By Steve Silverman-
(CBS) The end of his career may have been regrettable, as Brian Urlacher had lost his speed and could not go sideline-to-sideline any longer.
It was painfully obvious last year that his knees were not healthy enough to play effectively at middle linebacker any longer.
There was no reason to believe that Urlacher, 35, would be able to rehab to the point where his lateral agility would return intact. Impossible? No, but extremely unlikely.
However, the beginning of Urlacher’s career was sensational.
He was the No. 9 pick in the 2000 NFL draft and while it was clear that he was a remarkable athlete, it wasn’t clear in the days and weeks leading up to his selection what position he would play in the NFL.
During his highlight-filled career at New Mexico, the 6-4, 258-pound Urlacher had played linebacker, safety and even had some time at tight end.
Most believed that linebacker would eventually be his position, but there was a loud minority who thought he would be such a vicious hitter at safety that he would change the game. There were others who loved his hands and thought he could easily transition to the tight end position.
The Bears were the big winners in that 2000 draft, as they selected this remarkable player. A pair of overrated Penn State disappointments – Courtney Brown and LaVar Arrington – went with the first two picks and players like Jamal Lewis, Thomas Jones and Plaxico Burress were also selected before him.
None of the players in the draft had the consistency or impact as Urlacher. He was an impact player who could dominate games, perhaps not like Lawrence Taylor, Deacon Jones, Reggie White or Ronnie Lott, but he’s near the top of the middle linebacker class that also includes Ray Lewis, Dick Butkus, Jack Lambert and Junior Seau.
Prior to the 2000 NFL draft, the Bears and the rest of the NFL were enamored with Urlacher’s speed, but the question of where to deploy him probably kept him from getting drafted in one of the top five spots.
The NFL had been a game of specialization for a long time by then, and nobody knew where Urlacher was going to play. His athleticism seemed to make him a fit for the outside linebacker position, but he had a lot more going for him than measurables.
Credit the late general manager Mark Hatley for selecting Urlacher and former Bears head coach Dick “It’s not my show, but I’m on that show” Jauron for deploying him correctly.
Urlacher ran the Tampa-2 defense superbly. He knew where every one of his teammates was supposed to be and he did his own job at an extremely high level.
He could drop back from his middle linebacker position and cut off the deep middle. A quarterback who wanted to throw to that area of the field had to drop the ball in over Urlacher’s head and beneath the safeties.
Urlacher could play that position with more range than any other middle linebacker.
If you wanted to throw the ball underneath Urlacher, it was like throwing meat in front of a ravenous lion. He would attack with speed as soon as a receiver would catch the ball in his zone and level him with a vicious hit.
That’s what Hatley and Jauron saw in Urlacher. He was a game-changing player and he challenged the best quarterbacks and receivers as few players could.
Urlacher frequently slowed Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“He was so good at running that Tampa-2 scheme,” Rodgers told the Chicago Tribune’s Dan Pompei. “They had him play both the deep middle and then react to the short middle. He changed that position with his height and long levers and athleticism.”
Urlacher did not have a definitive position when he was selected in 2000. By the time he retired, he had redefined the middle linebacker position in a way that suited the modern game.
He has no Super Bowl ring, but he is fully deserving of a gold jacket and a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.