Bob Ford: Brian Urlacher powers Chicago Bears

Monster of the Midway: Brian Urlacher leads what might be the league's best defense.
Monster of the Midway: Brian Urlacher leads what might be the league's best defense.
Posted: November 26, 2010

As the Chicago Bears approached the season, coming off a third straight year without a playoff appearance, it would be fair to say that confidence in the franchise was not high and that confidence in the face of the franchise was at an all-time low.

The face of the franchise is a taciturn middle linebacker from Lovington, N.M., who chooses his words carefully and, when healthy, plays the game recklessly.

For Brian Urlacher, the prelude to this season was frustrating. He had been troubled by back and neck injuries in 2007 and 2008, just as he crested 30 years of age, and the toll of a career spent hitting people was being exacted.

Healthy again for 2009, Urlacher dislocated his right wrist in the opening game of the season and was placed on injured reserve for the rest of the year. The Bears drifted to 7-9 with a listless defense unable to overcome the inconsistencies of flop-haired quarterback Jay Cutler.

For the first time, Urlacher, who had campaigned loudly and successfully for a contract extension the year before, heard muttering from the faithful that it might be time to move on and let the Bears make a fresh start.

At an event for fans during the off-season, Gale Sayers, a prominent figurehead on the team's all-time Mount Rushmore, said that rebuilding was in order and that Urlacher was no longer the player he had been.

Urlacher was stung and swiped back with a big paw where Sayers would be most tender. How many playoff games did Sayers win with the Bears?

The answer is that the Bears never reached the playoffs during Sayers' seven-year career, and compiled a 41-54 record. But this exchange between franchise demigods left the faithful uncomfortable and shifting in their seats as the 2010 season began, and left Urlacher needing to back up his words.

"I haven't had a year off since seventh grade, so I think it did help my body kind of calm down and relax a little bit," Urlacher told reporters recently.

Sufficiently relaxed, Urlacher has become a monster of the Midway again, and the Bears will welcome the Eagles on Sunday afternoon with what might be the best defense in the league.

"If there's a question about whether he's the same guy as he was in the past, that must be from outside of Chicago, because here we couldn't be more pleased with him," coach Lovie Smith said.

Sunday's game has playoff implications for both teams. The Bears are locked in a struggle for the NFC North with Green Bay and, failing that, will be looking for a wild-card tiebreaker advantage over the Eagles, if it comes to that.

The Eagles have gotten to 7-3 this season with an explosive offense and a slowly developing defense relying on a lot of young players. Coordinator Sean McDermott called it a "who-are-they?" defense.

The Bears are 7-3 by opposite means. They are tied for first in the league for fewest points allowed, and they specialize in taking away deep passes with umbrella coverage and then letting the linebackers wreak havoc on everything in between. Urlacher and his starting partners, strongside linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa and weakside linebacker Lance Briggs, are all ranked in the top six among the team's tacklers, and they call the music.

"It's very difficult to find weaknesses with that club," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said of the Bears.

If this is a season of redemption for Urlacher and the Bears, there is still a long way to go. After playing the Eagles, Chicago still has to meet the Jets, Patriots, and Packers. In the middle of the field, trying to carry them through, will be Urlacher, the kind of linebacker other linebackers watch when the game is being played.

"He jumps out at you from his pure size. He towers over everybody, and he's still playing great ball," Eagles linebacker Omar Gaither said. "The first thing you think about with him is that he returned punts in college. That shows you his athleticism."

Urlacher, who goes 6-foot-4 and 258 pounds now, did return punts and kickoffs at New Mexico, where he was a first-team all-American before being taken with the ninth pick of the 2000 draft. He also doubled as a free safety in college before being moved to the middle by the Bears as the next brute in a historical line that stretches back through Mike Singletary and Dick Butkus. Until the injuries slowed him, Urlacher was ranked with those two as the best to play the position. And now, he just might be back.

"I feel like I'm better than I was back [in 2008]," Urlacher said recently. "I'm heavier, a bit more powerful. I'm running to the football, my keys are a bit more clear now, just playing downhill."

That's not good news for the Eagles as another defense attempts to slow the Mike Vick Thrill Show. It is a task that eluded the Giants, and now the Bears get their shot.

"I think your defense carries the personality of the middle linebacker," Smith said. "Brian is a tough guy, and the other guys follow his lead. He's the face of the franchise for a reason."

The face of the franchise doesn't smile a lot, particularly after the last few seasons. Keeping him unhappy at least until Sunday evening would be an excellent idea.

Contact columnist Bob Ford at 215-854-5842 or Read

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