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The Championship Belt Series - Part 5

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The conclusion of our series that awards the best Chicago Bears player each year throughout the 100 year history

Welcome to the conclusion of the Championship Belt Series on WCG! If you missed the intro, please go back and read Part 1. The concept and “rules” are all explained up top, followed by the first 7 championship belt bouts. Part 2 takes us through the dynasty of the 1940’s all the way up to Bill George and the birth of the Middle Linebacker. Part 3 starts with a new belt holder around the time George Halas lifted the actual championship trophy for the last time and takes us through the most famous Bears team. Part 4 works through the Super Bowl hangover that lasted through the end of the century. Finally, the last piece of the puzzle starts with the turn of the century and finishes with the modern team. Thank you to everyone who has been along for the ride!

Part 5 – My Modern Romance

Brian Urlacher 2000-2006

Shootout at Staley’s Corral
Jeff Berckes

The 9th overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft took over for an injured Barry Minter in the 3rd week of his rookie season and never looked back. The perfect modern linebacker transcended scheme as he put together back to back 1st Team All Pro seasons for two completely different defensive systems. For a franchise thirsty for a star, walking through the desert for the last five seasons, Urlacher’s play was a welcome oasis. His play took the league by storm and he easily won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award and his first of 8 Pro Bowls. Urlacher took a step up in 2001, earning First Team All Pro for Dick Jauron’s defense behind the giant beefeaters Ted Washington and Keith Traylor. After Chicago swapped out Jauron for Lovie Smith, Urlacher shifted schemes and reinvented the MLB position, again earning back to back First Team All Pro honors including the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year. In 2006, Urlacher was the best player on the Super Bowl XLI team.

A Safety in college, Urlacher was gifted in coverage, snaring 22 interceptions in addition to 90 passes defensed. Urlacher could also make a living in the opponent’s backfield, racking up 41.5 sacks and a remarkable 138 tackles for loss. After the face of the franchise was named to the 2000’s All-Decade Team, Urlacher entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2018.

Walk up Music: Seven Nation Army, White Stripes. “I’m gonna fight ‘em all / A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” Released in 2003, this song has one of the most identifiable opening notes and burns into your brain like Urlacher’s rookie campaign. Jack White is incredibly creative and has made compelling music in multiple different bands (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather), much like Urlacher’s scheme flexibility.

Top Challenger: Olin Kreutz famously punched teammate Fred Miller, breaking his jaw, in an altercation off the field. He was even fiercer on the field. Kreutz started all but 1 game between 2001 and 2010 for the Bears, playing at a borderline Hall of Fame level and giving the Bears offensive line a reputation for toughness and attitude. Kreutz was one of the few interior offensive linemen to have mass market appeal to Bears fans and earned six straight Pro Bowl berths during this timeframe and inclusion on Pro Football Hall of Fame’s All 2000’s team. Although I’d put my money on him in a real life fight, Kruetz will have to settle for runner up status during Urlacher’s reign.

*Note: We have to at least mention Mike Brown, the instinctive Safety who, if not for an unfortunate series of injuries, may have been the top challenger to Urlacher. His back to back walk-off pick sixes will forever hold a special place in Bears history.

Devin Hester 2007

The Chi-Chi Slide
Jeff Berckes

Down goes Urlacher! This may be one of the most controversial upsets in the Championship Belt series as Urlacher was a heavy favorite, but Hester is the greatest return man in the history of the NFL and in 2007, he was at the peak of his powers. The Windy City Flyer was simply ridiculous, bursting onto the scene with 12 return TDs in his first two seasons (2006-2007) including the opening kickoff of Super Bowl XLI. Urlacher missed the Pro Bowl in 2007, arguably a snub, but Hester clocked in with his second straight First Team All Pro honor. Hester never reached the lofty heights as a WR1 that some hoped for him, but in 2007, he was still a revelation in the return game and there was some belief that he could continue racking up highlight returns at that unbelievable pace. Hester’s NFL records include the most punt return TDs in history (14) and the most combined return TDs in history (20). The highlights are remarkable and the hidden, unmeasurable yardage of field position gained by his very presence gave the Bears an advantage unlike any player before or since.

