Thursday night, I did another one of my sparkling podcast appearances with Making Sense With Mike And Tom (Protip: Never believe someone's self-analysis of their performance in a public interview or other appearance). You can listen to our conversation right here (I came on at the half-way point and we rambled for about 25 minutes).
The day before, of course, Brian Urlacher officially announced his retirement from the NFL.
We spoke for about the first half of our conversation on discussing Urlacher and how the team built to move on from one of the best linebackers ever, and then moved into all the changes this offseason's presented to the Bears, but I thought I'd share my thoughts on Urlacher with you guys. As I primarily post on the weekends, I'm typically "late to the party" on some of these topics, but it's been four days since his retirement and I should get my thoughts here too.
Urlacher's a Hall of Famer. He might get squeezed out on the first ballot, but he will get in.
We're talking about a linebacker that succeeded, and succeeded extremely well, in two eras of football combined into one. He had success early in his career (Defensive Rookie of the Year; four consecutive Pro Bowls and two All-Pro nominations in his first four seasons). He succeeded at the height of his career (All-Pro nominations in 2005 and 2006 with two extremely good defenses, Super Bowl appearance; 2005 Defensive Player of the Year). Late in his career he added another couple Pro Bowl appearances. 8 Pro Bowls, 4 All-Pros.
His final numbers over 13 seasons (essentially 12, since 2009 was a complete washout) are impressive. And those are the plays he made. Because if a player's in coverage, and doing their job, the play can't go in his direction.
His stats won't match up entirely to Ray Lewis. That's fine; Lewis played four more seasons, in multiple defenses, with the best numbers of his era, but Urlacher's a close second (and matched him in sacks, believe it or not - not bad for a player who couldn't shed blocks, right, Dhani Jones?). They can both be worthy.
Mike Freeman wrote about how Urlacher's the last of a dying breed - the brutal linebacker. Now, brutal linebacking is something Bears fans have gotten used to over their history. But the game is changing - and has changed. I don't agree with Freeman's assertion that a middle linebacker had to be like Dick Butkus and throw players into the bench (and he doesn't exactly go into detail about how mean a linebacker had to be), but the position always had to make its impact felt.
Urlacher made his impact felt. Played fast, hit hard, had to be where he had to be, made sure others did the same, made plays on the ball and the player.
We also talked about how it's unfair to compare the players coming after him to him. Urlacher's athleticism was uncanny. Khaseem Greene, Jonathan Bostic and DJ Williams are athletic, but none to the tune of Urlacher in his prime. And they're not replacing Urlacher in his prime - they're replacing Urlacher with a bad leg. None of them may have eight years of playing under Lovie Smith to rely on, but knowledge can be picked up.
Urlacher will be a Hall of Famer, and the Bears will be able to move on from a Hall of Fame linebacker just fine.
But that's from a football perspective. From a personal perspective, this year's different.
I wasn't really a big sports fan, and certainly not much of a football fan (at least that I can remember), until high school (my brother played little league, and I was/am a Cubs fan, but that's another story for another time). In fact, I owned two jerseys before I owned my first Bears jersey - a Brett Favre jersey and a Daunte Culpepper jersey. Packers and Vikings. Blasphemy, I know.
In 2001, I was writing for our local "teen" "newspaper" (it was a Friday insert of the local newspaper where every high school in the area had a couple pages for their writers to add stories). Everyone knows what happened that season - the Bears went 13-3 behind a pair of Mike Brown... well, I hesitate to call them "miracles" but extremely unlikely endings in the Bears' favor. Behind those wins, I wrote an article for that insert recapping the Bears' great season. I'll never forget that article, not because it actually made the front page of the insert (and took up nearly the remainder of our school's allotted space), but because the editor at the paper wrote "Bears Dominate NLFL Football" as the headline.
But rereading the recaps of those games, it was almost like a light clicked on - that team changed me. I was hooked. I'd been kind of a curious fan before, but this was different.
And the next jersey I got was Brian Urlacher's.
It's a throwback now, and that makes me a little sad. Players retire, and in football their careers are a lot shorter than in other sports (paging Jamie Moyer, paging Jamie Moyer), but when a player identifies so much with a franchise that you're a fan of, like Sammy Sosa with the Cubs pre-2004, or Frank Thomas with the Sox, or Michael Jordan with the Bulls (the first, and the second time), it's depressing. In your head you know the player can't play forever and the team may even be better when they move on, but in your heart you kind of wish that player would play forever. Especially a player from that era when you first woke up to becoming a fan of that team. You don't know anything else aside from that player on that team.
We've seen the team without Urlacher before - 2009. That was just an injury though, one that took him out the whole year. But this is different. This time, he's really gone, and he isn't coming back.
So, I'll admit, I'm a little sad Urlacher's no longer an active player. But the team moves on. The team's added players to that position like they do every year. And the players might play better than Urlacher would have been able to give them.
But Urlacher's Bears brought me completely on board, and now the two part ways - one to the path to the Super Bowl, and one to the Hall of Fame.