Dick Butkus

Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith bask in ‘linebacker heaven’ at Bears100 Celebration

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USA Today

Danny Trevathan, Roquan Smith bask in ‘linebacker heaven’ at Bears100 Celebration

When Dick Butkus talks, you listen — especially if you’re a former first-round linebacker entering his second year in the NFL. 

So what did Butkus tell Roquan Smith this weekend at the Bears100 Celebration?

“Pretty much Butkus was like, ‘Just be violent. By all means be violent, that was his main thing,” Smith said. 

Otis Wilson, the linebacker who won a Super Bowl with the Bears in 1985, had similar advice for Smith. Though perhaps the lesson is more about being physical than being, well, that physical. 

“I probably wouldn't have a game check and then (would have to) give them some of my signing bonus,” Smith said, when asked how much money he’d stand to lose if he strictly followed Butkus and Wilson's advice. 

For Smith and Danny Trevathan, the opportunity to meet with Butkus, Mike Singletary and other former Bears linebackers had significant value. While Brian Urlacher backed out at the last minute due to some self-reported digestive issues, there still was a wealth of linebacking information and experiences congregating in Rosemont over the weekend. As Trevathan put it: “This is linebacker heaven.”

While Smith chatted with Wilson and Butkus — Smith won the collegiate Butkus Award, given to the nation’s best linebacker, his final year at Georgia — Trevahtan was able to pick the brain of Singletary. Trevathan had previously read one of Singletary’s books but hadn’t met him before this weekend, and said he can’t wait to apply the lessons he learned this upcoming season. 

“I just know that it’s going to carry over with us because we have so much respect for those guys, and anything they say, we’re zoomed in, we listen to everything that they’re saying because we know that they did it before,” Trevathan said. “And this ain’t no regular (person) talking. It’s somebody that really came in here, worked their tail off and actually reaped the benefits of it. So we know we have to go out there — the window of opportunity is so small.” 

While the Bears100 Celebration was ostensibly a fan event, with autograph tables and activities and merchandise for the thousands that came through the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center last weekend, it was much more than that. It was an opportunity for old teammates to re-connect and tell stories.  

And it was an opportunity for current Bears players to learn from the wealth of information possessed by the living Hall of Famers and hundreds of players who congregated in one place for a truly special weekend. 

“I’m rarely fanned out, but when I see those group of guys, just the foundation and the history that’s here — 100 years Celebration — yeah, I was definitely star-struck just to be around them,” Trevathan said. “And (getting) to have a conversation with them, talk about life, talk about football — those are the type of things you can’t really put a price on.”

The time Dick Butkus nearly fought George Halas, and the five best things we heard at Friday's Bears100 celebration

The time Dick Butkus nearly fought George Halas, and the five best things we heard at Friday's Bears100 celebration

The opening festivities at the Bears100 Celebration Weekend Friday night didn’t disappoint, with so many franchise legends congregating with legions of fans at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont. Media members had a chance to speak with those legends, from Dick Butkus to Mike Ditka to Devin Hester and everywhere in between, Friday evening. Below is a sampling of some of the best quotes and stories we heard:

1. The time Dick Butkus nearly got in a fight with George Halas

Halas retired from coaching in 1967, four years after winning his last NFL championship and two years into the Super Bowl era. His successor didn’t have much success: Jim Dooley went 20-36 in his four years, and became the first Bears coach to ever be fired following the 1971 season. 

Following Dooley’s firing, Butkus remembers going in to the Bears’ office to get his mail and stopping by to see Halas. By that time, Butkus had established himself as one of the best defensive players in NFL history. The conversation between the team’s founder and star linebacker was frank, as Butkus remembered it playing out Friday:

“I’m asking him, ‘who’s going to be the new coach?’ And he says ‘ah, well, you’ll know,'" Butkus said. "And I said, ‘you know something, coach, I really don’t think you want to win here.’”

“And he got up and I thought he was going to take a poke at me. ‘What’d you say?’ (I said) ‘I don’t think you wanna win here.’ 

“I says, ‘who’s in the Super Bowl?’ He said, ‘oh Dallas and Miami’ or something. And I said, ‘two god damn expansion teams, when we should be there.’ And he sat down, and that was the end of the conversation.”

Abe Gibron was hired to replace Dooley, and Gibron’s .274 winning percentage in three seasons still stands as the worst in franchise history (John Fox narrowly avoided that ignominious designation, finishing his forgettable three years with a .292 winning percentage). Jack Pardee and Neill Armstrong both got the Bears back to the playoffs, but it wasn’t until Mike Ditka was hired in 1982 did the Bears return to their championship glory. 

