Few positions have been more synonymous with tradition and excellence in the NFL than middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears. Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary and Brian Urlacher are a relative who’s who for the position that takes this blog’s namesake. The first two are in the hall of fame, but what about Urlacher who announced his retirement earlier this week?
Traditionally, middle linebacker was a position known more for making all the defensive play calls and being more of a force against the run than versus the pass. They are sure tacklers and typically bring the most intensity than anyone else on the defensive side of the ball. However, they are not always known as 3-down players and when opposing teams opt for passing the ball, they are usually on the sidelines.
For Urlacher that was not the case, as evidenced by his 22 career interceptions and 85 pass deflections. His 41.5 sacks are tied with Ray Lewis for their careers, although with both retiring, Urlacher will have played in 4 fewer seasons.
We can easily talk about his 8 Pro Bowls in 12 seasons, 5 All-Pro selections, 6 plus seasons with over 80 solo tackles, his unbelievable, award winning rookie of the year season and his Defense Player of the Year Award in 2005. Urlacher was a linebacker unlike any other and he absolutely revolutionized the position as a 6-4 258 lbs who, in his prime ran a sub 4.6 40-yard dash. He made the type of plays that you did not expect from the mike position.
A Brian Urlacher highlight package is what separates him from many of the middle linebackers that came before him. Some of his interceptions were a thing of beauty, showing the skill and finesse that you would see from a defense back (Let us not forget he was a safety at New Mexico). He could rush the passer better than any middle linebacker that ever played and his acumen when playing sideline to sideline was terrific. Not only did he never give up on a play, but as a runner, you would be hard pressed to weave passed him as his speed was legendary for the position. His pass coverage may have been his best trait. A mike linebacker in the Tampa 2 defensive scheme, is responsible for the deep middle of the field; essentially acting as a third safety. Urlacher had the speed to make plays when dropping into coverage, but he also more than held his own in man coverage.
Urlacher was synonymous with Bears teams that have always been known for takeaways since the start of the 2000’s. In fact, since his rookie season in 2000, the Bears have been top 10 in takeaways per game in all but 2 seasons (2004 and 2009).
Is he better than Ray? Urlacher does not think so and I would agree with him as well, although reluctantly, but he was not far behind. Yes, Urlacher had the advent of a Tampa 2 system that was tailor made for him, but Ray Lewis consistently played with premier players especially at the 3 and 5-technique spots with the likes of Sam Adams, Tony Siragusa and Haloti Ngata. Having the benefit of great defensive tackles in front of you, typically means less engagement with blockers and more of an allowance to roam free and make clean tackles. Winning two Super Bowls also helps Lewis’ cause and Urlacher, having played and lost in Super Bowl 41, does not have the repetoire of post-season success that many of the other great linebackers have. Being on a team with inconsistent quarterbacks (Shane Matthews, Jim Miller, Rex Grossman and Jay Cutler) and offenses, surely did not help, but ultimately this should have little to no bearing on his résumé.
Urlacher never truly had a consistent force in the middle. Ted Washington was a load, but he played with Urlacher only towards the end of his career and Tommie Harris’ career was mired in injury, forcing him to retire at the age of 29. For Urlacher to do what he did, despite a defensive line that was average, is something to behold.
He did not exude as much fear on opponents as did Lewis, Singletary or Jack Lambert. Urlacher was still a terrific leader and was able to put his players in the right positions at the right time. Ultimately, he will be remembered for brining a different level of athleticism to the game and along with Ray Lewis, they brought new levels of requirements for the middle linebacker position. If you see your favorite team opting more for an athletic linebacker, it is more than likely in the hopes of finding the next Brian Urlacher who can give you 90 tackles, 5 sacks, 3 interceptions and 10 pass deflections per season as those numbers are becoming the gold standard for playing the mike linebacker position.
As a fan, Brian Urlacher was a joy to watch and he will be greatly missed by his former team and everyone that loves the NFL.