Commentary

Is the end near for Brian Urlacher?

The Bears linebacker deserves to leave Chicago on his own terms

Originally Published: May 28, 2012
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Hearing Brian Urlacher discuss the possibly of being a free agent after the 2012 season caught me a little off guard.

Urlacher is entering the final year of his contract at the age of 34, and there would seem to be little doubt the Bears and Urlacher would like to figure out a way to keep him in a Bears uniform until he retires.

Like Ray Lewis in Baltimore, Urlacher is a symbol of what's right about the National Football League. Lewis, who is 37, is the leader of a Ravens defense that's been tough to beat since he was drafted. Urlacher is the leader of the Bears' Cover 2 defense, which has been to a Super Bowl and is annually in playoff contention.

Even though athletes take great care of their bodies, it's becoming increasingly harder for an NFL position player to stay in the game past the age of 35.

Since 2000, a position player -- excluding punters and kickers -- age 35 or older has started 10 or more games 216 times. A 35-year-old player started at least 10 games 100 times during that period, but the numbers drop off quite a bit the next two years: 53 at age 36, 27 at age 37 and 19 at age 38 and 17 total for anyone 39 and older.

Last year, there were only 14 players who were 35 or older who started 10 games or more, and four have either retired or haven't been signed to contracts. In fact, only 18 position players currently under contract are 35 or older.

If Urlacher's knee heals up and he has a good season, he's good enough to beat the odds and play past the age of 35. However, the idea of free agency can be a little scary. It's a young man's game.

From the inbox

Q: I have been thinking about the situations of Osi Umenyiora and Mike Jenkins. We all know that at the end of the day, the team has a much stronger position than the players in ongoing contract disputes. Of all the options floated around of what steps players can take -- sitting out training camp, becoming a nuisance, etc. -- I have not heard the following idea.

Why can't the player sit out until the 10th week and then play sparingly and cautionary to avoid injury? Yes, his toughness reputation may take a hit, but at least he can save his body some wear and tear and pursue a better contract the next offseason.

Zubin in Stamford, Conn.

A: He could as long as he is willing to sacrifice the salary until Week 10 or Week 11. Logan Mankins of the Patriots tried something similar a few years back. A strategy like that probably wouldn't help Umenyiora because he's a little older. The older a player gets, the tougher it is to get bigger contracts. Sitting out that long could hurt instead of help.

In the case of Jenkins, he's in the final year of his contract. He isn't asking for additional money, so his situation isn't about the contract. Jenkins is worried about playing time. You are correct in thinking a player in a dispute with a team can withhold his services to try to get what he wants.

Q: As a Saints fan, I think it is pretty clear that there was a pay-for-performance program that included incentives for "knock-out hits." I see it as an unsportsmanlike way to build camaraderie in the locker room, but I have honestly yet to see any evidence where the Saints purposely injured an opposing player.

While I think the penalties are harsh in this light (particularly for Jonathan Vilma), what has struck me about this story the most is how unprofessional Roger Goodell and the NFL have been throughout the investigation.

First, Vilma hears of his suspension from ESPN. Then, Anthony Hargrove's statement is leaked to the media, which was grossly mischaracterized as an admission of guilt by the NFL.

How does the NFL ever expect players to cooperate in any investigation in the future? These are just two examples of unprofessional bravado from the NFL front office, which threw this whole investigation into question for me. Would you care to comment?

Jack in New Orleans, La.

A: I guess you can say this is no different than most legal cases. It's similar to a district attorney releasing a statement accusing the defendants of an illegal act. The evidence is presented in a judge-supervised fashion and then the case is heard. The investigators had to sense the accused players weren't going to cooperate, so you make the charge and then back it up in court.

There may be a better way to handle the way they were charged, but the coaching staff and organization had repeated warnings to stop the bounty program and didn't. Let's judge the evidence once it is presented to the players, as well as publicly. As for the leaks, they happen whether it's fair or unfair.