Butkus’ point, though, still resonates today: Why has a franchise as historic and successful as the Bears only won one Super Bowl?

“There’s no reason why we can’t or shouldn’t be in the run all the time,” Butkus said. “I know you lose draft choices or whatever when you finish first all the time but how can you explain New England being up there all these years? That’s not right. The Bears should be the ones.”

The good news: Butkus saw an awfully positive sign of things changing in the Bears’ favor over 2018’s Labor Day weekend. 

“They always had a reputation about their pay,” Butkus said. “But I’m glad to see that they came out and paid some money for (Khalil) Mack and got him, and look what he did. It’s unbelievable what he did. He turned the whole thing around. They maybe don’t want to say that, but he did. He’s just got everybody by the way he plays.”  

2. Gray Matters

We’ll go for a shorter quote here: Jay Hilgenberg, the two-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowl and Super Bowl winning center, on current Bears coach Matt Nagy:

“I said it one time, when they dissect Matt Nagy’s brain it’s going to be the shape of a football,” Hilgenberg said. “It’s amazing what he comes up with.”

3. Mission No. 1

Mike Ditka grew up in Pittsburgh not knowing much about the Bears’ rivalry with the Green Bay Packers, which by the time he was drafted in 1961 had been building for four decades. So when he got to Chicago, Halas sat him down with an important message. 

“I can remember when I first came to the Bears, and I’m from Pittsburgh so I didn’t know a whole heck of a lot about it, so one thing Mr. Halas said — we sat down, we’re talking — the most important thing, he said: We’ve gotta beat the Packers twice,” Ditka said. “The most important — we’ve gotta beat the Packers twice. That’s what he said to me. I wasn’t sure who the Packers were.”

Twenty years later, the Bears brought Ditka back as a head coach. He went 15-5 against the Packers, which included an eight-game winning streak from 1985 to 1988. So for Ditka, that the Bears will begin their 100th season against the Packers, in the NFL’s 100th season, is only fitting. 

“That’s the way it should be,” Ditka said. “Mr. Halas and coach (Vince) Lombardi would like it that way. … It’s one of the great rivalries in the history of the game.”

4. How Gary Fencik wound up with season tickets for life

Fencik lived out every Chicagoland football player’s dream by winning a Super Bowl with the 1985 Bears. So when it was time for him to negotiate his final contract with the team, he wanted a clause inserted into it: A guarantee of four season tickets. 

“I said look, I’m from Chicago, I need season tickets,” Fencik said. “And they go, we can’t give you what we don’t have. We don’t have any tickets to give you.”

Instead, Fencik settled on a clause that wound up getting him those tickets a decade and a half later. 

“So I put it in my contract, in perpetuity, if the Bears ever built a new stadium I would have the option to buy four tickets between the 40 yard line and the middle of the first section,” Fencik said. “I’m on the 42-yard line, row nine, in the middle of the first section.”

As a season ticket holding fan, Fencik said this about the current Bears that, surely, plenty of other season tickets holders have felt too: “What you feel as a fan is that there is something special.”

5. Thinking Offense

A couple of quick bites from 1985 Super Bowl winners on the current Bears’ offense:

Jim McMahon: “He’s got a great offense to play in. From the little bit I’ve seen, that’s the kind of offense I would like to play in.”

Ditka: “I like what the Bears have. They can run the ball, they play very good defense, I love the quarterback. There’s a lot of good things there.”

For more: We'll have plenty more to come from Friday's Orange Carpet event, including three Hall of Famer's thoughts on Khalil Mack and Devin Hester's thought about joining those Hall of Famers in Canton. 

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Bears lofty LB history entering new phase with different, bigger edge rushers

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USA TODAY

Bears lofty LB history entering new phase with different, bigger edge rushers

This story starts in one direction, from an appraisal of the greatest linebackers in the history of the game by one of the great personnel minds in the history of the NFL. And then it circles back to the Bears, who for the last several years have been going in an interesting direction at the position, a direction with some implications for their short- and longer-term futures.

It’s also a look at where the NFL has been and is trending in the pivotal area – for the Bears and others – of rush linebacker. An overarching Bears question is whether their edge rushers can deliver a winning pass rush that a secondary coming off three straight 8-interception seasons desperately needs.

First, some backdrop and context, then the Bears.

