A handful of positions in the world of sports—center field for the Yankees, tailback at USC—test every individual who plays them against some of the giants in the history of the game. One such position is middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears.
Now, there will be a new would-be star in that role for the first time in 13 years. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Brian Urlacher and the team have broken off contract talks, and the career Windy City icon has played his last game in a Bear uniform.
With the end of the Urlacher era, it’s time to reflect on the Chicago career of the most successful and popular Bear of this century. Even in the lofty company of Bear MLBs, number 54 stacks up remarkably well.
The playmaking Urlacher was at his best using his speed to chase ball-carriers sideline-to-sideline, and he piled up as many as 153 tackles (and 118 solos) in a single season. He was an astonishing pass rusher for his position, racking up 41.5 career sacks (including a career-high eight in his sensational rookie year).
Unsurprisingly, the converted college safety was also tremendously effective in pass coverage. He had three seasons with 10 or more passes defensed and recorded 22 career interceptions (with as many as five in a single season).
Urlacher created his share of turnovers in the ground game as well, forcing 11 fumbles and recovering 15 in his career.
He also had a hand in the Bears’ famed reliance on defensive touchdowns, notching three of them in his career. Most notable among them was a Michael Vick red-zone fumble that Urlacher turned into a 90-yard touchdown back in 2001.
His success didn’t exactly go unrecognized, as he won defensive Rookie of the Year honors to open his career and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. In all, he made eight Pro Bowls and was named first-team All-Pro four times.
Urlacher’s greatest accomplishment was leading the Bears (in spite of their offense, as usual) to the 2006 NFC title. It was the first Super Bowl appearance for the team in 21 years, though Urlacher and his mates came up short of the Lombardi Trophy against Peyton Manning’s Colts.
Of the Bears’ eye-opening total of 27 Hall of Famers, a whopping five belong to the team’s incomparable line of middle ‘backers. Going all the way back to two-way icon Bronko Nagurski in the 1930s, the Bears’ Canton roll call at MLB also includes Bulldog Turner, Bill George (widely considered the innovator of the modern MLB position), Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.
Butkus—on the short list for the greatest defensive player of any kind, ever—is the gold standard even in this crowd, but after him it’s far from trivial to rank one of these stars higher than another. Turner, for example, won four NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era, but can’t match George’s eight first-team All-Pro seasons or Singletary’s 10 Pro Bowls.
In many ways, Singletary is the most apt comparison for Urlacher, and not just because they’re the two most recent members of this famous lineage. Both stars were at least as valuable for their leadership as for their box-score performance, and neither was necessarily the best individual player on his own defense (sometimes ceding the honor to sackmaster Richard Dent or Lance Briggs, respectively).
Both Singletary and Urlacher were also notable for their longevity—having started a dozen seasons apiece, omitting Urlacher’s lost 2009 campaign—and smarts. However, Singletary is set apart by the one thing Urlacher has never achieved: No. 50 won a Super Bowl ring with the legendary ’85 Bears.
Although Urlacher’s accomplishments certainly put him in the same conversation as the Bears’ Canton quintet, it’s hard to say that he’s clearly better than any of them. His individual achievements and statistics are similar, but he (alone except for Butkus in this exalted group) never won a championship.
However, whenever Brian Urlacher hangs up his helmet for good, he’ll be remembered as the face of a Bears defense that was among the best in the NFL for his entire 13-year Chicago career. That alone should have him joining his legendary predecessors in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.