Bears

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 ChicagoBears.com, "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 ChicagoBears.com.

"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."

Tight ends and all things “timing” will change in Matt Nagy Bears West Coast offense

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USA TODAY

Tight ends and all things “timing” will change in Matt Nagy Bears West Coast offense

Second of two parts

Looking ahead to training camp and what everyone will be looking at – it will help to have even a cursory idea of the offensive elements that coach Matt Nagy is incorporating, particularly in the passing game -- because the when, where and how the Bears will be throwing the football is changing. NBC Sports Chicago focuses on a selection of specifics and their origins within that part of the offense that fans will notice, first in Bourbonnais and then in the 2018 season.

Bill Walsh wrote and always insisted that the tight end was the least understood central pillar in his offense. He viewed and used the tight end as a receiver rather than simply an extra offensive lineman, and used the position to exploit matchup problems and open areas of the field created by design.

In a bit of fortuitous timing, the Bears signed and drafted tight ends (Adam Shaheen, Dion Sims) a year in advance of Matt Nagy’s arrival. But how those tight ends project to be used will be substantially changed from their functions last year. The best indication came this offseason when yet another tight end was brought in, one that signaled a critical direction change coming to the Chicago offense.

The Bears invested heavily to land smallish ex-Philadelphia tight end Trey Burton this offseason. He fits a Nagy template.

“He understands this offense and what to do, so there’s not a lot of mistakes,” Nagy said. “When guys see that you’re a player that has experience in this offense and does things the right way, they really gravitate towards that style of leadership. It’s been everything and more with what we thought with Trey.”

In eight of the last nine years Nagy was with Reid, the tight end (Brent Celek in Philadelphia, Travis Kelce in Kansas City) was either the leading or second-leading receiver on the roster.

In the last 37 years, since Emery Moorehead (No. 2, 1985), the Bears have been led in receptions by a tight end just once (Greg Olsen, 2009) or had a tight end No. 2 in catches just three other times (Olsen, 2008, Martellus Bennett 2014-15).

Receiver additions Taylor Gabriel and Allen Robinson notwithstanding, the role of the tight end in a Bears offense is about to change. Dramatically. And it started literally before Nagy even arrived in Chicago.

“Our first conversation when [Nagy and Pace] were on the plane heading to Chicago the day that I was hired, we discussed that ‘U’ position, the position that we know in Kansas City and we use in Kansas City as kind of the wide receiver/tight end,” Nagy said. “And you play the slot position you can move around, do different things — it’s what we did with Kelce.”

New meaning for “timing” in pass game

Trubisky’s mobility creates a greater threat in action passes and within run-pass options, if only because Trubisky can and will take off with purpose, even as Nagy, Helfrich and QB coach Dave Ragone drill one phrase into the quarterback’s brain: “Get down!”

“We don’t do that all the time but that’s kind of your ‘ball control,’” Nagy said. “There is a mentality that might be a little different in how we’re trying to be aggressive, too. In the classic West Coast there were still times where they were looking to be aggressive and we want that mindset.”

More than that, however, is the threat that play-calling versatility posed by Nagy’s offense. What jumps out is the play-calling balance on first downs:

 

2017 first downs

 

Run/pass ratio (%)

Bears        Chiefs

59/41        51.1/48.9 

 

Yards per carry

Bears        Chiefs

4.1             4.6

 

Completion %

Bears        Chiefs

59.3          68.2

 

The Chiefs had the advantage of a more accurate quarterback (Alex Smith) than the Bears (Trubisky). Coaches are stressing accuracy along with ball security, and improving Trubisky’s accuracy is axiomatic for success in Nagy’s scheme, which is based on the West Coast foundation of high completion percentage and minimizing risk of negative plays in the passing game.

Notably, in true West Coast tradition, with the Reid/Nagy offenses forcing defenses to spread horizontally the Chiefs rushed for a half-yard more than the Bears on first downs.

More notably perhaps, the Chiefs exploited those higher-percentage positive first-down plays, which meant shorter yardage needs on second downs, with more passing, not less. And when the Chiefs did run, they were just as successful per carry.

 

2017 second downs

 

Run/pass ratio (%)

Bears        Chiefs

48/52        40.8/59.2 

 

Yards per carry

Bears        Chiefs

4.0             4.6

 

Completion %

Bears        Chiefs

62.6          72.7

 

West Coast systems typically operate with more drag routes, quick slants and square-in’s, requiring receivers to run precise routes and have the ability to create separation quickly as Trubisky sets up quickly and looks to throw on time.

The “on time” component is critical, because it the timing of breaks and routes are connected to footwork – Trubisky’s – in that the ball is expected to be coming out when he hits the third or fifth step of his drop. The quarterback is not going to sit waiting for a receiver to come open, as in some other programs.

“It's a wide open attack and it's a great offense because there are so many options within it,” Trubisky said. “We know our job and it all comes down to execution for us. There are so many options I can't even begin to say where it starts but Coach Nagy has brought in a great plan.

“I think the system fits the players we have. In particular I feel like it really fits my skill set with the RPO's, the quick game, stretching the ball down the field and then with the running backs we have just pounding it inside and continuously trying to establish the run game each and every game. I just feel like we've got a lot of options, can be really dynamic and on top of that how we understand it and how the coaches have taught it to us since day one is just going to allow us to play faster and execute the plays at a higher rate.”

Bears among 50 most valuable sports teams in the world

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USA Today

Bears among 50 most valuable sports teams in the world

The Chicago Bears haven't enjoyed many wins over the last several years, but that hasn't done anything to hurt the franchise's bottom line.

According to a recent report by Forbes, the Bears rank 17th among the 50 most valuable sports teams in the world for 2018. The franchise is valued at $2.85 billion.

17. Chicago Bears

Value: $2.85 billion

1-year change: 6%

Operating income: $114 million

Owner: McCaskey family

Chicago is seventh among NFL teams in the top-17, with Dallas, New England, New York (Giants), Washingon, San Francisco and Los Angeles (Rams) all having higher valuations.

It's no surprise the Bears are this valuable, even without a winning product. They play in one of the greatest sports cities on the planet. And just imagine what will happen to the club's price tag if Mitch Trubisky and the new-look roster actually start winning games.