Brian Urlacher may be the unluckiest future Hall of Famer in NFL history.
He became eligible for the Hall for the first time this year, and many feel his career is of “first-ballot’’ quality. Problem is: Only eight linebackers in history have that designation, and the likely ninth is also in his first year of eligibility, Baltimore’s Ray Lewis.
So where does that leave Urlacher?
Probably headed to Canton soon, but maybe not this year -- and there’s no shame in that because when he arrives no one will ask what he’s doing there.
Of the eight first-ballot Hall-of-Fame linebackers, two are Bears: Dick Butkus, arguably the greatest middle linebacker of all-time, and Mike Singletary. The most recent was the Chargers’ Junior Seau, who was enshrined in 2015. While few players can stack up to the hardware won by Seau and Lewis, who was a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Super Bowl MVP and 13-time Pro Bowl selection, Urlacher is not far behind.
In his 13-year career, he was Defensive Player of the Year in 2005, Rookie of the Year in 2000, a member of the 2000s' all-decade team and an eight-time Pro Bowl selection who led the Bears to a 13-3 record and Super Bowl XLI in 2006, where they lost to the Colts.
He started more games than all but two Bears in the team’s history, with his 180 starts in 182 games trailing all-time leader Walter Payton by only four starts. But things didn’t begin quite as auspiciously as the former first-round draft pick had hoped his rookie season.
After starting in three pre-season games at outside linebacker and finding the restrictions of playing only half the field daunting, Urlacher was benched in favor of Roosevelt Colvin. That benching turned out to be a blessing for both Urlacher and the Bears.
Then-head coach Dick Jauron returned him to the lineup at middle linebacker when Barry Minter was injured in the second game of the season. For Minter it was a Wally Pipp moment. He never started at middle linebacker again, and by the end of that season Urlacher had made 124 tackles, eight sacks and was Rookie of the Year ... and Jauron knew he had one less position to worry about.
“He could get to anybody anywhere, and he could beat your blocking scheme by technique, by skill, by going around it, by going under it, by going over it, any way he wanted to do it,’’ said Jauron, who both coached Urlacher and coached against him. “He was just a terrific player."
By the end of his career, Urlacher had made that clear. He finished with 1,354 tackles, 41 ½ sacks, 22 passes intercepted and God knows how many deflected, 11 forced fumbles and 15 recovered. As former Bears’ head coach Mike Ditka put it not long after Urlacher retired, “He doesn’t have to apologize to anyone for the way he played the game. He’s a future Hall of Famer.’’
How long that will take remains to be seen and debated, but if former Bears’ general manager Jerry Angelo had a vote, Urlacher would be fitted for a bust in February when the vote is taken.
“He not only made the Bears better,’’ Angelo said. “He made football better. Not many can say that.’’
To describe Urlacher’s style as fast and furious only begins to explain how he combined a linebacker’s attitude with a defensive back's speed and agility. His approach to the position is best understood by this comment he once made about his job.
“How great is this life?’’ Urlacher said. “To get to knock guys’ heads off for 60 minutes and not get thrown in jail?’’
Yet his physical style and remarkable speed for his size were only the beginning of what Urlacher brought to a defensive huddle. When Lovie Smith came to Chicago to install the Tampa-2 defense he learned under Tony Dungy with the Buccaneers, Smith quickly came to realize Urlacher was more than a heat- seeking missile. He was a well-guided one.
“His physical play is just a small part of what made Brian great,’’ Smith said. “People knew he called our defense, but his intelligence was never given its just due. His understanding of the game is among the best who have ever played it.”
Urlacher will be remembered for many moments in Chicago but perhaps none more than when he spearheaded a comeback from a 20-point deficit against the Arizona Cardinals in 2006. In that game he had 19 tackles and forced a fumble that was returned for a touchdown. A week later his teammates were still marveling at what he’d done.
"We watched the film, and everybody was saying that he just turned into the Incredible Hulk the last four minutes of the game, just killing people and running over and tackling whoever had the ball,’’ Devin Hester said at the time.
Smith was on the sidelines that night and still remembers Urlacher ranging from sideline to sideline, making one play after another, willing his team to victory. When he recalls that night, Smith says “The way he took over the 2006 Monday night game in Arizona is among the greatest defensive performances ever.’’
That Urlacher was capable of so controlling the outcome of a game and the fate of his team comes as no surprise to Hall-of-Fame running back LaDainian Tomlinson. He had more than a few violent encounters with Urlacher and came away believing, “Brian Urlacher epitomized the middle-linebacker position. Whenever you prepared to play his defenses, you had to know where he was on every play because he had the ability to impact the game on so many different levels.’’
Whether Brian Urlacher becomes a so-called “first ballot Hall of Famer’’ in February or merely a “Hall of Famer’’ a year or two later, one thing is certain. Those who knew him best, which is to say the men he played with and the others who collided into him, know a place in Canton is already reserved for him.
“He had running-back type athleticism playing middle linebacker,’’ quarterback Peyton Manning said of Urlacher. “He was the anchor of that Chicago Bears defense. Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Brian Urlacher... Brian carried that torch well,’’
Well enough to end up in the Hall of Fame soon.