Walk up Music: Crank That, Soulja Boy. “Watch me crank it, watch me roll / Watch me crank dat, Soulja Boy / Then Superman dat oh.” Released in 2007, Hester convinced the Soldier Field sound person to play this song as he prepped for receiving the kick off, doing the dance in the end zone. He might be the only person on this list who literally had walk up music during his playing career.

Top Challenger: Tommie Harris had his third of three straight Pro Bowl campaigns in 2007 and was an absolute force as Lovie’s “3-technique” defensive tackle. With one of the fastest first steps in football, Harris was able to pester quarterbacks and running backs behind the line of scrimmage. 2007 was his most productive year with 8 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, and two forced fumbles. Unfortunately for Harris, knee injuries limited his explosiveness, cutting short an otherwise promising career.

Lance Briggs 2008-2009

Bear Down Stare Down
Jeff Berckes

The Devin Hester return magic starts to shrivel in 2008 and there was a real sense that the wide receiver thing maybe wasn’t going to pan out quite like everyone hoped (for the record, I would love to replay his career with Lovie sticking with the initial plan of making him a corner). The belt was really and truly up for grabs and my first instinct was to look back to Urlacher. The problem for Urlacher is that his play in 2008 was one of the least productive years in his career and he missed basically all of 2009 with a broken wrist.

That opens up a competition between some players that have lurked in Urlacher’s shadow, but none more deserving than Briggs. The perfect weak-side or “Will” backer in Lovie’s scheme, Briggs was an ironman over his first 10 years. 2008-2009 were the 4th and 5th of 7 straight Pro Bowls and the absolute peak of his career. He led the team in tackles over that time frame and excelled in coverage. Over his career, Briggs racked up a ridiculous 97 tackles for loss, 84 pass defenses, 16 interceptions and 6 defensive touchdowns.

Walk up Music: Come out and Play, The Offspring. “Hey - man you talkin’ back to me? / Take him out / You gotta keep ‘em separated.” I really wanted to give Briggs Sammy Hagar’s I Can’t Drive 55 as a cheap joke when he crashed his Lambo and fled the scene – but I’m not going to do that. The Offspring may be a forgotten 90’s band, but this song has a great intro and a better hook.

Top Challenger: Charles Tillman had 10 forced fumbles over this two year span and took back 2 of his 5 interceptions for scores. Tillman failed to earn recognition early in his career and it’s one of the single most frustrating slights in Bears history. Tillman absolutely should have been stacking Pro Bowl honors as early as 2005, but by 2008 he had established himself as a new brand of corner with his patented Peanut Punch forcing 44 fumbles in his career.

Julius Peppers 2010

Rage in the Cage
Jeff Berckes

The defense in 2009 wasn’t particularly good, but with Urlacher’s return and the signing of Julius Peppers, the 2010 defense started a run of three straight top 5 finishes. Julius Peppers was the biggest Free Agent acquisition in team history and earned his third 1st Team All-Pro honor in 2010. The signing came with such fanfare that it seemed impossible that he could live up to lofty expectations, but he did exactly that by dominating early in his Bears career. On a defense full of elite talent, Peppers stole the show and grabs the belt from Briggs.

Walk up Music: Boom Boom Pow, Black Eyed Peas. “I’m a beast when you turn me on / Into the future cybertron / Harder, faster, better, stronger.” Before you roll your eyes, the BEP were the biggest thing going in 2010, culminating in playing the Super Bowl in February, 2011. Say what you will of their demise, but this is still a pretty cool song with some decent, clean trash-talking lyrics.

Top Challenger: Urlacher’s return from injury and the injection of talent with the Peppers signing seemed to rejuvenate the linebacker. Urlacher made his 7th of 8 Pro Bowls in 2010 and made a serious bid to reclaim the belt. It’s worth noting that 2010 is probably what helped Urlacher earn 1st ballot Hall of Fame status, but it’s not enough to take down another all-timer in Peppers during his peak.

