We had a fantastic story a day ago from Just Dave about Brian Urlacher, and his status as one of the all-time greats, not only for the Chicago Bears, but for the league as a whole. I'm not going to dispute Urlacher's skill as a player, his freakish physical prowess, his prototypical Cover 2 MLB skill set, or anything along those lines. However, I am going to dispute his ability to enter the NFL Hall of Fame if he doesn't win a ring during his career. Brian Urlacher may be a man amongst men and one of the corner stones of this franchise for the past decade, but neither of these are going to gain him entry into the Hall without paying for admission. Follow me below the jump where we'll look at why this All-Pro player may end up falling short.
Now whenever the current generation of linebackers are discussed one guy is always mentioned as a stone cold lock for the Hall of Fame, and that's Ray Lewis. It's pretty much guaranteed that Lewis will gain entrance on his first ballot, and will go down as the name amongst names when linebackers of the mid-90's-00's are talked about. The question then is: what makes Lewis and Urlacher different? What makes Lewis a guaranteed first ballot guy, and Urlacher a possible never will be? That answer all comes down to the specifics of each situation, and of the teams they played for.
1. Ray Lewis played for a better defense than Brian Urlacher has.
Our Chicago Bears are just that, our Chicago Bears. It's because of this feeling of ownership that we rightly or wrongly often give too much credit where credit is undue, or allow the sands of time to embellish a bit too much. The highlights become brighter, the lowlights are all but forgotten, and we're left more often than not with an idyllic look at who players were, and who they weren't.
Charles Tillman is a ball-hawk after the catch, and is an acceptable Cover 2 CB, however he'd struggle in a lot of his years to be considered a top 10 overall CB in the league. Nathan Vasher was the very definition of a flash in the pan, and due to injuries, loss of confidence, and quite frankly a low ceiling as far as talent goes, his prowess was over-exaggerated and over before it started. Mike Brown compares fairly well to Darren Sharper, but he falls just short of being known as one of the best through the league, mostly because of his nagging injury concerns that eventually ended his stay in Chicago. The rest of the motley crew is a lot of the same, flashes of brilliance from guys like Tommie Harris, or the player's best play coming after they left the team, like in the case of Chris Harris. Meanwhile, the Ravens had respected names like Chris McAlister, Terrell Suggs, Ed Reed, and even Rod Woodson there for a few years in his twilight.
The only player that can be called a legitimate partner in crime for Urlacher is Lance Briggs. This would be perfect if the rest of the defense had been just a small bit better. Briggs could have readily played the Bart Scott role to Urlacher's Lewis, but too often the defense as a whole was good, but not great. It rarely ever got that feeling of being the impenetrable wall that the Ravens defense had, that aura of greatness. It was much too often seen for what it was, a bend but don't break system that bent a whole lot during Urlachers' prime.
Meanwhile, while the Bears were living off the backs of their defense just as much as the Ravens were, the Ravens had three more post-season appearances to show for it. They also rarely had those defensive failings and those nights where the aura was broken and the defense looked beatable. It almost always was easily seen as the pitiful offense of the Ravens as the problem, so no blame was ever laid upon Lewis' shoulders and he never really developed the tarnish that Urlacher has accumulated over the years.
2. Ray Lewis played for a team that has a lack of comparable players.
There is no Mike Singletary to compare Ray Lewis to for the Baltimore Ravens. There isn't a Dick Butkus to contrast against as not only a fellow linebacker, but a linebacker for the same team he plays for. They didn't wear the same colors, and as such aren't compared against each other under such harsh lights. Due to the fact that Brian plays for a team that has had some of the best linebackers for the last 50 years, every nuance of his game is put under much greater scrutiny. It the eyes of Hall voters there almost always seems to be a large amount of compare and contrast. Were you the best player on your team? Were you the best player in the league? Were you the best LB your team has seen? What is your place in your team's history? All of these seem to play a large role in how the voters view you as a player, as seen glaringly by the large number of players both for the Bears and for other teams that have had dominating defenses such as the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain, or the Denver Broncos' Orange Crush. Ask fans of both teams and they'll tell you there are guys to this day that should without a doubt be in a Hall for what they meant to their respective defenses, but more often than not, only the best few players from such marquee groups find their way into the Hall.
Ray Lewis doesn't have this problem in the slightest, as he is quite literally the alpha and the omega when it comes to the Baltimore Ravens. The team has only existed since 1996, so not only is there not a comparable player at the position, there isn't a comparable name in the entire history of the franchise. It's also this focus that makes his hardware that much more impressive on a resume, because as of right now and likely for the foreseeable future he can lay claim to basically being responsible for the Ravens' only Super Bowl win. That brings us to our last point.
3. Ray Lewis has a ring and Brian Urlacher does not.
It doesn't really get any simpler than that folks. Sure, their stats compare favorably. Sure, if Urlacher plays at a decent level for another four years he should meet or surpass almost all of Lewis' stats. It still doesn't matter. Lewis will have one thing held over Urlacher's head that has more weight than depleted uranium and that's the hardware on his hand. Without that ring Urlacher will be remembered by the majority of the league as the best player on a defense that never seemed to get it done. He'll continue to get those claims of being overrated, and not living up to the hype that surrounds him. He'll continue to be seen as a great player, and a favorite of all the Bears faithful, but not the legendary figure around the league that necessitates immediate enshrinement in the Hall. As much as this test means, it's a double-edged sword though, and one he may be able to use to his advantage..
If Urlacher can pull down a ring or two in the next few years, he'll take his rightful place in the Hall. If not, he'll have to settle for his well earned place in our hearts.