Brian Urlacher a legend, but retirement comes at right time
Brian Urlacher could have coaxed another year or two out of a body that was breaking down rapidly. He could have signed with a team hunting for middle linebacker help, like Minnesota or Denver.
Instead, the 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2005 Defensive Player of the Year and eight-time Pro Bowler opted, wisely, to call it a career on Wednesday.
"After spending a lot of time this spring thinking about my NFL future, I have made the decision to retire," Urlacher said in a statement. "Although I could continue playing, I'm not sure I would bring a level of performance or passion that's up to my standards. When considering this, along with the fact that I could retire after a 13-year career wearing only one jersey for such a storied franchise, my decision became pretty clear.
"I want to thank all the people in my life that have helped me along the way. I will miss my teammates, my coaches, and the great Bears fans. I'm proud to say that I gave all of you everything I had every time I took the field. I will miss the great game, but I leave with no regrets."
While retiring as a one-team player further cements Urlacher's exceptional legacy with the Chicago Bears, he got to the real heart of the matter when he mentioned a decreased "level of performance." Urlacher, who turns 35 later this week, missed all but one game in the 2009 season with a wrist injury and, though he made the Pro Bowl in both 2010 and '11, clearly neared the end of the line during 2012.
Urlacher missed another four games due to injury last season, and he was a shell of his former self on the field. He finished the year averaging fewer than six tackles per game, which would have put him at about 91 for a full 16-game season -- a total lower than any other complete year for Urlacher.
Rather than bring the former No. 9 overall pick back for a 14th season, the Bears opted to sign D.J. Williams and draft Jon Bostic, both moves indications that the team had reached the difficult conclusion that Urlacher was finished. Urlacher graded out on Pro Football Focus as Chicago's worst defender by a large margin last season, his sagging run defense at the heart of that rating.
It's not an easy decision for a player to walk away from the game he loves, and we've seen more than a few try too hard to hang on for longer than they should. Urlacher decided to hang 'em up before he reached that breaking point.
And so now we turn our attention to the discussion of Urlacher's legacy. Both within the Bears' franchise and in the annals of NFL history, it's hard to dispute the impact Urlacher had.
He will forever be mentioned alongside Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary as part of the Bears' linebacker lore. Both Butkus and Singletary are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Urlacher no doubt will follow them to Canton in the near future. Urlacher, in fact, surpassed Singletary in games played last season -- Urlacher played 182 games (and started 180) for Chicago, compared to 179 for Singletary and 119 for Butkus.
Urlacher's retirement also comes just months after Ray Lewis stepped away from the game following Baltimore's Super Bowl win, meaning the league has lost two of its all-time great defenders this offseason.
Urlacher, though, played a different game than Butkus, Singletary or even Lewis. Whereas the former Bears' MLBs destroyed offenses with intimidation, Urlacher captained Chicago's cover-2 defense, using his instincts and athleticism to eliminate the middle of the field.
That's not to say that he tackled gently, but Urlacher helped carry his position into the modern era. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune that he "revolutionized" the middle linebacker spot.
"He was so good at running that Tampa-2 scheme," Rodgers said. "They had him play both the deep middle and then react to the short middle. He changed that position with his height and long levers and athleticism."
Urlacher's days of domination had passed, however, and he looked overmatched against sped-up NFL offenses last season -- almost to the point of it being tough to watch at times.
The Bears realized his time had come and gone. Even if part of him desired to continue his career, Urlacher knew it too.