Charles Tillman 2011-2012

The Great Debate
Jeff Berckes

I love this run from Tillman. Tillman picks off 6 passes over these two seasons, returning 5 of them for scores. Five out of six! The real story though is the 2012 season where Tillman forces 10 fumbles, tying a single season league record. He changed the way the position is played and he finally got his due with national recognition during this two year run with two Pro Bowls and a 1st Team All Pro. Tillman would go on to win the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award the following season. In a crowded side of the field with Urlacher, Peppers, and Briggs all playing at a high level, it was Tillman who was the biggest star during the last great ride of the Lovie Smith era.

Walk up Music: Smooth Criminal, Alien Ant Farm. “You’ve been hit by / You’ve been struck by / A smooth criminal.” A remake of the Michael Jackson song, Alien Ant Farm’s version hits a little harder and with 44 forced fumbles and 38 interceptions, Tillman was a master thief. In his post career, Tillman has pursued a life of law enforcement and is now an FBI agent. Easy to see why he’s a fan favorite.

Top Challenger: Brandon Marshall’s first season in Chicago set franchise marks in catches (118) and yards (1,508) that propelled him to a First Team All Pro selection. As good as Marshall was, Tillman’s year was better and he gets the benefit of the homegrown talent rule. Still, Marshall was an absolute stud his first year in Chicago and gave quarterback Jay Cutler a legitimate threat in the passing game.

Matt Forte 2013-2014

Bear Down Throw Down
Jeff Berckes

Normally, a 10-6 record earns a playoff berth, but the 2012 Bears were tough luck losers and General Manager Phil Emery used that opportunity to remove Lovie Smith and install the disaster that was Marc Trestman. While the defense crumbled to dust under Mel Tucker, the offense did get a shot in the arm for the 2013 season. The biggest beneficiary was probably Forte, who was utilized more in the passing game than ever. His 2013 season saw a remarkable 1,933 yards from scrimmage and with Tillman suffering back to back season ending injuries, Forte seizes the belt. In 2014, Forte set a record with 102 receptions for a running back. The Tulane product quietly shouldered the offensive load during his tenure in Chicago and was a constant source of hope when the offense was on the field. Forte leads the pack in the second tier of Chicago running backs behind the Hall of Famers Walter Payton and Gale Sayers. In fact, Forte ranks second in rushing yards and receptions behind only Payton in team history.

Walk up Music: Happy, Pharrell. “Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth / Because I’m happy.” Released in 2013, Happy was everywhere and Pharrell rivaled Bruno Mars as the impossibly cool guy. Like Forte, Pharrell is a hard worker who never seemed to care much about the spotlight and, like this song, Forte highlights make my happy.

Top Challenger: Alshon Jeffery may have left more than a few Bears fans with a bad taste in their mouths, but the former 2nd rounder was dynamic when on the field. Alshon’s 1,421 yards in 2013 ranks 2nd in team history and his 4,549 career receiving yards in Chicago ranks 3rd – pretty impressive for a player with only 63 games in navy and orange.

Kyle Long 2015

A Study in Navy & Orange
Jeff Berckes

Forte’s productivity dropped in 2015 as he missed a few games and moved on to New York the next offseason. The rule of thumb with running backs is that they hit the wall at 30, and 2015 was Forte’s age 30 season. That opened up the belt for the taking and an unlikely champion emerged.

It’s really hard for an offensive lineman to win the belt in the modern era, but Kyle’s consistency wins the day. After a promising first two seasons at Guard that saw two Pro Bowl honors, Long kicked outside and played Right Tackle at a high enough level to earn a third straight Pro Bowl honor. The degree of difficulty in making that switch just before camp can’t be understated. A vocal leader, Long captured the hearts and minds of Bears fans as a 1st rounder made good, and his fiery on-field personality combined with his gritty determination to recover from injuries in 2016 and beyond solidify his status as a pure BA. The yards per carry splits with and without Kyle in the lineup reveal a huge impact player that many fans are unable to appreciate. In 2015, he was the only Pro Bowler and playing with a seemingly endless string of high-end seasons ahead of him. It’s near impossible for the team to select an offensive lineman as their favored jersey offering, but the Bears did just that in 2015, making Kyle the face of the franchise in the moment.

