The Chicago Bears Can’t Waste Time Trying to Replace Brian Urlacher
Greatness in football is personified by consistent excellence on and off the field. It comes from players who not only play great, but do so for long periods of time. The mark of the truly iconic ones however stems from how much they get out of teammates. That is why Chicago Bears fans continue feeling a deep anxiety about life without Brian Urlacher. The former All-Pro middle linebacker called it quits after 13 seasons, at least giving fans some relief in choosing not to suit up in any uniform other than navy blue and orange. What lay ahead now is remembering what made him great, and making the effort to remember that the Bears can’t waste their time trying constantly to replace him.
The Dick Jauron Era
Nobody really knew what Chicago was getting when the Bears drafted Urlacher ninth overall in 2000. All they knew was he was big, fast and freaky athletic considering he shifted from safety to linebacker while in college at New Mexico. It didn’t take long for coaches to find out. After some brief experimenting on the outside, then head coach Dick Jauron and defensive coordinator Greg Blache moved him to the middle where it became very clear that he belonged. In that attacking style of defense, Urlacher became a force around the line of scrimmage. He used the big defensive tackles in front of him to knife into the backfield and either drop the ball carrier or sack the quarterback. When teams tried to run away from him, his sideline-to-sideline speed made that equally impossible. Between 2000 and 2003 Urlacher posted 21 sacks and no fewer than 88 tackles in a season.
The Lovie Smith Era
As pointed out in the Chicago Tribune, what turned him from a great linebacker into a Hall of Fame linebacker was when the Bears hired new head coach Lovie Smith in 2004. His style of defense, the Tampa-2 scheme, commanded a completely different set of responsibilities from the middle linebacker. Instead of attacking the backfield and patrolling the line of scrimmage, Urlacher needed to learn to drop in coverage, read the quarterback and make every tackle to prevent big plays. Instead of faltering or slipping in terms of what he could do, Brian accepted the shift and a season after Smith arrived became Defensive Player of the Year in 2005. Few, if any linebackers during that time had his combined ability to attack the line and drop into coverage. After posting six interceptions in four years under Jauron, he went on to snare 16 in nine under Smith. All without losing his ability to track down ball carriers and sack the quarterback.
Replacing a legend
Urlacher is a Hall of Fame player. There is no doubt about it. Next to Ray Lewis he was by far the best linebacker in the NFL for over a decade. He reached eight Pro Bowls, got selected All-Pro five times and reached a Super Bowl despite having Rex Grossman as his quarterback. If that doesn't signify greatness, nothing does. However, one of the biggest pitfalls ahead for the Bears is the undoubted pressure they already feel to replace him.
For every Aaron Rodgers and Steven Young, guys who took over for all-time greats Brett Favre and Joe Montana, and played at MVP levels there is ten or twenty stories of failure. Nobody remembers Quincy Carter falling woefully short of the lofty standards set by Troy Aikman. Does anybody remember who replaced Buffalo Bills sack master Bruce Smith? What about the parade of Kansas City Chiefs middle linebackers who haven’t sniffed the heights Willie Lanier set back in the AFL days? The only thing harder than watching a legend leave the game is watching his team fervently try to fill his shoes.
Chicago cannot let this chase distract them from the big picture. Replacing Urlacher is not as important as finding what it takes to win. There are many ways to do that in the NFL. It’s one reason fans have fallen in love with football. The more Bears brass and fans budget their time sifting through draft boards every year for the “next Urlacher” is less time spent on finding a superstar at another position that is just as important to the success of a team. One fundamental rule of thumb on the field is don’t see ghosts. Do not get infatuated with getting the ball to any one player. The same goes for the business side. Don’t let one position and one great player dictate the future of a franchise.
Brian Urlacher was the face of the Bears for a long-time. He deserves every honor the city can think up. That said, his impact on how the Bears do business must stop here. Finding the next great middle linebacker is not the top priority for Chicago. It is putting together a good enough roster to bring home a long overdue championship.