At some point the Bears were going to be forced into moving forward without franchise middle linebacker Brian Urlacher. That point may be at hand.
An MRI exam on Tuesday confirmed a Grade 2 strain to Urlachers right hamstring, an injury suffered on the next-to-last play in last Sundays loss to the Seattle Seahawks. The story was first reported by the Chicago Tribune.
Depending on the precise severity of the strain and also on Urlachers recuperative powers, he could return before the end of the season or for the playoffs. That is, if the Bears change course back toward the postseason after losing three of their last four and now face three of their final four on the road.
The concern going into this season initially was the state of the knee injury Urlacher suffered at the end of Game 16 in Minneapolis. His mobility has been clearly below what it was in his prime but at age 34, the shock would have been him not losing a step or steps.
What the Bears lose now, in the midst of what coach Lovie Smith already has described as the playoff stretch remains to be seen.
Urlachers value to the defense was beyond his tackle total, which stands at a team-high 88 according to Bears figures. He is tied with Lance Briggs for team honors with seven tackles for loss and his three forced fumbles are second only to Charles Tillmans eight.
Sans Urlacher in the past
The Bears were lost without Urlacher defensively when he missed seven games in 2004, all losses. Urlacher was down twice with separate hamstring injuries and finished the year on injured reserve.
He was lost for the season after suffering a wrist injury in the first half of the 2009 season opener in Green Bay. The Bears replaced him with Nick Roach and eventually Hunter Hillenmeyer and were 7-8 over the final 15 games of that season, Jay Cutlers first as a Bear.
Roach played extensively at middle linebacker through training camp and the preseason, with Urlacher out while his knee recovered.
Urlacher is out of contract after this season. GM Phil Emery has maintained a preference to address all contract issues after the season although the team has occasionally done late-season extensions.
That will not be the case with Urlacher, who is earning 7.5 million this season. The Bears have extended his contracts in the past and Urlacher has stated his wish to end his career with the team that selected him ninth overall in the 2000 draft.
Urlachers problem now is that his bargaining power is substantially reduced in terms of his health. His return before the offseason would represent a statement to the organization.
For their part, the Bears have no proven alternative currently in place. Lovie Smith has told CSNChicago.com in the past that Roach fits the prototype of middle linebackers in his scheme but the next several games will establish the workability of that option.
Philosophically, teams using Smiths defensive schemes do not draft middle linebackers. That may change sometime around the end of next April.