Granted, the lack of cap space and Urlacher’s recent rash of injuries put Phil Emery in an awkward situation in terms of how to operate in contract negotiations.
But this disgraceful divorce from the 13-year face of the franchise will impact the Bears in this coming season as well as down the road.
The decision to break off contract negotiations with Urlacher serves as a harsh reminder to fans that sports, like most everything else, revolves around the almighty dollar.
The Bears ended up giving Urlacher an ultimatum: 1 year, $2 million. Take it or leave it. The Bears weren’t about to make him a cushy offer which paid him based on his prior accomplishments.
In a perfect world, Phil Emery probably would have loved to offer Urlacher a three to four year deal, paying him slightly above the annual salary he’ll command on the open market.
Then he’d be in a position to ride off into the sunset, having earned the rare distinction of playing for one franchise for his entire career, and hopefully capping it with a Lombardi Trophy somewhere along the line.
Meanwhile, in reality… The money simply didn’t add up. $2 million is probably a bit less than what Urlacher will end up making elsewhere (he proposed $3.5 million/year as a counteroffer to the Bears, according to Ed Werder), but that number reflects the value the front office thinks he could bring to the team.
On the flip side, you can’t blame Urlacher for not wanting to take a home town discount. He obviously feels like he has a few more years of good football left in him, and that he should be paid accordingly.
What you have here, my friends, is an old-fashioned Mexican Standoff. Except instead of having three participants pointing a gun at one another, you only had two: the Bears, and Brian. And neither party wanted to be the one that pulled the trigger first to end the standoff.
The Bears played their negotiating tactics very tight to the vest, as with everything Emery has done as the head of the front office thus far. Outside of a few reports from “Team Urlacher” that negotiations were ongoing, nothing was ever imminent either way.
And just like that, on a rather random Wednesday afternoon, it was all over. The team was moving on.
The swift and brutal decision has left most fans in a state of shock. I’m not afraid to say I’m one of them. Seeing #54 in anything other than navy and orange is borderline blasphemy, but we’re just going to have to take our lumps and move on.
It was bound to happen. If not this year, than then next. Father time is catching up to Urlacher, he’s even acknowledged that himself. But no one expected the relationship between the franchise and their golden child to end this abruptly.
However, the Bears have already taken a step forward into their post-Urlacher life, signing former Broncos linebacker and defensive co-captain D.J. Williams to a one-year deal this past Friday.
But Urlacher’s departure will have a trickle down effect on this team for years to come, starting with the team’s draft strategy for this coming season.
The Bears were already extremely thin at linebacker before Urlacher left. Nick Roach is headed to Oakland, and backup Geno Hayes is on his way to Jacksonville. Signing Williams helps, but this linebacking corps is in serious need of immediate help.
Some serviceable names are still available in free agency, like Nick Barnett, Karlos Dansby, and Shaun Phillips. But the Bears are essentially all out of money at this point, especially if they intend to bring back Israel Idonije.
Their best bet to reinforce the unit now looks like using their first round draft pick on the best available linebacker.
Before Urlacher left, the Bears had a bit of freedom to possibly use their pick on an offensive lineman. Even though they brought in Jermon Bushrod via free agency, there is definitely much more room for improvement along the line.
But now it seems like the Bears are a bit more handcuffed to taking a linebacker with their first pick, given the sheer lack of players at that position now.
The problem here lies in the available prospects at linebacker. Georgia’s Alec Ogletree may very well be off the board by the time the Bears pick, LSU’s Kevin Minter doesn’t pass protect well, and Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o comes with an immeasurable amount off-the-field baggage.
On the field, the Bears might not lose too much in terms of production.
Urlacher’s ability to cover the entire field in the passing game was diminishing, his tackle totals have been decreasing yearly, and he has struggled to stay healthy in recent seasons. He can’t directly impact any game he doesn’t play in.
What the Bears are really losing is leadership, experience, and a Grade-A teammate.
Urlacher was the quarterback of the defense. His ability to recognize plays, make adjustments, and lead by example on the field played a large part in making the Bears defense one of the consistently great units in the NFL for the past decade.
Even while he wasn’t on the field last season, his presence could be felt from the sidelines. Whether he was rallying the troops emotionally or helping out with the play calling, Urlacher always did everything he could to help the Bears win.
And while he may not have had the greatest character in the eyes of the fans, there was no one in that locker room that earned more respect from their teammates than ‘Lach.
He was the team’s ambassador, spreading good will to incoming rookies and veterans alike. He’d often host team dinners and hangouts on fight nights, and he took many young defensive players under his wing to teach them how to play “the Bears way.”
The best part was that he led both vocally and by example. He preached a good game, and backed nearly every inch of it up in his 13 years with the team.
The question now becomes who will step up and become the leader on the defensive side? And who will fill his shoes as the vocal and emotional leader for the entire team?
In the long run, what does Urlacher’s departure say about the front office’s faith in this current team’s ability to win a championship? Let’s be real, I highly doubt Phil Emery signed D.J. Williams thinking that he was enough of an upgrade over Urlacher to push the team over the top in the playoffs.
The Bears probably realize that Urlacher, like many other fading superstars, are in a desperate search for a title in the last legs of their career. Maybe the front office doesn’t believe the team has a legit chance to bring home a trophy any time soon, so they were doing Urlacher a bit of a favor by letting him find a team that might.
But I digress.
It’s hard to say at this point if this bitter divorce will throw off any future plans Urlacher may have had with the Bears. Barring an incredible run of multiple Defensive Player of the Year Awards and Super Bowl titles with another team, Urlacher will find himself enshrined in Canton as a Bear.
But it was a pretty common idea that Urlacher was lined up perfectly for a coaching career with the Bears in some capacity. Not saying that that is no longer a possibility, but the way the team split ways with him may leave a bitter taste in his mouth.
Time heals everything, and eventually Urlacher will be welcomed back by Chicago fans with open arms. This city already treats its successful athletes like immortals; double that effect for any successful middle linebacker.
Hopefully this parting of ways hasn’t soured Urlacher on the whole idea of one day returning to help the team.
It would’ve been nice to see him get one more shot at a title as a key cog in the Bears vaunted defense. It would also be really nice if I won the lottery.
I wish Brian nothing but continued success in the future, wherever he may land. It seems like the Minnesota Vikings are the most active in pursuing his services. The Dallas Cowboys and the Arizona Cardinals have some interest in him.
As a personal favorite of mine, it will be a hard pill to swallow when #54 runs out of a different team’s tunnel during a pregame introductions next season. But there’s nothing to do now except move on.