Brian Urlacher, the Bears' accidental middle linebacker: 'They did the right thing'

Brian Urlacher, the Bears' accidental middle linebacker: 'They did the right thing'

Call him perhaps the Bears’ all-time Accidental Draft Hit. Indeed, Brian Urlacher landed in Chicago as much by chance as by Bears' choice. That Urlacher this weekend is a Hall of Fame finalist sets the stage for an exclamation point to the reality that it was the fortuitous choice/chance for both.

Going into the 2000 draft, the Bears held the No. 9 pick of the first round, and they had a cluster of players they’d determined to be worth that level of pick. Urlacher was among those.

When the Philadelphia Eagles selected defensive tackle Corey Simon at No. 6, the Bears still had three of their targets on the board: Virginia running back Thomas Jones, Michigan State wide receiver Plaxico Burress and Urlacher. The Bears were good with any of the three, so decided that they would stay at No. 9, assured of getting one of the group.

The Arizona Cardinals at No. 7 chose Jones. Inside the Pittsburgh Steelers’ draft room, a furious debate ensued; coach Bill Cowher wanted Urlacher but was overruled and the Steelers selected Burress. The Bears then made Urlacher their call.

Mark Hatley, then vice president in charge of personnel, once confided to this reporter that serious Bears thought was given to playing Urlacher at safety. Hatley and the Dick Jauron coaching staff reasoned that Urlacher’s mix of size, speed, instincts and skills had the potential of producing a safety unlike any ever seen in the NFL.

After all, he had been an All-American at New Mexico playing safety, so maybe yes, maybe no.

“I’m not sure how I’d have been as a safety in the NFL, to tell the truth,” Urlacher said, laughing. “I would’ve gotten better and could’ve played safety, but I don’t think I would’ve had the impact back there that I did at middle linebacker. I was closer to the ball and could make more plays up there.

“They did the right thing, for sure.”

Elite criteria

Longtime Hall of Fame selector and McCann Memorial Award winner Ira Miller once shared with me one of his criteria for selection into the NFL’s ultimate Ring of Honor: “If you were to write the history of professional football,” Ira said, “would you have to include this guy by name?”

Not every inductee reaches that Ira criterion, but any history of the NFL arguably should include Urlacher, a 2018 finalist up for selection to the game’s Hall of Fame on Saturday in advance of Super Bowl LII. That game is being played in Minneapolis on the same date — Feb. 4 — 11 years after Urlacher made his lone Super Bowl appearance, in the Bears’ 29-17 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

The attention to his candidacy has necessarily put more of a spotlight on the situation than Urlacher would like. In this writer’s experience covering his full career, Urlacher was a great conversationalist one-on-one, but got progressively less comfortable the more cameras and microphones arrived in front of him.

“(Hall of Fame talk) has been going on for some time now, and I think people think I think about it more than I do, because it’s really not on my mind all that much,” Urlacher said. “I honestly don’t think about that stuff, just take it as it comes. Me worrying about it isn’t going to change anything.

“I’ve heard from a lot of guys, a lot of guys who’ve been here and some were disappointed. Kevin Mawae (New York Jets center, 2018 finalist and former Bears assistant offensive line coach) gave me the best advice: ‘Just enjoy the process.’

“If it doesn’t happen, I’ll be OK.”

Talent transcending scheme

Mawae told Talk of Fame Radio’s Clark Judge that Urlacher was a more difficult matchup for him than fellow finalist Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. The reason runs counter to perceptions/misperceptions that Urlacher was a speed linebacker and Lewis the more physical presence.

“Kevin told me, ‘You always gave me a hard time, because you would hit me,’” Urlacher said. “That’s probably the opposite of what people think. I tried to run into those (offensive) guys.”

Urlacher’s statistical achievements, Pro Bowl selections and such stand on their own. He was named defensive rookie of the year in 2000, defensive player of the year in 2005, and to the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 2000s, along with Derrick Brooks and Ray Lewis, the former already in the Hall of Fame and the latter now a selectee with Urlacher.

But to put him in a broader context: Urlacher was defensive rookie of the year in one scheme, defensive player of the year in a dramatically different one and an All-Decade selection for his combined body of work.

“You don’t get the chance very often to coach and be around a player and person like Brian Urlacher,” said Lovie Smith, Bears and Urlacher’s coach from 2004 to 2012, both winding up their Chicago careers that same final season. “He absolutely knew what every player on the defense was supposed to do, on every play.”

