Middle Management There's a new breed of monster roaming the midway: linebackers who combine mayhem with multitasking--to devastating effect

October 29, 2001

The rain gushes down with a Biblical vengeance, transforming the
grassy field into a quagmire, and the NFL's best young middle
linebacker is awash in ecstasy. "I love football in the rain,"
says 23-year-old Brian Urlacher, the Chicago Bears' sophomore
sensation. "This is what it's all about." Seconds later Urlacher
gets even more fired up. Standing on the sideline of the field
at Lake Forest College, a Division III school on Chicago's tony
North Shore, Urlacher watches the home team's middle linebacker
start toward the line of scrimmage, diagnose a play fake, then
turn with catlike quickness and backpedal toward the tight end.
As the ball sails over his head, the linebacker lunges and
deflects it, saving a sure touchdown. "Pass broken up by
Urlacher," the public-address announcer intones as hundreds of
fans shake their umbrellas in tribute.

"Way to read that, son," Brian Urlacher yells to Casey Urlacher,
the Lake Forest junior defender who has landed in a puddle the
size of a wading pool. Son? "That's what I call my younger
brother," Brian says. (It could be worse: Later he affectionately
addresses his stepfather, Troy Lenard, as "my dork.") There are
more comfortable ways to spend a rainy autumn Saturday, the day
before the second home game of the season, but Urlacher, his Air
Max sneakers saturated, clearly is getting his kicks. "I hope it
rains like this for our game," he says, flashing the broad smile
that bedevils the ballcarriers he levels.

Happily butting up against opponents and stereotypes, Urlacher
often closes on a runner or receiver with otherworldly haste,
slams the player to the turf, then grins as he helps him up. A
grinning middle linebacker? If this is the new face of football's
most mythologized position, Ray Nitschke must be grimacing in his
grave. Along with fellow Hall of Famers Dick Butkus, Sam Huff,
Jack Lambert and Willie Lanier, Nitschke, the Green Bay Packers'
bald, toothless bonecrusher, brought a nastiness to the middle
that chilled opponents and thrilled fans. During the golden age
of middle linebackers--from the early 1960s through the late
'70s--these enforcers looked and acted the part.

If they didn't chew nails and extinguish cigarettes on their
forearms, they did nothing to negate those perceptions. "Most of
us weren't going to win any trophies for our looks, and we
definitely had an edge to us," says Tommy Nobis, another fearsome
middle linebacker of that era who played in five Pro Bowls during
an 11-year career with the Atlanta Falcons. "That kick-ass image
was no smoke and no s---; those were the facts, and most of us
kind of liked it."

No player was more menacing than Bears great Butkus, the
quintessential Monster of the Midway, who is widely considered to
be the best middle linebacker of all time. He may soon have
competition for that title. Last season the Baltimore Ravens' Ray
Lewis was the NFL defensive player of the year and the Super Bowl
MVP. Lewis, 26, appears to be getting better, and he's part of a
renaissance at the position--a rebirth that has changed the modern
football landscape. Once known chiefly as a rugged run-stopper,
today's middle linebacker doubles as a rangy rover who can drop
deep into the secondary on passing downs. "Five or six years ago
your middle linebacker was a guy you took out in nickel and dime
packages," says St. Louis Rams running back Marshall Faulk, last
year's league MVP. "Now you've got guys who can do it all. Ray
Lewis isn't just sideline to sideline; he's goal line to goal
line, too."

Even with San Diego Chargers future Hall of Famer Junior Seau no
longer listed at the position, the league boasts a bigger
collection of influential middle men than a Hollywood talent
agency. This crop of standouts includes the Miami Dolphins' Zach
Thomas, the Tennessee Titans' Randall Godfrey, the New York
Giants' Mike Barrow, the Detroit Lions' Stephen Boyd, the
Philadelphia Eagles' Jeremiah Trotter, the Falcons' Keith
Brooking, the Rams' London Fletcher, the Jacksonville Jaguars'
Hardy Nickerson and the Buffalo Bills' injured standout, Sam
Cowart. While none are likely to surpass Lewis in stature,
Urlacher might.

