Lovie Smith may no longer be the Head Coach of the Chicago Bears, but its hard to wish ill upon the man. Stoic and even-keeled, Smith didn't bring the Lombardi trophy back to Chicago, but he did get the Bears to the promise land in 2006. He took a franchise that had two playoff appearances in the previous twelve seasons to three playoff seasons out of nine. When the Bears missed the postseason, they at least got close, only recording one sub-seven win season under Lovie.
And while you may question the man's ability to execute an effective offense, or his challenge-flag acumen, or his absurdest tendency to burn timeouts on first quarter first down plays, two things were clear about Lovie: Bears players loved playing for him, and the man could coach up a defense. Upon his firing, players effused their Lovie Love, with Devin Hester going so far as to consider retirement (haven't heard any new news about it, so I assume Hester is still carrying around his papers). Urlacher's reaction was a mixture of ethereal emotions and business-like processing:
How could you do it to this guy? I don't want to play for another head coach.
We still won 10 games and had a chance to get in... Lovie is a great coach and I'm sure he'll get hired pretty quick. No one could do with this team what he's done the last nine years.
I'm a Bear, and I want to be here. We're all mad right now.
Urlacher joined the Bears in the first round of the 2000 draft, and immediately became a starter for the Dick Jauron and Greg Blatche-led Bears' defense. In his twelve years in Chicago, he's totaled eight Pro Bowl appearances and four First Team All-Pro selections. Injuries and age slowed Urlacher this season, but he shouldn't be regarded as having had an injury-plagued career. He's appeared in all sixteen regular season games in ten of twelve seasons, and even at the age of 34, he still has something left in the tank for next year.
But Urlacher's status as a free agent, coupled with Lovie Smith's firing, call into question what will happen with Urlacher next season. Even if Urlacher and Emery want him back in Chicago, he has to fit the new scheme of our
soon eventually-to-be named Head Coach, agree to a reasonable new contract, and prove he's a better player right now in the middle than Nick Roach or whomever else the Bears may entertain at the coveted Mike position. That's a lot of factors that have to fall into place for a Brian Urlacher return, and while I'd love to see Urlacher return in navy blue and burnt orange, and eventually retire, that's just not how things go in the modern-day NFL.
The biggest impediment to a return of #54 to Chicago next year, however, is Lovie Smith. Say the Bears' new coach keeps the defense in similar fashion (maybe a more attacking 4-3 defense) where Urlacher skills, albeit diminished, are still useful and he can be productive. If Emery and Urlacher get close on a contract, Brian may have to choose between the franchise he knows versus the coach he knows.
Whomever the new head coach is, Urlacher won't have the kind of relationship with him that he had with Lovie. The Tampa-2 defense optimizes his skills and is a defense Urlacher has spent the majority of his career in. He owns that defense, running it like a quarterback runs an offense, and can operate within the confines of the Tampa-2 system with nary a hesitation or second thought. Learning a new defense at the tail end of his career is not something Urlacher would love to deal with, but it wouldn't prevent him from coming back to the Bears if all the other factors (money, scheme, playing time) fell into place.
But if Lovie Smith is coaching somewhere next year and running his tried and true Tampa-2 defense, what better player to help implement that defense than the physical embodiment of that scheme? Lovie would be ecstatic to have a veteran like Brian running his defense, helping other players learn the scheme and adapt to its nuances. Sure, he's not a spring chicken anymore, but he can still play at least in a part time role, and Urlacher would practically serve as an on-field coach in practices and games for Lovie. Wouldn't the enticement of playing for a coach you love, in a scheme that is perfect for you, pull you away from a franchise that has already let you become a free agent?
Lovie Smith has already had some serious interest for head coaching jobs. He was considered for the Buffalo job before the Bills stayed in-state and tabbed Syracuse Head Coach Doug Marrone (and if you think Lovie was average, Marrone was 25-25 at Syracuse). The Philadelphia Eagles will interview him on Thursday for their head coaching gig, while the San Diego Chargers are also interested in Lovie, but want to fill their vacant General Manager position before hiring a coach. And while he hasn't been contacted yet about the position, some Clevelanders are pining for their new ownership to at least bring Lovie in for an interview.
And even if Lovie misses out on a head coaching job, he's still going to be a strong candidate for any open defensive coordinator positions, or to join any newly-hired coaching staffs (like Buffalo, where he would replace... Dave Wannstedt). Lovie's Tampa-2 isn't as prevalent in the league now that more teams have gone to 3-4 defensive schemes, but there is still a place for a coach that can get the kind of production out of a defense that Lovie has. Regardless of the job, if Lovie's on a staff, he's going to want Brian Urlacher to join him.
Personally, I'd love to see Urlacher return to Chicago next year and retire as a Bear. There are a lot of factors at play to determine whether or not a return of #54 is going to happen, but one things for sure, if Lovie is coaching next year, expect his first post-hire phone call to be to his favorite bald-headed middle linebacker.