Brian Urlacher vows to be ready for the start of the regular season and I believe him. What would I do if I didn’t believe him? Text him? Send a team of bandits/doctors to Bourbonnais in an attempt kidnap/examine him? I’m taking Brian Urlacher at his word because Brian Urlacher’s is the only word we have access to when it comes to his recovery from knee surgery.
Urlacher’s injury is no reason to panic. It’s not even a reason to worry…yet. Start worrying if #54 is ON the injury report and NOT ON the practice field come Wednesday, September 5th. Start panicking if Urlacher isn’t full strength by mid-season. (Let’s say Monday night November 19th in San Francisco for argument’s sake.) Do the Bears need Brian Urlacher to make a championship run in 2012? Absolutely. But that means having their star middle linebacker healthy and available in December and January, not August and September.
The man in question is thirty-four years old. He has played middle linebacker at an elite level for twelve seasons; playing sixteen games in ten of those twelve seasons. (Plus playoff appearances in 2001, 2005, 2006, 2010.) Dick Butkus played nine years. Jack Lambert’s body faded terribly in his eleventh year. Mike Singletary retired after his twelfth. After three straight seasons playing sixteen games, Ray Lewis was a liability in pass coverage and missed four games in his thirteenth year (2011). Sure there are physical freaks like the late Junior Seau, and maybe Urlacher will play seventeen or eighteen seasons. But convention wisdom and historical data lead us to believe otherwise.
The otherwise? Brian Urlacher is coming to the end of a borderline Hall of Fame career and the Bears need be prepared. It may not be this year or next year but it’s coming. And just as the Ravens began relying on younger, faster players like Suggs and Ngata to carry the bulk of their defensive load so must the Bears. The organization has already begun asking #54 to do less by excusing him from the practice field. Expect that to continue. Expect Urlacher to miss practices on most Wednesdays throughout the season. Expect Lovie Smith to lighten Urlacher’s early-season load in an attempt to preserve him for the pivotal end of the campaign. Expect Smith to compensate with scheme (when possible) for the step or two surely lost by a player undergoing a major knee surgery. Especially a player who relies upon speed as the centerpiece of his athletic ability.
Players are the key, however. New, young players. Players like Henry Melton. Shea McClellin. Paea. Wootton. The kids in the secondary. Players not only situated to build the post-Urlacher foundation but also to relieve pressure from the aging superstar in the twilight of his career. (JT Thomas’ excellent preseason game aside, the Bears are devoid of young stars-to-be at LB.)
Urlacher must be the on-field transition from leading man to ensemble performer. If he does he could see his career extended several years. If he does not, it will not be his own fault. It will be the failure of the young talent assembled around him.