Certain players are products of or significantly aided by schemes that maximize their talents and opportunities. Urlacher transcended scheme.

Consider: Operating in the 4-3 scheme of Dick Jauron and Greg Blache, behind a prototypical two-gap front four that included massive tackles Keith Traylor and Ted Washington and 290-pound defensive ends Phillip Daniels and Bryan Robinson, Urlacher was freed to run while the two-gappers engaged offensive linemen. In 2001 he finished with 148 tackles (based on coaches’ film review), six sacks and three interceptions.

In 2002, Washington was out all but two games and the other defensive-line starters missed five games. Urlacher’s year: 214 tackles, 4.5 sacks and seven passes broken up.

Jump to 2005 and the Lovie Smith scheme that lived on fast one-gap linemen tasked with getting through gaps, not engaging blockers. Ends Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye were sub-260 pounds, and tackle Tommie Harris was barely 290 most of the year. Urlacher’s year: 171 tackles, six sacks, five passes broken up.

“That is one thing that shows you how great Brian was,” Smith said. “He put up outstanding numbers in every area — tackles, sacks, pass coverage.”

Brown told, "There are players that can run sideline to sideline and there have been, but not like he did it. You couldn't create a better middle linebacker on a computer to fit in a cover-two scheme.

"He's fast enough. He's smart enough. He's big enough that it made the quarterbacks have to throw over him but fit the ball in just before the safety got there and it was just too hard to do. Most of the time they'd under-throw it and he'd pick it off because he was an athlete. He can jump. He can run. He did everything. He stopped the run. He could run down a fast running back. He could run down a receiver."

Rough start, then ...

Coaches mistakenly positioned Urlacher at strong-side linebacker initially, a job he was given on draft day but lost to Rosevelt Colvin early that preseason. “They just plugged Brian in and I was really upset,” Colvin said in an appearance this week on WSCR-AM. “They put him on the line at ‘SAM’ (strong-side linebacker) and he was just getting pushed around.”

Colvin outplayed Urlacher, the Bears bumped Urlacher inside to middle linebacker and into history, so “If Brian does not call me and give me a ticket to Canton,” Colvin joked, “I’m going to be highly upset.”

Urlacher eventually stepped in at middle linebacker when Barry Minter went down injured in a Wally Pipp moment. Urlacher immediately went on a run of five straight games with at least one sack, with two in the fifth of those games, against the Minnesota Vikings and Daunte Culpepper.

In a 2001 matchup with Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons, Urlacher delivered eight tackles, one for a loss, a sack, forced fumble, interception and returned a Vick fumble 90 yards for a touchdown (Vick didn’t run him down). Later that season Urlacher earned special-teams player of the week honors when he caught a 27-yard pass for the winning touchdown against the Washington Redskins.

As with any Hall of Fame inductee, individual highlights are too many to chronicle entirely. But the Bears’ legendary 24-23 Monday Night Football comeback win against the Cardinals, in which Urlacher was credited with 19 tackles, three quarterback hits, two passes deflected and a forced fumble that was returned for a touchdown. "We watched the film,” recalled teammate Devin Hester, “and everybody was saying that he just turned into the Incredible Hulk the last four minutes of the game, just killing people and running over and tackling whoever had the ball.”

It was perhaps the signature moment in a signature career marked by many such moments.

"You knew when you were playing the Chicago Bears that you had to be ready because he was not only going to be ready, he was going to have that defense ready and they were coming at you,” former Los Angeles Rams and Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, himself a member of the Hall of Fame, told

"The best thing that stood out about him as a player was his leadership ability. That's what you want from your middle linebacker. You want him to be a dominant player, but you want him to be a leader on the field and that's what he was."

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 Bears position grades: Management

2017 grade: D+

For these purposes, “management” encompasses the coaching staff and front office. We don’t need a lengthy re-litigation of the failures of the John Fox era, so briefly: The offense was unimaginative, predictable and unsuccessful; there were too many head-scratching coaching decisions, punctuated by that backfiring challenge flag against Green Bay; the defense was solid but not spectacular; special teams had plenty of highs (three touchdowns) and lows (Marcus Cooper’s gaffe against Pittsburgh, Connor Barth’s missed field goal against Detroit). Fox didn’t win enough games to justify a fourth year, even if he left the Bears in a better place than he found them back in 2015. But that 5-11 record drags the management grade down. 