"A lot of specific characteristics lead to greatness in the
middle, and even some of the best ones haven't had all of them,"
says Lions president Matt Millen, an accomplished inside
linebacker for the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders, San Francisco
49ers and Washington Redskins from 1980 to '91. "Ray Lewis is
probably what you're looking for--a relatively big guy who can go
sideline to sideline, be a physical tackler and get guys to rally
around him because of his attitude. Urlacher has all those
qualities, plus great vision and an uncanny feel for coverage,
and that combination is rare. He's a [college] safety who
happened to grow into a linebacker's body, and the possibilities
are staggering."

As the Bears' middle linebacker, the 6'3", 244-pound Urlacher
follows a Hall of Fame legacy that reaches back three
generations: position pioneer Bill George (1952-66), Butkus
(1965-73) and ultra-intense Mike Singletary (1981-92). In the
City of the Big Shoulders, no other athlete shoulders such
expectations. "Everybody wants to compare me with Butkus and
Singletary," says Urlacher. "I hate it because I haven't done
anything yet, and it's not fair to them. But I wish I had a
little of those guys in me, that I was meaner and more violent."

Urlacher the linebacker--convenient how that rhymes--does his share
of hitting. Ask Jerry Wunsch, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 6'6",
339-pound tackle, whom Urlacher flattened during teammate Tony
Parrish's interception return for a touchdown last November. Yet
Urlacher's approach is less punitive than many purists, including
Butkus, would prefer. Urlacher concedes that he would rather
score a touchdown than pummel a ballcarrier, and he benefits from
a defensive scheme designed to keep blockers from negating his
athleticism. Over the off-season Chicago signed a pair of mammoth
defensive tackles, 330-pound Ted Washington and 320-pound Keith
Traylor, whose primary job is to occupy double-teams at the line
and let Urlacher roam. "I'm so lucky," says Urlacher, who, after
earning defensive rookie of the year honors last season, sent
Rolexes to each of the Bears' starting defensive linemen.

A similar scheme is employed by the Ravens, who protect Lewis
with tackles Tony Siragusa and Sam Adams, and the Dolphins, who
stack Thomas behind Tim Bowens and Daryl Gardener. "If somebody
put a helmet on Zach, we were always upset," says former Miami
coach Jimmy Johnson, who drafted the undersized Thomas (5'11",
221 pounds) in the fifth round in '96. "If he had to take on a
blocker, our defense wasn't going to be effective."

As for Lewis, Baltimore coordinator Marvin Lewis (no relation)
says, "It's a fallacy that Ray doesn't take on blocks. He plays
with a guy tilted to him at all times, the way Jack Lambert did."
Yet even the predaceous Lambert, the leader of the Steel Curtain
defense that led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowls wins
in the 1970s, enjoyed protection (from tackles Joe Greene and
Ernie Holmes) the likes of which the Butkuses, Nitschkes and
Laniers could only dream.

With his eye black, buzz cut and the barbed-wire tattoo on his
right biceps, Urlacher evokes images of the position's legends.
Ever since a 1960 TV special, The Violent World of Sam Huff, gave
viewers a peek at the NFL's sparring stage, star middle
linebackers have enjoyed larger-than-life status. It is not
surprising that nine of the 15 Hall of Fame linebackers from the
so-called modern era (post-1950) played primarily in the middle.
While there have always been overlooked technicians, like Lions
Hall of Famer Joe Schmidt (1953-65) or undersized New Orleans
Saints and Carolina Panthers standout Sam Mills ('86-97), the
scowling thumpers have captivated fans. For example, the Chiefs'
Lanier ('67-77) hit so hard that he had a special strip of
padding that ran down the middle of the shell on the outside of
his helmet. In the '80s Singletary, blessed with unprecedented
range and versatility, was famous for glaring as if possessed,
his eyes seemingly ready to pop out of his face mask.