NFL.com has put together a ranking of the 47 (nice round number) greatest linebackers of all time. Not just NFL.com, though: The list is the work of Gil Brandt, now a senior analyst for NFL Media but also one of the legends who combined with Tex Schramm and Tom Landry to form the original foundation of the Dallas Cowboys beginning in 1960. Gil pioneered many of the personnel metrics and principles that are still operational in the NFL in different iterations.

Point is, Gil is one of those “elders” who have seen and remained relevant through just about every iteration the NFL game has gone through. (Great societies treasure their elders; sports doesn’t do that enough, too often casting the great mind aside as being left behind by the times. Gil is one of those treasures.)

To that end, what makes the Brandt ranking very noteworthy is that he has factored in schemes from 4-3 (Dick Butkus. Brian Urlacher, Ray Nitschke) to 3-4 (Lawrence Taylor, Sam Mills, Pat Swilling) to “Flex” (Chuck Howley, Lee Roy Jordan), from historic (Bill George, Chuck Bednarik) to current (Luke Kuechly, DeMarcus Ware).

Some of the rankings are surprising (Ted Hendricks, 4; Ray Lewis, 12; Nick Buoniconti, 41). But to this writer, whose first NFL game involved Bednarik and who’s seen a great deal of every one on the list except Connor and Les Richter, it’s worth a stroll through some great history, and it IS some true perspective.

Parenthetically, Gil lists six Bears among his elite 47: Butkus (No. 3), George (7), Mike Singletary (16), Urlacher (19), George Connor (28) and Joe Fortunato (39).  

Getting to the main Bears point

Gil’s listing sparks some thoughts on what is unfolding at the linebacker position for the Vic Fangio Bears.

For all of the winds of change blowing through the Bears offense, subtle ones are playing out on defense as well, a unit that is a base 3-4 but spends more of its time in a 4-3 for nickel matchups. And in an NFL that tilts toward the pass (Bears opponents threw on 56.8 percent of their plays in 2017 despite being ahead far more of the time than not), the issue of pass rush becomes paramount, with the Bears losing more than one-third (14.5) of their tied-for-seventh sack total (42).

With apologies to the inside push from Akiem Hicks and Eddie Goldman, the issue is linebackers. About which Fangio had an interesting conclusion:

“The days of the pure speed rushers – the Fred Deans, even the Derrick Thomases – are pretty much over,” Fangio said. Notably, Thomas was Gil Brandt’s No. 2 linebacker of all time, behind only LT.

What made the Brandt rankings and the Bears situation an interesting juxtaposition is that virtually the only one of the top 15 or so linebackers topped 250 pounds. (Also notable that it was Thomas, 255, suggesting that the late Kansas City edge terror would have more than fit in the current NFL).

The Bears, who this offseason moved on from Pernell McPhee (270 pounds) and DE/LB Willie Young (258), currently have as their top edge rushers Sam Acho (260 pounds), Leonard Floyd (251), Aaron Lynch (270) and rookie Kylie Fitts (260). Ostensibly, not a group of sack threats because of size. But they are in absolute step with where the NFL is getting its sacks now, particularly Floyd, straight out of the Hendricks model, just 30 pounds bigger.

Of the top 10 linebackers for sacks in 2017, only San Diego’s Melvin Ingram (247) is smaller than 250. Where once the Hendrickses (225), Kevin Greenes (240), Charles Haleys (245) and Lawrence Taylor (237) once ruled, giants now dominate.

Where pure speed was once the sine qua non on the outside, now not so much.

“We talk about being able to win three ways as a rusher,” said Bears outside linebackers coach Brandon Staley. “Winning with speed, winning with power or winning with ‘hands.’

“When you can win on the edge with power, that’s gives you a huge advantage in the run game and the pass game. What’s really hard for tackles is having to sit in there on a guy that’s really powerful.”

The Bears have crusaded and schemed to add bulk to Floyd, with some success. Acho and Lynch already have it, with Lynch possessed of a sack history that was the reason for the Bears’ pursuit of him.

“Aaron is one of these guys who’s become a ‘big’ man,” Staley said. Lynch played in college at 242. “The blessing we have with Aaron is that he can run; when he came out, was running 4.68, with really good change of direction. So he’s got an extremely good takeoff for a man that size.

“We really feel like he brings a dimension to our team that we’re excited about. He’s a guy that can [win] all three [ways: power, speed, hands].

“A guy like Leonard can beat you outside, he can run, can beat you with hands, and then because he has so much speed, his power is going to come [off that speed]. And he’s only 25 years old, a guy with a lot in his body. He’s primed to have a really good run here in Chicago.”