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Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Tradition helps ease loss of Urlacher

By Michael Wilbon
ESPNChicago.com

We don't know much about quarterbacks in Chicago; how could we if the best one we ever had played so long ago he wore a leather helmet?

We don't know much about receivers either; Brandon Marshall is like a Martian in the context of Chicago's football history.

But linebackers we know. Great linebackers we've watched in abundance. George, Butkus, Singletary, Urlacher. It's a linebacker's Mount Rushmore. Linebackers are to the Bears what centers are to the Lakers: Mikan, Wilt, Kareem, Shaq.
Brian Urlacher
Brian Urlacher was an eight-time Pro Bowler and Defensive Player of the Year in 2005.

If you ask me, Brian Urlacher should be playing at least one more year, and for the Bears at that. It doesn't matter that he doesn't run as fast or as well as he used to; who in the NFL does run as fast or as prettily at 34 as he did at 22 or 30?

Urlacher, even in decline, forced fumbles, returned interceptions, inspired teammates, and we're talking about last season. When I wrote last summer that Urlacher, coming off knee surgery, should wade carefully into the 2012 season, bag September and try to play the final 12 games or so, Julius Peppers told me I was nuts, because it was Urlacher who was the player who was going to get Bears off to a good start (which he did). It was Urlacher who was going to have the defense playing at a championship level (which he did for the first half of the season). It was Urlacher who was the heart and soul of not just the defense but the entire team (which he was).

With Urlacher, diminished as his detractors said he was, the Bears were contenders, and nothing more than a threat without him. The Bears' takeaways, opponents' points, opponents' third-down efficiency and opponents' total quarterback ratings were all worse -- much worse -- in the final four games of the season. His impact, right up to the end and even on the sideline, was undeniable. He played with Singletary's intelligence and Butkus' menace.

The natural tendency is to say Urlacher is going to be irreplaceable, except that this is where the Bears, almost magically, come up with a capable successor. Just as the Bears found George Connor to replace Bronko Nagurski, and Bulldog Turner to replace Connor, and Bill George to not only replace Turner but essentially invent the position of middle linebacker as we've come to know it, Dick Butkus replaced George. And after Butkus retired in 1973 it took awhile, but Mike Singletary, almost unthinkably, replaced Butkus ... in impact if not in destruction.

During the years I covered the NFL for The Washington Post, and even since joining ESPN, the retirement of a great player was an occasion for me to call Steve Sabol of NFL Films, for my money the Bert Sugar of pro football and one of the great historians of American sports. Nobody could put great players in perspective any better than Sabol.

And I keep on my desk something he said about Butkus, who it seemed to me was Sabol's favorite defensive player, even more than Lawrence Taylor. Sabol called Butkus "a force of unimaginable proportions. His career as the middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears stands as the most sustained work of devastation ever committed on a football field."

Isn't that what should go on Butkus' tombstone? "Force of unimaginable proportion."

Sabol, who died of cancer last September, was the first person I thought of Wednesday when Urlacher announced his retirement. I presume Sabol would have thought it OK that Urlacher, with his speed, physicality, ability to make plays in the opponent's backfield, penchant for forcing fumbles and grabbing interceptions, had earned his way onto an all-Butkus team. Urlacher wreaked his own brand of devastation.

Of course, it's more difficult to quantify a linebacker's contributions than it is a quarterback's or receiver's or running back's. With linebackers, it's the company you keep. Only seven players have won defensive rookie of the year, then gone on to win defensive player of the year: Taylor, Mean Joe Greene, Charles Woodson, Jack Lambert, Terrell Suggs and Dana Stubblefield, and now Urlacher. Of those men, only Stubblefield isn't going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Urlacher is one of only four players ever with 40 sacks and 20 interceptions. He has one fewer Pro Bowl appearance than Walter Payton, two fewer than Singletary, the same number (eight) as Butkus, Bill George and the unstoppable Doug Atkins.

That Urlacher is calling it quits having worn just one jersey probably enhances his career if not his wallet. While there will undoubtedly be speculation of an Urlacher sighting whenever a linebacker gets hurt or when a veteran linebacker is cut this summer, he essentially closed the door to any kind of return Wednesday. He won't return in August because of some team's injuries. He has talked over every imaginable scenario with his agent and done means done.

No more playing regardless of the circumstances. It certainly must annoy Urlacher that he didn't get at least one more chance at playing in the Super Bowl, although the franchise failed him in that regard, not the other way around.

The fact that Sid Luckman is still the greatest quarterback in franchise history tells us pretty much how unworthy the offense has been over the years, not just going back to the beginning of Urlacher's career, but throughout Butkus' career.

The Bears often put a group of championship-caliber defensive players around Urlacher, but almost never the kind of offense that made serious contenders like the Patriots or Giants or Steelers take notice. Urlacher gave better than he got, which won't leave him out of the Hall of Fame when his time comes in a few years, but won't allow him to retire with a championship ring either.

What we'll obsess over, pretty much beginning now, is how soon the Bears will find that next great linebacker, preferably the next great middle linebacker. One who can think like Singletary, run like Urlacher and cause collisions, if the NFL will allow them anymore, like Butkus. When a franchise has a player at that position of that magnitude most every decade, expectations are established. Maybe it'll take a half-dozen years, maybe longer like the dry period between Singletary and Urlacher.

But it's the historical certainty the Bears will find that player, the one who will successfully succeed Urlacher, that reduces the sadness of his announcement, even if just a little. If Butkus can beget Singletary and he can beget Urlacher, presumptuous as it seems to say, the next great Chicago linebacker is out there, somewhere, waiting for the privilege to be accepted into the rarest of football fraternities.