Based on the bravado of Bears teammates, Urlacher quickly removed any doubts that he will return to top form against the Colts despite a left knee that has sustained two injuries in seven months. The Bears felt so confident in Urlacher's ability to use observation as preparation that coach Lovie Smith gave the guy who missed 34 days of practice another day off Thursday, starting his regular-season routine the final week of preseason in a floppy hat.
Truthfully, nobody knows how long that will last — not Smith, not general manager Phil Emery, not teammates, trainers or blood-spinning German doctors. Even Urlacher has hinted at uncertainty Smith denies out of habit. Of all the things Urlacher has said in recent interviews, including criticism of yours truly that comes with the territory, the most relevant was his admission to WFLD-Ch. 32 that his knee "is never going to be the same."
Before spraining his MCL and PCL in Week 17 last season and suffering cartilage damage in the same knee after two padded practices in July, Urlacher thought like a presidential candidate: Four more years. Now?
For a 34-year-old entering the final year of a contract, acknowledging such doubt over his future suggested Urlacher's days in a Bears uniform could be numbered in games, not years. Emery has not struck me as the sentimental type in assembling the Bears roster. In other words, don't forget your camera phones Sunday at Soldier Field for Urlacher's 13th season opener. Could it be his last?
In the locker room, the Bears understandably still talk like it is 2005. They see a Hall of Fame linebacker returning in 2012 to make big plays because that is what they want to see. Football players lie to themselves even more than they do to the media. They base their projections on the image of Urlacher before however many knee surgeries, before his mysterious medical odyssey.
They cannot possibly base it on anything they have seen in two practices when Urlacher returned to his new reality. Yet when I asked Lance Briggs about the Colts attacking the Bears over the middle to test the mobility of Urlacher's knee, he answered with a dare.
"They can try, but they will fail,'' Briggs said.
Israel Idonije gave the Colts just as much verbal ammunition, not that motivation will help stop the Bears offense.
"If anyone thinks Brian is going to be a weak part of the defense, absolutely, run at him,'' Idonije said. "At the end of the day, we'll see.''
Consider the view of Andrew Luck, better than "a dime a dozen'' quarterback Briggs depicted. Luck will be tempted to target cornerback Charles Tillman after Tillman's poor exhibition showing against the Giants. Or Luck can focus on making safety Chris Conte prove why the Bears should — or shouldn't — trust him to stay as deep as the deepest. But if I were Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, first I would see if the middle of the field was open for business.
"If they want to test me then I'll have more chances to make plays,'' Urlacher said.
Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne no longer lines up exclusively on the left. Wayne in the slot potentially makes him dangerous on inside seam routes against a Cover-2 look that would reveal Urlacher's ability to turn and run. Rookie tight end Coby Fleener has shown a knack for finding openings downfield. If I were the Bears I would consider taking Urlacher out on nickel downs occasionally until everyone discovers what his knee can withstand at game speed.
Of course, if I were the Bears, I would wait until Sept. 13 to start Urlacher's season. But I understand why teams would give a leader of Urlacher's ilk a say. He has earned that right.
The Bears also might think the risk of playing Urlacher is worth the reward of seeing exactly what they still have. One could interpret the fixation on "Sept. 9,'' as the Bears admitting they don't know what to expect. Coaches are like lawyers. The best ones never pose questions without knowing the answer. Perhaps the Bears would rather learn about Urlacher's unknown limitations at home against the Colts and a rookie quarterback than at Lambeau Field against the Packers and Aaron Rodgers.
For the first time in recent memory, more questions surround the Bears' defense than offense. To a man, Bears defenders insisted Thursday they have an elite unit. It can be, but only if Urlacher resembles the player Chicago is used to seeing.
Unlike his teammates and coaches, it will take more than two practices to convince me he can.