Q: Being a lifelong Packers fan, why is it that I never read much on any of their signings, be it free agents or anything else? Are they that secretive or just because they are a so-called small market? And I know that isn't it.

Bill in Perrysville, Ind.

A: No one is slighting the Packers, but it's hard to make headlines when the Packers don't dabble in free agency or go after big names. Like the Steelers and other winning organizations, the Packers have a conservative philosophy about player acquisition. They believe in building through the draft, and the system works. While that might not draw headlines, it does create a successful franchise.

Q: With so many injuries last year, I don't think Norv Turner should be blamed for last season. What do you think the Chargers need to do to keep him there, or should they be looking for a new coach?

Jeremy in Afghanistan

A: Owner Dean Spanos agrees with you, and that's why Turner's still the coach. Winning is the remedy this year. The Chargers were more aggressive in free agency and they had a great draft. Even though they lost Vincent Jackson, they feel as though they have new and different weapons on offense. Plus, they have Philip Rivers at quarterback. The pressure is simply to win.

Q: You gave baseball as a comparison for the NFL trade date to show how if applied, you could see how such a date would be too early to really know which teams are good or bad. However, if you apply ALL things equally to baseball, you do realize a team for NFL purposes that would be two games from being out of first place would be more than 20 games from being out of first place in the baseball world? That's if you want to carry the percentages straight over as you do for the trade deadline, let alone a team that is 4-4 against an 8-0 team. I think being 40 games back in June would be sufficient for a team to make some roster moves.

Roscoe in Kansas City

A: Understand the scheduling formula is different in football than baseball, particularly with changes over the past two seasons. Roger Goodell back-loaded the schedule so there would be more divisional games in the final month of the season. With fewer divisional games available in the first six weeks, things can get skewed for a team with a tough schedule.

What if the team being two games back played five playoff teams in their first six games and the team leading the division played five losing teams? The two-game gap could be closed in the second half of the season with the team with the tougher start getting an easier second-half schedule along with the chance to catch up to the leader by playing them later in the season.

Q: Why all of a sudden do the Bengals appear downright good in the front office? For years, the team's front office reputation has been less than stellar. Big-name free agents have used the Bengals to get better offers from better teams. The Bengals scouting department is notoriously undermanned (although they have recently hired some more scouts). But the evidence shows that over the past three years, the team has drafted extremely well. While not getting the "big-name" free agents (unless you count Terrell Owens), the Bengals have been more than content to sign good role players to fill the roster and compete for starting jobs.

Mike Brown fleeced the Raiders and then traded down in the first round which netted the team an additional third-round pick. The only failure over the past three years was the inability to re-sign Johnathan Joseph, although one could argue that the money saved allowed the Bengals to sign a couple of linebackers and Nate Clements -- all of whom contributed to a top-10 defense.

Ralph in Panama City, Fla.

A: The Bengals have drafted well for the defense for the past five years, but the big change has been on offense. Getting Andy Dalton and A.J. Green last year helped put the team over the top. Jordan Shipley is a great slot receiver. Jermaine Gresham is a top-flight tight end. Green has a chance to become one of the best receivers in the AFC. The only problem is the division. The Ravens and Steelers are still among the best teams in football.

Q: What is wide-nine technique and does it help or hinder a defensive end in defending the run? That is the big debate over Cliff Avril. Some people say it hinders a defensive end in stopping the run and helps when pass rushing. Others say Avril is below average in run defense and should not be paid like an elite DE.

Ryan in Phoenix

A: The wide-nine puts the defensive ends on the outside shoulder of the tackles. That puts more pressure on the defensive tackles to do more against the run. It also puts more pressure on the linebackers and safeties to cover.

What I like about it is that teams aren't locked into taking certain body types to play defensive end. You can draft a 240-pounder or a 280-pounder as long as he has the speed to make plays. It's a very good system. Avril is OK against the run and can rush the passer. It's no accident he did well in this system because the Lions' defensive line is so talented.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer