Urlacher party is over

At any price, re-signing linebacker bad idea

Brian Urlacher Bears

Brian Urlacher and the Bears' defense aren't exactly what they used to be. (José M. Osorio/Tribune photo / December 6, 2012)

In the early 1970s, the older kids in my neighborhood wore Dick Butkus "51" jerseys. I had to go to NFL Films to learn what all the fuss was about. The only Butkus I saw was the broken-down linebacker in his final two years.

History repeats itself. It doesn't have to, however, if the Bears avoid making a mistake with a new contract for Brian Urlacher after the season.

Every new beginning, a song insists, comes from some other beginning's end.

Yet I already can hear Monday's howl if Adrian Peterson gashes the Bears defense and the Vikings take the Bears down another notch.

"I tol'ja dat defense ain't never gonna be da same without Brian Urlaaacher. Dat's exactly why dey gotta bring him baaack."

The truth is the Bears would have been just as susceptible to being dismantled if Urlacher were healthy. The middle linebacker still looks the part when he comes out of the tunnel. His scowl remains menacing when he's pushing telecommunications products.

Urlacher the player, however, is gone. And he should be when the season concludes.

It's a bitter pill for fans — and even some opinion makers — to swallow. It shouldn't be for general manager Phil Emery.

Injuries and age have caught up with Urlacher. His knees, hamstrings and cervical spine have taken an NFL-style beating for 13 years.

The party is over. If Emery isn't certain of that, he will find clarity when he sits down to watch every snap the soon-to-be free agent has played this season.

Urlacher used to be a once-in-a-lifetime marvel, dashing from sideline to sideline at a high rate of speed. He was a freak, a guy at 6-foot-4 and 250-plus pounds, moving like lightning from point A to point B, then sinking his hips to make a picture-perfect form tackle.

Nobody teaches the horse-collar technique, which Urlacher employed and was flagged and fined for in each of the last two weeks.

In Lovie Smith's Cover-2 scheme, the middle linebacker has to get depth and play center field. Urlacher doesn't move well enough to get there anymore.

Sentiment shouldn't affect Emery's call on Urlacher. If the Bears' over-the-hill defense has one more run at a title next year (and that's a reach), does Urlacher improve or hinder their chances?

It's the latter. Re-signing Urlacher also would retard the progress of his eventual successor — maybe Nick Roach — and likely make them shy away from that position in the draft and via free agency.

Parting can produce such sorrow, but the Bears need to be shrewd.

Urlacher, at any price, is a bad idea. He has been average at best in games and barely has practiced this season.

Why would anybody think that's going to change next fall when he hits 35?

Those in Urlacher's army, however, will point to the Ravens' Ray Lewis or the Redskins' London Fletcher, who still are doing it at 37.

They are the rare exceptions, not the rule. And neither is near the player he once was.

If Urlacher's value as a leader is so off-the-charts high, offer him a coaching position and/or a personal-services contract. If Urlacher doesn't recognize Father Time has called his number, kindly wish him well and invite him back when he hangs up the pads.

Pro football is not a game meant to be played forever. Ask anybody who remembers Butkus in 1972.

Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.

CHICAGO

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