The dark cloud settling over this Bears season grew even more ominous Tuesday with news that middle linebacker Brian Urlacher likely will miss three of the team's final four games with a Grade 2 hamstring strain.
It's possible Urlacher could miss the rest of the season with an eye toward a return for the playoffs. Of course, it's also possible the Bears still could miss the playoffs. Not an idea anybody at Halas Hall will be entertaining publicly, mind you. In the world of the NFL, if one man falls, the next is expected to step up, no matter who falls, no matter who fills in.
This injury to this player feels different. So different that you can't help but wonder if this is the end of an era — if it is the end of Urlacher with the Bears. And if the team does miss the playoffs, where does that leave coach Lovie Smith? The suspicion is that Smith's future isn't tied to Urlacher's, but that Urlacher's future certainly is tied to Smith's. The player is out of contract at year's end and the Bears plan to assess the situation then.
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In the cold, cruel world of professional sports, performance means everything, and courageous as Urlacher's effort to play has been, he also has performed like a shadow of his former self. Getting penalized for horse-collar tackles in each of the last two weeks might have been harsh officiating but also seem symbolic of a guy who has lost a step.
Regardless, Urlacher's numbers remain impressive. He leads the Bears with 88 tackles, 56 solos, putting him three and four tackles respectively ahead of Lance Briggs. Urlacher has forced three fumbles, recovered two and returned an interception for a touchdown. He also has seven pass breakups.
Many men might be just hitting the stride of their professional life at 34, but in the NFL, the end is coming. Urlacher seems to know it. Maybe that's why he has fought so hard, rehabbed so long and played through such pain and misery. Fox broadcaster Chris Myers said during Sunday's game that Urlacher told him it was "bye, bye," if the Bears win a Super Bowl this year, but otherwise he would try to play another year or two.
The Bears will move Nick Roach into the middle linebacker spot for Urlacher and start Geno Hayes at Roach's strong-side spot. Making two moves to replace one player tells you something about the team's readiness to replace Urlacher despite his offseason fitness battle.
Once upon a time if Urlacher's hamstring went, so did the Bears' hopes. The immediate fear is whether a defense that has seemed pushed to the brink of collapse in losing three of its last four games will be able to sustain itself without Urlacher's presence in the middle of the field.
If expectations for players are created by where you select them and how much you pay them, then the bar set for Roach and Hayes should be pretty low. Roach began his career as an undrafted free agent with the Chargers and makes $1.71 million. Hayes, a former sixth-round pick of the Buccaneers, signed a minimum-salary benefits deal that pays him $700,000.
The long-term concern isn't just the prospect of replacing a future Hall of Famer but also how to structure a contract to keep him if that is determined to be the best option. Urlacher is coming to the end of a five-year, $40.6 million extension that pays him a base salary of $7.5 million with a cap figure over $9 million. There aren't a lot of players worthy of comparison. Ray Lewis of the Ravens is in the middle of six-year, $42.5 million deal that he signed when he was the age Urlacher is now. The 13-time Pro Bowl player is 37 and holds a $7.3 million cap number next year.
Briggs, 32, has been to seven Pro Bowls, one fewer than Urlacher, but Briggs' have been consecutive and he was given an extra year at $7 million before this season started. That keeps him with the Bears through 2014.
There has been a dreadful inevitability to Urlacher's season that seems to have spread to the team. Never mind that the probability calculator at AdvancedNFLStats.com gave the Bears a .08 percent chance to kick a field goal in the final 24 seconds to force overtime against the Seahawks. Suddenly, the odds really seem stacked against this team.
Special contributor Mike Mulligan co-hosts "The Mully and Hanley Show" weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on WSCR-AM 670.