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Urlacher and Bears must reach understanding

Aging star's career need not end badly for him or club

Dan Pompei

On the NFL

9:25 PM CDT, June 2, 2012

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This is how ugly starts.

The aging star has one year left on his contract. He wants a new deal. The team doesn't want to give him one. He talks up the merits of free agency.

Next thing you know, Brian Urlacher is a Cardinal.

Or a Seahawk.

Or a Patriot.

And nobody really feels good about it.

Urlacher hardly is the first great player to walk this road.

Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Emmitt Smith all had to find new teams near the ends of their careers.

It has happened to Bears too. In fact, you could say old-timers being run out of town is almost a team tradition, like the Bears fight song after a score.

But it's an unfortunate tradition, one that is best forgotten.

Among Bears notables who have been shoved out are Doug Atkins, Mike Brown, Mark Carrier, Rick Casares, Harlon Hill, Richard Dent, Mike Ditka, Jay Hilgenberg, Stan Jones, Olin Kreutz, Steve McMichael, Richie Petitbon, Roosevelt Taylor, Tom Thayer, Fred Williams and Otis Wilson.

There might not be a way for this one to end well either.

Ballclubs use up players, push them to the side and forget about them. Leave them for someone else to worry about.

But it is not easy for teams to deal with aging stars.

These players can become sacred cows in the locker room, cranky untouchables. If they are not what they once were, they can be difficult to coach and manage, let alone bench.

When they are in decline, they rarely see themselves as they are. They usually believe they should be paid as much or more than ever, despite the fact the team is getting less return. They can be astounded at their teams' lack of appreciation for them, and their status in the locker room can be turned against the overall cause.

Players don't often leave the game gracefully at the first hint that closing time may be near. They often wait so long they must be thrown out on the street.

None of this is true of Urlacher. Not now anyway.

No one knows where Urlacher will be physically one year from now at 35. You can understand why the Bears would take a wait-and-see approach on his contract.

He is not as athletic as he once was.

But last year he remained one of football's best linebackers. If he doesn't lose much more, letting him walk would be bad for business. And karma.

More than the face of the franchise, Urlacher remains the heart of the defense, the soul of the team. You don't treat him like he's some ham-and-egger.

The model is in Baltimore, where 37-year-old Ray Lewis does more than lead the Ravens in tackles every year.

He leads them in many ways. In preparation. In intensity. In direction.

Lewis is not the player he was either. In fact, he may not be the player Urlacher is at this stage. But he still is in the upper echelon. And the Ravens recognize he has a value to their team and their franchise that goes beyond stopping opposing running backs — that's what makes their relationship remain viable.

Lewis has aged exceptionally well. Urlacher might not.

But it is not unheard of to see extraordinary players — even big-hitting linebackers — make their value last longer than the average player, assuming they can stay healthy.

Bears Hall of Famer Bill George played until he was 37, though he finished up with the Rams. Junior Seau lasted until 40. Kevin Greene made it to 39. And Derrick Brooks lasted to 35.

It is possible Urlacher could keep going strong for another four or five years. And even if his play declines a bit, keeping him happy would be a boon for the team, the locker room and the Bears brand.

This is how it should end — Brian Urlacher Day at Soldier Field.

Speeches. Testimonials. Proclamations.

A large gathering of former teammates standing behind him. His children in his arms and by his side.

A jersey in a frame. A parting gift with lots of chrome and a big engine.

A standing ovation from nearly 64,000 people, many of whom are wearing his number. And applause. Long, heartfelt applause.

His reign as a Bear should end with Urlacher shedding a tear, but not one of disenchantment.

dpompei@tribune.com

Twitter @danpompei