The people will tell you that the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters will not select two middle linebackers to reach the Hall on the 1st ballot in the same season, and based strictly on history, the people aren’t wrong. It’s never happened at linebacker and happens rarely at other positions.
And by “rarely,” I mean twice actually and six times liberally. QBs Troy Aikman and Warren Moon were 1st balloters in 2006, following fellow field generals Dan Marino and Steve Young in 2005.
Additionally, players at offensive line (Larry Allen and Johnathan Ogden in 2013, Jim Langer and Gene Upshaw in 1987), defensive line (Deacon Jones and Bob Lilly in 1980), and running back (Ollie Matson at halfback and Jim Brown at fullback in 1972) have all made it in together on the 1st ballot.
So no, it’s never happened at linebacker. But it’s almost happened at linebacker four times. In fact, eight NFL linebackers have reached the Hall of Fame on the 1st ballot, and each one was paired with another very close together:
- Ray Nitschke, 1978, and Dick Butkus, 1979
- Jack Ham, 1988, and Jack Lambert, 1990
- Mike Singletary, 1998, and Lawrence Taylor, 1999
- Derrick Brooks, 2014, and Junior Seau, 2015
Which brings us to Brian Urlacher and Ray Lewis.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame (HOF) announced 27 semifinalists Tuesday for its Class of 2018, and among the two were the longtime middle linebacker competitors Urlacher and Lewis.
- In January, this list of 27 will be pared down to the 15 finalists
- On “Selection Saturday,” the day before Super Bowl LII, the HOF committee will reduce the list from 15 to 10, and then from 10 to 5, and finally vote on each of the five players as either a “yes” or a “no.”
- To reach the Hall of Fame, each person in the final group of five must receive at least 80% of the votes from the 48-person selection committee.
- The HOF inductees will be announced during the NFL Honors show, Feb. 3, 2018, the night before the Super Bowl.
The full list of semifinalists is here, but for the purposes of Brian Urlacher’s candidacy and his chances of reaching the Hall in 2018, I think there are only seven guys who can threaten Urlacher this year. From least threatening to most:
Tackles Tony Boselli and Joe Jacoby, coach Don Coryell, guard Alan Faneca, wide receivers Randy Moss and Terrell Owens, and linebacker Ray Lewis.
Lewis is a lock for the 1st ballot — he is in a small circle of players with an unarguable claim to the GOAT middle linebacker crown, with the aforementioned Nitschke, Butkus, Lambert, Mike Singletary, and possibly Willie Lanier.
Therefore, there are two questions that voters will consider to determine whether Urlacher gets in this year, or waits until 2019:
- Can two linebackers go in together?
- Other than Lewis, are there four other candidates with better credentials than Urlacher?
I’ll break down question #2 another time, so let’s look at question #1 right now.
As long as voters don’t take an arbitrary stance on question #1 and grant the situational flexibility to Lewis/Urlacher that they did to Moon/Aikman and Marino/Young, I think we’ll see that two linebackers absolutely can go in together, and that Urlacher warrants inclusion with Lewis, despite Lewis having an overall edge on credentials.
Here is how I break them down.
I’ll keep this simple and break it down like this:
- Tackling: Lewis
- Speed: Urlacher (more on this in a moment)
- Strength: Lewis
- Hands: Urlacher
- Coverage: Urlacher
- Leadership: equal
- Longevity: Lewis
- Durability: Lewis
I don’t think there was anything that one guy could do that the other could not. While Lewis was a renown tackling machine, Urlacher did serious numbers too. And while Urlacher was known for his speed, he ran a 4.57 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine compared to Lewis’s 4.58.
Both men flourished in multiple systems. Lewis is in the running for the GOAT MLB title despite playing the final 11 years of his career in a 3-4. Urlacher was an All Pro in both Greg Blache’s defense, where he was a great pass rusher, and Lovie Smith’s Tampa-2, where he was great dropping into coverage.
Though Urlacher and Lewis both retired after the 2012 season, Lewis’s NFL career began in 1996, four years before Brian’s. They each had multiple seasons limited by injuries, but Urlacher lost nearly all of 2009 when he broke his wrist in the season opener.
Therefore, with a 228-182 games played edge to Lewis, counting stats run mostly in his favor, too:
Ray leads unless noted:— Jack M Silverstein (@readjack) September 8, 2017
D-TD: Lak 4-3
Lewis was always a better tackler than Urlacher, so the huge difference there is no surprise. What is truly impressive about Urlacher’s game is the multitude of ways he affected offenses. Urlacher and Lewis nabbed the same number of career sacks, despite the vast difference in games played, and Urlacher was more of a threat in the passing game, with 22 interceptions and 85 passes defensed (not listed above) compared to 31 and 81 for Lewis.
Slight edge: Lewis
Starting in 2001, Urlacher and Lewis seemed to battle every year for the mantle of Best Middle Linebacker Alive, even after the Ravens switched to a 3-4. This played out in the All Pro voting, where being in different conferences no longer mattered.
Here’s what the All Pro voters thought of them, starting in Urlacher’s rookie year:
The All Pro votes map pretty well to their Pro Bowl selections.