Some current players, like the Falcons' Brooking, court that
image. Like Rocky Balboa, Brooking, a fourth-year player in the
Urlacher mode, has a dog named for his idol, Butkus. The
Neapolitan mastiff, says Brooking, "is as big as Dick Butkus.
He's 180 pounds, and he hasn't filled out yet."

Moved inside this past off-season, the 6'2", 245-pound Brooking
doesn't yet look the part. "He is kind of handsome, and he's all
full of piss and vinegar," says Nobis, the Falcons' vice
president of corporate development. "But give him a year of
playing there, and let's see what he looks like. All the middle
linebackers from my day, we walk a little funny, we've got
fingers that go in every direction and scars all over the place."
Bring it on, says Brooking. After Atlanta's victory over Carolina
on Sept. 23, he emerged with a cut on the bridge of his nose that
was still bleeding when he walked out of the shower. Six days
later he showed off his scab and said, "Hey, isn't it pretty?"

Urlacher has no such affection for battle scars, and off the
field he's softer than a Larry King interview. He dotes on his
wife, Laurie, and their 10-month-old daughter, Pamela, who,
according to Brian's sister, Sheri, "won't let anyone else hold
her when he's in the room." Call Urlacher a Mr. Mom of the
Midway. He changes diapers and sings lullabies, including one he
composed: I love you, yes I do. You are a pretty little girl.

Says Laurie: "He's thoughtful, considerate, calls when he's
supposed to, is an amazing father and spoils me rotten. And he
doesn't have a temper. Even when I try to start a fight, he
won't."

Urlacher neither taunts nor trash-talks on the field, preferring
to intimidate through his actions. He has the vision of a fighter
pilot, an uncanny nose for the ball and a natural feel that even
the Bears didn't foresee when they used the No. 9 choice in the
2000 draft to take Urlacher, who played safety at New Mexico.
Chicago's coaches put him at strongside (Sam) linebacker,
believing he would pick up that position more quickly, and
planned to move him inside a couple of years later. But, Urlacher
says, "I was the worst Sam linebacker ever. I had trouble
covering tight ends, I struggled against the run, and I had no
technique."

Beaten out by Rosevelt Colvin, a fourth-round draft pick in 1999,
Urlacher was moved to the middle when veteran Barry Minter went
down in the second game of the season. Urlacher started the next
week against the Giants and Gehriged the job. "Brian's the total
package," says Chicago defensive coordinator Greg Blache. "He has
athleticism, size, speed, great eyes, instincts and intelligence,
and guys like playing around him because he's unselfish. I'm
certain he's got a hole, but I haven't found it."

In a 31-3 victory over the Falcons on Oct. 7, Urlacher put all
his talents on display, finishing with five tackles, a sack, an
interception, a pass defensed, a forced fumble and a 90-yard
fumble return for a touchdown. His explanation: "Right places,
right times." Our take: Yeah, right.

A decade ago such a performance would have been inconceivable. As
passing attacks opened up to take advantage of liberalized rules
and the 3-4 defense gained popularity, the dominant middle
linebacker seemed doomed. The apparent death knell came at the
end of the 1991 season when Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, preparing
to face the Bills' no-huddle offense (which often forced middle
linebackers into coverage mismatches) in Super Bowl XXVI,
deactivated Millen, his starting middle linebacker. "My first
thought was that if I were Joe Gibbs, I'd have done the same
thing because I was no good in coverage against quick players,"
Millen recalls. "Then I thought, This position's going to have to
evolve, or the middle linebacker will turn into a part-time run
defender."

The middle linebacker survived because defensive coaches
countered the offensive innovations by unearthing quicker players
who could cover more ground and stay on the field in all
situations--and by finding bulky, active tackles to shield those
players from increasingly large offensive linemen. Such an
arrangement allowed greater continuity because the middle
linebacker could serve as an every-down playmaker and consistent
signal-caller. It's a role that requires both brains and brawn.

Because virtually all NFL teams now play a 4-3 base defense, the
middle linebacker is again the main man. "The bottom line is,
it's my huddle," says the Giants' Barrow, who equates his role
with that of Maximus in Gladiator. "Everything's on me: calling
plays, making adjustments, setting the tone. If there's fire in
my eyes, all the better."

