To any other team, Brian Urlacher would have been a franchise player and perennial defensive centerpiece.
To Chicago, he was a mythic hero in his own time. For the past 13 seasons, the Bears’ undisputed leader wasn’t just one of his generation’s finest players; he was a middle linebacker in the blue and orange that had clad a pantheon of great ones before. Even during his explosive first season, after which he took home 2000’s Defensive Rookie of the Year Award, it was clear to Bears fans of my generation that we had found our contribution to the legacy of Singletary, Butkus, and George.
Urlacher was a consummate organization guy, a beloved teammate, and always a class act. It’s easy to forget, since he lost a step about three years ago, how thrilling a player he was in his prime. Drafted as a college safety (albeit a 6’4, 258-lb one) his athleticism, instincts, and nasty streak owned the middle of the field. His first few years, he was used in blitz packages frequently. As the scheme changed, he selflessly lent his speed and reading ability to dropping into coverage, the exact freak piece of the puzzle that allowed the Cover 2 scheme to flourish. Ray Lewis may have been more consistent at throwing off blocks at the line, but no linebacker, possibly in history, has been as good as Urlacher at making up for a mismatch and covering a receiver step for step downfield. Though his role became less visible, he remained the defensive quarterback, setting assignments and changing formations. It would not be a stretch to describe his leadership and football intelligence as the linebacking version of his Super Bowl XLI opponent, Peyton Manning.
Brian Urlacher announced his retirement from football last week, capping an era that Chicago football fans will never forget. These are what I will most remember.
5. Atlanta interception. Like any all-star defensive player, the real highlight of Urlacher’s career doesn’t show up on YouTube. Being in position, making routine open-field tackles to turn a screen into a 1-yard gain, being the first defender to make a play on the sideline: these were the weekly contributions that made the Bears defense one of the league’s consistent leaders. In some moments, though, his greatness broke through the scheme and made us all take notice. A 4.57 40 and 34” vertical in a man the size of a defensive end — and who knew where to be — made him as special as he was.
4. Fake FG catch. In his second year, the Bears were off to a 4-0 start and Urlacher was already far and away the most popular Bears player in years. He showed off well-rounded athleticism and kept the perfect record going with this game-winning touchdown catch late in the 4th quarter. Urlacher-mania kicked into an even higher gear.
3. Reggie Bush touchdown chase. Though the Saints scored a long TD on this play, I remember noting while watching it that, holy crap, Urlacher is outrunning all the other defenders in pursuit of Bush. He was just faster than most anyone else on the field, plain and simple. Don't worry, the Bears won this NFC Championship handily.
2. Side to side speed. This isn’t a single highlight, but Urlacher’s strength for many years was his lateral speed: He could track down running backs and screen routes to the edge of the field. It also made him, in his day, a premier blitzer.
1. The Arizona game. When they want to get a rise out of me in the nursing home, they’ll show me this video. One of the greatest comebacks I’ve ever witnessed was propelled by two players at the top of their careers: Devin Hester and Urlacher. With the offense sputtering for the first time that season, Urlacher single-handedly willed the defense to victory. It sounds clichéd until you watch him essentially hold up the Cardinals running back to strip the ball for a crunchtime turnover. This was the year the Bears made it to the Super Bowl, and a reason why was the dominant play of No. 54.
Brian, you will be missed.