But the larger thing we’re going to focus on here is the hits and misses for Ryan Pace in the 2017 league year. The hits: 

-- Drafting Mitchell Trubisky. Will this be a long-term success? That’s another question. But Pace hitched his future in Chicago to a quarterback last April. For a franchise that hasn’t had a “franchise” quarterback in ages, what more can you ask for? If Trubisky pans out, nobody should care that Pace traded up one spot -- effectively losing a third-round pick for his conviction in his guy -- to make the move. 

-- Moving quickly to hire Matt Nagy. As with Trubisky, Pace identified his guy and made sure he got him. The Bears hired Nagy just two days after the Kansas City Chiefs’ season ended with that playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, and with the Indianapolis Colts -- who eventually got burned by Josh McDaniels -- sniffing around Nagy, Pace made his move to hire a young, energetic, offensive-minded coach to pair with Trubisky. It’s tough to argue with any of the coaching hires made by Nagy, who had a head start on the competition: He retained defensive coordinator Vic Fangio and that entire defensive staff, kept Dave Ragone to be Trubisky’s quarterbacks coach and hired Mark Helfrich to bring some different concepts as offensive coordinator, and hired a special teams coach in Chris Tabor who must’ve been doing something right to survive seven years and a bunch of coaching changes in Cleveland. Like with Trubisky, it’s too early to say if Nagy will or won’t work out long-term, but it stands out that Pace had conviction in getting a franchise quarterback and a head coach who will make or break his tenure in Chicago. 

-- Drafting Tarik Cohen and Eddie Jackson in the fourth round. In Cohen, the Bears found an offensive spark (who was nonetheless under-utilized) who also was a key contributor on special teams. In Jackson, the Bears added a plug-and-play 16-game starter at safety who looks to have some upside after a solid rookie year. Both picks here were a triumph for the Bears’ amateur scouting department: Cohen wasn’t on everyone’s radar (special teams coach Chris Tabor, who previously was with the Browns, said Cohen’s name never came across his desk in Cleveland), while Jackson was coming off a broken leg that prematurely ended a solid career at Alabama. These were assuredly two hits. 

-- Signing Akiem Hicks to a four-year contract extension. The Bears rewarded Hicks a day before the season began; Hicks rewarded them with a Pro Bowl-caliber season (despite him only being a fourth alternate) and was the best player on the team in 2017. 

-- Signing Charles Leno to a four-year contract extension. Leno may not be an elite tackle, and still has some things to clean up in his game, but he’s 26 and his four-year, $37 million contract is the 14th-largest among left tackles (for what it’s worth, Bleacher Report ranked Leno as the 20th best left tackle in the NFL). The Bears believe Leno is still improving, and could turn that contract into a bargain in the future. But this is important to note, too: Players notice when a team rewards one of its own, especially when that guy is a well-respected former seventh-round draft pick. 

-- Signing Mark Sanchez to a one-year deal. This wasn’t a miss, certainly, and while it’s not much of a “hit,” Sanchez was exactly what the Bears wanted: A veteran mentor to Trubisky. While Sanchez was inactive for all 16 games, he and the No. 2 overall pick struck up a good relationship that makes him a candidate to return in 2018 as a true backup. 

-- Releasing Josh Sitton when he did. Whether or not the Bears offensive line is better off in 2018 is a different question, but file cutting Sitton on Feb. 20 -- when the team had until mid-March to make a decision on him -- as one of those things that gets noticed by players around the league. 

-- Announcing the expansion to Halas Hall. The plan has Pace’s fingerprints on it, and should help make the Bears a more attractive destination to free agents in 2018 and beyond. 

And now, for the misses:

-- Signing Mike Glennon. That completely bombed out. While the Bears weren’t hurting for cap space a year ago, and Glennon’s contract essentially was a one-year prove-it deal, his play was so poor that he was benched after only four games -- when the initial plan was for him to start the entire season to give Trubisky time to develop. The wheels came off for Glennon on his seventh pass in Week 2, when after completing his first six he threw the ball right to Tampa Bay’s Kwon Alexander for an interception from which he never seemed to recover. He’ll be cut sometime soon. 

-- Signing Markus Wheaton. After signing a two-year, $11 million deal in the spring, Wheaton struggled to stay healthy, with an appendectomy and finger injury limiting him in training camp and the early part of the season, and then a groin injury knocking out a few weeks in the middle of the season. When Wheaton was healthy, he was ineffective, catching only three of his 17 targets. That places him with eight other players since 1992 who’ve been targeted at least 15 times and and caught fewer than 20 percent of their targets. He’s another one of Pace’s 2017 free agent signings who’s likely to be cut. 