Look at the NFL's most successful defenses of recent years, and
chances are the middle linebacker has played a starring role.
While Lewis garnered most of the attention in 2000, the Titans,
who finished with the league's top-ranked defense, were keyed by
Godfrey, whose speed and tackling prowess went largely unnoticed
by the public. Godfrey, a former Dallas Cowboy who spent his
first three seasons as an outside linebacker before switching to
the middle in '99, doesn't mind anonymity. "I've always been more
concerned with being part of a team than standing out," he says.
"My mom was a teacher, and my father was a sheriff's deputy. I
rarely step out of line."

Even before Godfrey's emergence, securing one of the AFC's two
Pro Bowl slots at middle linebacker had become difficult. When
the Dolphins' Thomas earned his first selection, in 1999, joining
Lewis, it threatened to break Seau's string of eight consecutive
Pro Bowl appearances. (Seau, the first alternate, ended up
extending the streak because of Lewis's legal entanglements.)
After that the Chargers began listing Seau--who had always played
more of a freelance role--as a weakside linebacker, permitting him
to be grouped with outside linebackers for Pro Bowl purposes.
Says Thomas: "I love Junior to death, and he's one of the best
linebackers of all time, but it seems as if he's listed at
whichever spot gives him his best chance for the Pro Bowl."

The NFC is becoming similarly clogged with candidates. Both of
last season's Pro Bowl selections, the Lions' Boyd and the
Eagles' Trotter, have slipped this fall, opening the door for
up-and-comers like Urlacher (who made last year's game as an
injury replacement for Boyd), Brooking, Fletcher and the Saints'
Charlie Clemons. "Back in the golden era, we were thugs who
stopped the run," says New Orleans coach Jim Haslett, an inside
linebacker for the Bills in 3-4 schemes from 1979 to '85. "Now
our guy [Clemons] is so versatile, he rushes the passer on third
down."

The slow folk are fading fast, but even relative plodders like
Boyd can rejoice in their near extinction. Last January, when
Millen left his job as a Fox-TV analyst to become Detroit's
president and CEO, Boyd viewed the move in symbolic terms.
"Everybody's always thought middle linebackers were the big, dumb
guys," Boyd says. "When Matt was hired, I thought, It gives us
all hope."

Boyd hopes Urlacher, whom he calls "the ideal guy at the perfect
time," can continue to help the position evolve. Why not? "He's
the most amazing athlete I've ever seen, but his technique is
average at best," says Erik Pedersen, Urlacher's Chicago-based
personal trainer. "Once we improve his mechanics and flexibility,
the sky's the limit."

The mystique, however, will take a beating, because Urlacher is
more Beavis and Butthead than Butkus. After the Bears' 20-13 win
over the Arizona Cardinals on Oct. 14, Urlacher, a serial
trickster, loaded several family members and friends into his
Cadillac Escalade and headed north on Interstate 94. When
Pedersen nodded off in the backseat, Urlacher screamed and braked
suddenly, then spent 15 minutes goofing on his startled trainer.

That evening, the same crew sat down for a meal at Brian and
Laurie's favorite Japanese restaurant. Holding his daughter with
one hand and a bowl of edamame with the other, the NFL's next
great middle linebacker began to sing: I love you, yes I do. You
are a pretty little girl.

COLOR PHOTO: NEIL LEIFER [T of C] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Tough enough Urlacher, who wishes he were "more violent," got in his licks on Bengals quarterback Jon Kitna in the Bears' 24-0 win. COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Double threats Brooking (opposite) and Barrow are rugged run-stoppers who can more than hold their own in pass coverage. COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Ray-lentless The athletic Lewis, last season's defensive player of the year, is the new prototype. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO Millen calls Urlacher (54) "a safety who happened to grow into a linebacker's body."

"He's kind of handsome," Nobis says of Brooking, "and he's all
full of piss and vinegar."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)