The dog days of the offseason are finally behind us now that training camp is underway, just in time for our countdown of the Top 100 Chicago Bears of all time to really heat up. As we get closer to the season opener, we get closer to naming the #1 Chicago Bear of all time.
With the 9th pick in the 2000 NFL Draft the Bears selected a little known safety out of New Mexico, Brian Urlacher. A consensus All-American who not only led the nation in tackles as a junior with 178, but scored 6 TDs as a wide receiver, and had 5 punt return TDs in his college career. Urlacher didn’t get a lot of attention nationally, but did finish 12th in the Heisman voting as a senior. I remember being excited by Urlacher’s highlight reel, the speed and athleticism was obvious, but he played a rover position in college with no real responsibility except finding the ball. He would be making the transition to a much more complex LB position with the Bears, would Urlacher be able to adapt?
The Bears (Jauron) originally thought Urlacher would be a good fit at strong-side OLB and he started there week 1 of his rookie season. Urlacher struggled in his first game and was benched for Rosy Colvin in week 2. Luckily for the Bears, MLB Barry Minter got hurt in week 3 and Urlacher took over after 2 weeks on the bench. Who knows if Jauron would ever have figured out Urlacher’s best position on his own? Luckily he didn’t need to as Urlacher was forced into the lineup due to Minter’s injury and never left. Urlacher had 6 sacks in his first 5 starts at MLB and won the Rookie Defensive Player of the Month in October. He finished his rookie season with 124 tackles and 8 sacks which were both Bears rookie records, was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, and made his first of many Pro Bowls.
As a Chicago fan I of course expected the worst from Urlacher in year 2. Years of rooting for the Cubs and Bears had conditioned me to think any rookie success was a fluke (Jerome Walton, Rick Wilkins, Dwight Smith), but in week 3 verse the Falcons Urlacher proved he was for real. It was 13 years ago, but I remember exactly where I was when Urlacher leapt over the offensive line to sack Michael Vick (Lake Geneva, watching game by myself while friends were on the lake). At the time Michael Vick was the best “athlete” in the league but Urlacher entered the conversation with one of the most impressive QB sacks I have ever seen. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a YouTube clip, but Urlacher timed the snap perfectly, jumped over the O-line, and brought Vick down with one arm before Vick could do anything. It was amazing and the signature Urlacher moment in my opinion. Later that game he recovered a Vick fumble and returned it 90-yards for a TD. Urlacher not only made the Pro Bowl in his second season but got multiple votes for defensive player of the year. He was dominant the next two years as well earning Pro Bowl berths both seasons (’02, ’03) before missing 7 games in ’04 due to injury.
In ’05 the Bears finally fired Dick Jauron and hired defensive guru Lovie Smith. Urlacher was the captain of Lovie’s defense that allowed the fewest points per game in the league and also forced the most turnovers in the league. Lovie’s cover-2 scheme was a perfect fit for Urlacher’s skill-set and he led the Bears in tackles with 121 and was named NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The Bears D continued their dominance in ’06 and the team made it to the Super Bowl. In ’06 Urlacher had one of the most dominant individual defensive performances I have ever seen. The Bears went in to their week 6 Monday night matchup vs the Arizona Cardinals with an undefeated record, but the Bears fell behind 20-0 at halftime. They came out in the 2nd half and Urlacher took it on himself to shut the Cardinals offense down. He finished the game with 19 tackles and a forced fumble that got returned for a TD. He tossed blockers aside like they were children and seemed to be in on every tackle, it was awesome. The Bears came back to win on an 83-yard Devin Hester punt return TD with 2 minutes left in the game. It was one of the most memorable Bears games of my life and it wouldn’t have happened without Urlacher almost single-handedly holding the Cards to 3 points in the 2nd half. The Bears went on to lose in the Super Bowl that season, but Urlacher made the Pro Bowl, was named 1st team All-Pro and got votes for Defensive Player of the Year.
In ’07 Urlacher revealed that he had been dealing with an arthritic back. You wouldn’t know by his results on the field, Urlacher finished the season with 123 tackles, 5 interceptions, 5 sacks, and a defensive TD. Urlacher had offseason neck surgery to alleviate some of his back pain and also signed a 4-yr extension with the Bears. It was the beginning of a gradual decline for Urlacher, he had a down year by his lofty standards in ’08 (93 tackles, 2 INTs, 0 sacks) . He would never admit to injuries as an excuse, but he wasn’t quite as dynamic as prime Urlacher. In ’09 he broke his wrist in the first game of the season and missed the rest of it. The Bears struggled without Urlacher captaining the defense and finished the year with a 7-9 record.