- Lewis: 1997-2001, 2003-2004, 2006-2011
- Urlacher: 2000-2003, 2005-2006, 2010-2011
Both Urlacher and Lewis won Defensive Player of the Year, Lewis in 2000 and 2003, Urlacher in 2005. And while Lewis was always the standard bearer at middle linebacker, Urlacher more than anyone else was in the discussion as his closest competitor. No other MLB won DPOY, for instance.
Lastly of course, there are rings. That’s a tough one: 2-0 for Lewis, and 2-1 on Super Bowl appearances.
But it’s a team sport. I look at it like this:
Lewis balled out in Super Bowl XXXV and didn’t do much in XLVII. Urlacher was decent but not great in Super Bowl XL.
On the other hand, Lewis’s Ravens played Kerry Collins and a good but still young Colin Kaepernick. Urlacher’s Bears played peak Peyton Manning (albeit not his best game).
I have to give the edge to Lewis, but let’s not act like rings is the best indicator of individual talent.
Slight edge: Lewis
Influence on the future
To me, this one is easy. Ray Lewis may have had a better career (and I think that is heavily influenced by longevity and team success), but Urlacher’s play was revolutionary.
Lewis was great in the Dick Butkus or Ray Nitschke mold. Urlacher was a new mold. He changed the idea of what a middle linebacker could be. You hear a lot today about hybrid players on defense, guys who oscillate between outside linebacker and defensive end, or safety and linebacker. SB Nation, The Ringer, and CBS all wrote about the hybrid concept last year.
Urlacher, of course, came out of New Mexico as a hybrid safety-linebacker. The team even invented a term for him: the Lobo-Back, named after the team’s mascot and created to describe Urlacher’s unique skillset and position on the field.
He started his Bears career at OLB, moved to MLB early in his rookie year, and then played in multiple systems to equal acclaim. If he started his career today, his versatility would be seen as a standard part of his package, not a curiosity.
To match him, of course, you need his skillset. But I think Urlacher’s speed, all-around ball skills, and ability to both rush the passer and drop into coverage made him a new prototype, whether he gets credit for it or not.
Perception of each one’s career
So, what happened to Urlacher after 2006? When you look at his accolades, it kind of looks like he fell off the table, yes?
Or should I say — “lost a step”?
That was the language that clung unfairly to #54, and I think I know why.
Part of Urlacher’s brand was his blazing speed at the position. Yes, his 40 time was barely faster than Lewis’s, but he was recognized for his field speed, most famously in his duels with Michael Vick.
The problem is that as his career went on and he started to lose some speed, the perception was that he was losing his talent as well. Contrast that with Lewis, who was known as “strong” rather than “fast” and “rugged” rather than “athletic,” so when Lewis’s natural talent declined, a “vintage Ray Lewis” play was wrapping someone up on a tackle. When Urlacher did the same thing, announcers talked about how he’d lost a step.
The other problem was that I think at some level, fans and especially media view speed at certain positions as a gimmick. Guys who are faster than their position — Vick, Urlacher, Greg Olsen, Deion Sanders — are viewed with skepticism, as if they are somehow lesser football players because their game is predicated on speed as opposed to power, regardless of their strength and craft, and regardless of how their speed is a differentiator the same as any elite skill.
So the diss on Urlacher was always that he was “just fast.” As a result, he got knocked compared to middle linebackers like Lewis, Zach Thomas, Jeremiah Trotter, Al Wilson, or Keith Brooking, guys who were deemed more of the Butkus/Nitschke/Lambert mold.
The other problem with perception around Urlacher was that his personal accolades seemed more tied to his team’s success than Lewis’s. Lewis was a Pro Bowler and All Pro before the Ravens were a playoff team, but Urlacher’s explosion in his 2nd year came with the team’s surprise 13-3 record. He was a Pro Bowler again in 2002 and 2003, and missed in 2004 due to injury.
After that, his only three All Pro seasons were ones in which the Bears reached the playoffs: 2005, 2006, 2010. In 2007, 2008, and 2011, Urlacher was still one of the position’s best, and in 2012 he produced despite fighting through injuries that ultimately ended his season and sent him to retirement.
Seriously, look at this:
- Season A: 16 games, 97 tackles, 0 INT, 5 PD, 1 FF, 0 FR, 0 TD
- Season B: 16 games, 92 tackles, 5 INT, 12 PD, 0 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD
Season A? 2005 DPOY.
Season B? 2007 — no All Pro, no Pro Bowl.
The Bears dipped that year with a famous Super Bowl hangover, but Urlacher was the same old Urlacher. He just wasn’t respected as much.
Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame is often as much about perception as it is production. If voters decide that they for some reason can’t put two MLBs in the same year on the 1st ballot, then Urlacher will have to wait. And no, it’s not a knock on Urlacher to say that Lewis had the greater career — even Urlacher said so.
But if voters realize that Urlacher was only a shade behind a guy who might just be the greatest ever at their position, he’ll be donning the gold jacket in 2018.
I think he should be. Here’s hoping I’m not alone.