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Sunday, September 13, 2009
Face plant

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

Sunday wasn't a good night to be a face of the Chicago Bears.

Quarterback Jay Cutler flopped, and Brian Urlacher's season ended after one half. The only way it could've been worse is if Dick Butkus had shown up and choked on a cheese curd.

Heck, even the long-tenured special-teams captain, Patrick Mannelly, was a Bad News Bear after calling a fake punt early in the fourth quarter -- thinking he could catch the Green Bay Packers with too many men on the field -- that wound up costing the Bears three very valuable points.

In the aftermath of the Bears' ugly 21-15 loss was the news Monday morning that Urlacher is out for the season after surgery to repair a dislocated right wrist he suffered in the first quarter.

How do you replace Brian Urlacher without genetically altering his shorter, lookalike brother Casey?

"You can't replace a guy like Brian," coach Lovie Smith said.

Oh, OK. So, season over? Someone call the Pittsburgh Steelers!

"We're going to run our defense the same way," Smith said. "We did it in the second half, and we continued to play well."

That's true. The Packers offense finished with just 226 yards. The winning play, a 50-yard bomb from Aaron Rodgers to Greg Jennings, who burned Nate Vasher, was one of the few good plays. Even though the Bears failed to create a turnover -- Smith's biggest bugaboo about the unit he's now calling plays for again -- the front seven looked feisty.

The short-pawed Bears lost three defenders Sunday, with fellow starting linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa going down early with a knee sprain and cornerback Trumaine McBride going out later with a similar injury. Smith gave no timetable for either player's return, although at one point he used the word "eventually" in regard to Tinoisamoa, the solid veteran the Bears picked up this offseason. Two offensive players also left the game. Tight end Desmond Clark has a rib injury, and starting guard Frank Omiyale left with a sprained ankle.

"It was an expensive game," linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer said.

Brian Urlacher
The last regular-season game Brian Urlacher missed was Week 17 in 2004, Lovie Smith's first season.

Hillenmeyer, a veteran who was thought to be on the bubble in the preseason, is going to replace Urlacher as the starting middle linebacker. The Vanderbilt grad -- Who isn't a Vanderbilt grad on this team? -- has Old Spice in his locker and middle linebacker on his résumé, but he's no Brian Urlacher.

"My job is not to go be Brian Urlacher," Hillenmeyer said. "My job is to go play the best that I can. It's not my burden, it's the whole defense's burden when you lose somebody like him."

Urlacher isn't the fearsome defensive weapon he was in his heyday, not after the miles he has put on his body in the past nine years, but he makes up for anything he has lost with a decade of experience and enough athleticism to offset any mistakes he makes.

The six-time Pro Bowl player isn't even the consensus best linebacker on the team, with Lance Briggs lining up on the weak side. But Urlacher's presence alone is more valuable than any sound bite can attest. Concepts such as leadership can be buzzwords to use in interviews, ways to explain all the vagaries of sports, but Urlacher is probably the most respected person in the Bears locker room.

Before the second half, after doctors barred him from returning, Urlacher told Hillenmeyer that he was out for the game before the coaches did. No one knew then that Urlacher's season was over.

"Talk about a guy who's a great leader," Hillenmeyer said. "First he plays an entire half of football with a dislocated wrist. I don't think there's many people who could do something like that. Then they tell him he can't play and the only reason he's not out there is because the doctors won't let him. He could be hanging his head, but he's as excited as anybody. Every time we came off the field, he's giving little tips and pointers that he was still seeing just as if he were still out there."

Urlacher had surgery Monday morning and wasn't at Halas Hall. Smith talked to him after the decision was made. How did Urlacher take the news?

"He took it like you imagined he would," Smith said.

So he sat around writing maudlin emo poetry and listening to Decemberists albums? (I have an active imagination.)

"Disappointment," Smith said. "Disappointment that he can't help this team, No. 1, and then the competitor in him, of course, he had put himself in position to have an outstanding year."

Urlacher's newfound health was a constant source of happy news entering the season. Enough newsprint was spent declaring 31-year-old Urlacher the healthiest man in Chicago to print 1,000 King James Bibles, or at the very least, every Big Ten media guide.

Jay Cutler
Jay Cutler fell flat figuratively and, in this play, literally in his regular-season debut with the Bears.

After all the nicks and bruises he has dealt with, the neck surgery he had in 2008, the leg problems he had in 2004 when he missed seven games, a wrist did him in this time. It's believed he injured the wrist with 4:05 left in the first quarter when he tackled Ryan Grant for a 3-yard gain.

That he played the rest of the half shouldn't be a surprise. You can say what you want about the guy, but his toughness is unquestioned.

"It's a big blow," Briggs said. "It's one of those things where he's a guy who makes all of the adjustments. He's the signal-caller. He's the quarterback of the defense."

So one quarterback is out and the other one threw four interceptions. That's what you call an ominous sign for the season. Bears fans, commence hitting your head on the nearest table in your vicinity. Hey, you still have the Cubs and Sox to root for this month. (Oh wait&) Well, at least the defending Super Bowl champions and their high-flying passing attack aren't coming to town this week. (Oh wait&) OK, it's a long season, right? That's what they say in the locker room.

With at least 15 games left, the Bears think enough of Hillenmeyer and Nick Roach that they targeted linebacker Tim Shaw to take Urlacher's roster spot, for now, and contribute as a backup and on special teams. There are rumors that the Bears were looking at former Buccaneers star Derrick Brooks, and Smith confirmed they spent the day making inroads with every available linebacker, Brooks included.

Some reporters reminded Hillenmeyer about 2004, his second year, when the Bears went 5-11, including 0-7 with Urlacher out and Hillenmeyer starting.

"We're not the same football team that we were then," Hillenmeyer said. "I remember those stats. Our record with him was not great, but at least we were winning games. It's a team sport, though; no one guy can have that profound an impact."

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.