His number 54 jersey litters the Soldier Field stands at every home game and is donned by Bears fans all around the world. Much like Walter Payton’s 34 and Dick Butkus’ 51, Brian Urlacher’s 54 has become synonymous with the “Monsters of the Midway,” and he will most likely be standing next to his bust in Canton once his career is over.
For years we saw a linebacker with the speed and instincts of a safety dominate with the power and strength of a middle linebacker. Acrobatic interceptions and his exceptional sideline to sideline speed became the norm, until the 2012 season.
After battling back from a knee injury suffered in a Week-17 game against the Minnesota Vikings in the 2011 season, he’s never quite looked like the same player on the field. He appeared slow and sluggish in the first few weeks of the season, not being able to cover the sidelines like he had in the past and found himself struggling at what he had always done the best, defending the middle of the field.
He rumbled his way in for a 46-yard touchdown after picking off Titans’ quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, but his run was more reminiscent of Keith Traylor’s slow footed 67-yard interception in 2001 than the unparalleled speed we had all become accustomed to seeing.
An injury to his hamstring in Week-12 against the Seattle Seahawks ultimately ended his season, and quite possibly his tenure in Chicago. Set to become a free agent, there is no telling how much is left in the tank at the age of 34 (35 on May 25th).
In an interview with ESPN’s “Waddle & Silvy” he said, “When you look at my age and everything, it’s going to be hard to not give them a discount. I’m not going to make what I was making in the past, how about that? Does that make sense? That’s fair.”
He clearly understands that his value is not what it used to be and appears ready to accept a hometown markdown to remain in Chicago. New defensive coordinator Mel Tucker runs a defense similar to what was run during Lovie Smith’s tenure and with no long-term replacement behind him, it makes sense to bring him back.
Even if he is brought back to Chicago, the likelihood of him returning to All-Pro form is unlikely. Players around the League often become shells of themselves, living more off reputation than their performance on the field.
To young fans, Urlacher has become the Payton or Butkus of their era. He is the face of the franchise and the unquestioned leader of a defense that has been consistently one of the top-10 in the League during his time.
But ultimately, even the great ones struggle near the end. Butkus limped and staggered his way out onto the field in his final season with two busted knees, and Payton finished his career by splitting carries with Neal Anderson.
Even if Urlacher returns for 2013 and beyond, it is time for fans to start letting go, realizing that he will never again be the player he once was.
Just like Butkus and Payton before him, all good things must come to an end.
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