-- Signing Marcus Cooper. The Bears thought they were signing an ascending player who picked off four passes in 2016 and would be a better scheme fit in Chicago than he was in Arizona. Instead, Cooper was a liability when he was on the field and didn’t live up to his three-year, $16 million contract (with $8 million guaranteed). Dropping the ball before he got in the end zone Week 3 against Pittsburgh was a lowlight. The Bears can net $4.5 million in cap savings if he’s cut, per Spotrac. 

-- Signing Dion Sims. Sims isn’t as likely to be cut as Glennon and Wheaton, and even Cooper, but his poor production in the passing game (15 catches, 29 targets, 180 yards, one touchdown) puts a spotlight on how the Bears evaluate how he was as a run blocker in 2017. If that grade was high, the Bears could justify keeping him and not garnering a little more than $5.5 million in cap savings. If it was low, and the Bears are confident in Adam Shaheen’s ability to improve, then Sims could be cut as well. 

-- Signing Quintin Demps. The loss here was mitigated by the strong play of Adrian Amos, but Demps didn’t make much of an impact on the field before his Week 3 injury besides getting plowed over by Falcons tight end Austin Hooper in Week 1. He’d be a decent guy to have back as a reserve given his veteran leadership -- he was a captain in 2017 -- but given how well Amos and Eddie Jackson worked together last year, he’s unlikely to get his starting spot back in 2018. 

-- The wide receiver position as a whole. Kendall Wright led the Bears in receptions and yards, but his numbers would’ve looked a lot better had he been surrounded by better players. The cupboard was bare at this position, and after the worst-case scenario happened -- Cameron Meredith tearing his ACL in August, and Kevin White breaking his collarbone in Week 1 -- the Bears were left with an overmatched and underperforming group of receivers. For Trubisky’s sake, Pace has to work to make sure 2018 isn’t a repeat of 2017. 

-- The kicker position as a whole. Since we’re focusing solely on Pace’s 2017 moves, the decision to release Robbie Gould and replace him with Connor Barth doesn’t fall into this grade. But Barth had struggled with consistency prior to this season, and Roberto Aguayo didn’t provide much competition in his short-lived stint in training camp. The Bears eventually released Barth after he missed a game-tying kick against Detroit in November, then replaced him with a guy in Cairo Santos who was coming off an injury and, as it turned out, wasn’t completely healthy yet. So the Bears then had to move on from Santos and sign Mike Nugent to get them through the rest of the season. Better consistency from this position will be important to find in 2018. 

A couple moves fall into the neither hits nor misses category:

-- Drafting Adam Shaheen. Tight ends rarely make a significant impact as rookies, but Shaheen was only targeted 14 times last year. He did catch three touchdowns and flash some good chemistry with Trubisky before suffering an injury against Cincinnati that wound up ending his season. The gains he makes with a year of experience under his belt and during his first full offseason as a pro will be critical in determining his success in Year 2, and whether or not taking him 45th overall was a hit or a miss. 

-- Signing Prince Amukamara. This was neither good nor bad, with Amukamara playing solidly in coverage but not making enough plays on the ball and committing a few too many penalties. 

Pace still has decisions to make on a few other potential cuts, including right tackle Bobby Massie ($5.584 million cap savings per Spotrac) and linebackers Willie Young ($4.5 million cap savings) and Pernell McPhee ($7.075 million cap savings). Whether or not to place the franchise tag on Kyle Fuller and potentially pay him $15 million in 2018 is another call Pace has to make before the official end of the 2017 league year. 

But for Pace, did the hits out-weigh the misses in 2017? The Glennon signing imploded, but Trubisky showed signs of promise during an average season for a rookie quarterback. Cooper was a bust, but Fuller emerged as a potential long-term option to cover for that. The most glaring misses, then, were at wide receiver and tight end where, after injuries sapped those units of Cameron Meredith and Zach Miller, there weren’t reliable targets for Trubisky. 

We’ll probably need more time to determine if Pace’s “hits” on Trubisky and Nagy truly are “hits.” But if they are, the misses of 2017 -- Glennon, Wheaton, Cooper, etc. -- will be nothing more than amusing footnotes to a successful era of Bears football.

Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?


Under Center Podcast: What should the Bears do at guard and cornerback?

With the Bears releasing Josh Sitton and having the option to franchise Kyle Fuller, JJ Stankevitz and John “Moon” Mullin look at two of the first big decisions for Ryan Pace’s offseason plan.

Listen to the full episode at this link or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.