. "You just know he's there and you can't really throw over his head or do little stuff because he can read the offense. ...

"(It's) not a knock on Nick [Roach] but when Nick is out there, teams may have more confidence."

Even at less than 100 percent, Urlacher, his teammates say, is the best at making on-field adjustments and at alerting them to make them as well. And as Moore said, Urlacher does not have to necessarily be a superstar for the defense to succeed.

"On our defense, everybody just has to do their job and he knows his job so well that he can make up for any injury or whatever he has," he said. "I mean, he doesn't have to run across the field all the time."

Urlacher stressed that he has been doing drills and participated in the entire practice Monday. He also said in the Fox interview that he wouldn't "hurt the team" by being on the field if unable to do what he is normally able to do.

That, obviously, is going to be entirely up to Urlacher because no one is going to yank the future Hall of Famer off the field. And with his contract expiring after this season, he is going to want to prove that he can still be a force.

Hard as it will be for him, however, it might just be a matter this season of lowering his own standards just a bit, something he may have gradually been doing already. Judging from the fact that he has already admitted his knee "is never going to be the same" -- quite an admission from a proud veteran, never mind one with an expiring contract -- you suspect Urlacher will be honest with himself and upfront with the Bears.

Now if only the team will follow his lead.

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.