Walk up Music: Come with me Now, KONGOS. “Woah come with me now / I’m gonna take you down / Woah come with me now / I’m gonna show you how.” Kyle seems like a really cool dude and for some reason I think he’d appreciate a song that starts off with an accordion. The hook sounds like something a pulling guard would say to a running back – come with me know, I’ll show you the way to the end zone.

Top Challenger: Jay Cutler’s last healthy season in Chicago was arguably his best in a Bears uniform. Cutler’s 21:11 TD to interception ratio was the best of his career and he led 4 game winning drives in an otherwise lost season. At this point in his Bears career, Cutty is full-on heel and a significant percentage of fans were ready to run him out of town, but this was the year he put a lot of good things together.

Akiem Hicks 2016-2017

Soldier Field Slugfest
Jeff Berckes

Unfortunately for Kyle, injuries started to impact his availability in 2016 and while an injury doesn’t preclude you from keeping the belt, he just didn’t had enough availability to justify keeping it. That puts us into the 2016 season where the Bears signed a monstrous Defensive End in Hicks on a two year deal from the New England Patriots. The big man made an instant impact with 23 sacks over 3 seasons and 38 tackles for loss and 53 quarterback hits, starting every game in that time period. Hicks made such waves that he signed an extension and a good case can be made that he was the player to turn around the Bears as Ryan Pace’s best free agent signing. With Hicks, the defense started to show signs of life and evidence that Ryan Pace would reward high performers with extensions. While Hicks is an imposing presence, he also seems like he is living his best life.

Walk up Music: California Love, Tupac & Dr. Dre. “Flossin’ but have caution: we collide with other crews.” Hicks was born and raised in California (Sacramento, Sacramento where you at?) and it’s probably not too far of a stretch to think this was a popular song from his childhood – it still bumps and is easily the cleanest piece of west coast rap I could find. Plus, the Mad Max video stuff is funny and something I’d love to see the defensive line do for Halloween… or maybe save it for Super Bowl 56 when the game is in LA. Seriously, I’d buy that poster.

Top Challenger: Jordan Howard posted an impressive rookie season but declined in each of his next two years before getting traded last offseason. Still, over 1,300 yards as a rookie was great out of the gates and makes for a worthy opponent to Hicks.

Khalil Mack 2018-Present

Club Dub Fight Club
Jeff Berckes

Right before the 2018 season, General Manager Ryan Pace pulled off a franchise defining trade, sending a 2019 first round draft pick and a swap of picks in 2020 for the best edge defender in the game. Mack came to the Bears with a remarkable resume in his first 4 years – 3 First Team All Pro honors and a Defensive Player of the Year award. His impact was immediately felt in the season opener against Green Bay with a strip sack and recovery and an electrifying pick 6. Mack was hobbled by an ankle injury early in the Miami game but dominated his competition. The hidden value of Mack showed itself early as the extra attention he commands from offensive blocking schemes opens up other players to have success. He’s an unselfish, humble superstar playing the most important position on defense. His career is on a Hall of Fame trajectory so sit back and enjoy the show.

Walk up Music: Return of the Mack, Mark Morrison. “So I’m back up in the game / Running things to keep my swing / Letting all the people know / That I’m back to run the show.” I mean… c’mon, how many people get an all-time song with their name in the title?

Top Challenger: Eddie Jackson’s ascendance to the best safety in football has the makings of a legendary defense. As the premiere center fielder in the league, Jackson allows cornerback Kyle Fuller to play to the best of his ability, establishing the Bears secondary as one of the top units in the league. The battle between Mack and Jackson for best player will be one to watch in the coming years.

This is the end of the series. This article has used many sources as reference including but not limited to the indispensable profootballreference.com. Let us know what you think in the comments below or take the conversation over to Twitter and find me @gridironborn. Will Robinson, who designed most of the posters for Parts 1, 2, and 3 and his excellent design and photoshop work can be found on Twitter @WhiskeyRanger29.