Brian Urlacher in 2010

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Holmes: Reflecting On Brian Urlacher's Legacy

Urlacher changed the game and how we watched it.

Laurence Holmes
August 02, 2018 - 10:20 am
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(670 The Score) The last time that I was in Canton, Ohio was in 2005. It was my second full season covering the Bears.

It was Lovie Smith’s second year at the helm. The Bears were coming off a 5-11 season, but you could tell that the tide was about to turn. That first training camp had been grueling, with a lot of hot days in the Bourbonnais sun. Smith had run a hard camp, and the injuries at camp were the receipt.

The second year featured an adjustment. Smith had learned that he didn’t need to push the players as hard to get the most out of them. What was most important was keeping them healthy for September. At one point during that second camp, after an 11-on-11 drill, Mike Brown joked with me that this camp was "different."

When you’re a young reporter who's traveling, it’s hard to balance doing your job with enjoying being on the road. I visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame Museum but didn’t appreciate what I was standing in -- which for a guy with a history degree is terribly disappointing. I had tunnel vision. Get into town, do the job, get back to Bourbonnais. My focus was on Bears-Dolphins, as if that mattered. In a lot of ways, I was like that year's Bears team, trying to find my way and living up to big expectations.

That Bears defense was filled with young, talented playmakers. The offense had Thomas Jones at tailback, and he was universally loved by the defense. So the fact that running back Cedric Benson was holding out was less concerning than it otherwise would have been. Quarterback Rex Grossman was healthy, and the Bears thought they were ready to take the next step. A week later, Grossman would break his ankle on the St. Louis turf.

A rocky 1-3 start was finally steadied by a defense that was dominant that season and a rookie quarterback in Kyle Orton who understood that his best chance to win games would be relying on a Jones, Benson and that defense. Bears fans started to catch on to the Smith philosophy that emphasized takeaways.

In fact, I give Smith a lot of credit (don’t tell him -- it will ruin my rep) for changing the way Bears fans see the game. Whenever we talked with him about creating "turnovers," he would always correct us and say "takeaways." What I didn’t realize at the time was that he was teaching us what he was teaching the players: A turnover puts the onus on the offense for making a mistake, while a takeaway is something that the defense creates. They deserve credit for it. It’s a subtle but powerful approach. Even today, it’s something so engrained in the lexicon when Bears fans discuss defense.

By 2005, we already knew that Brian Urlacher was a great player. He was an incredibly gifted athlete and was perfectly suited for the style of defense that Smith wanted to play. He was the avatar of changing NFL. No longer did a middle linebacker have to just be a snarling grunt who just smashed into running backs, even though Urlacher did in fact snarl and smash into running backs. 

I’ve been watching a lot of tape getting ready for this weekend, when Urlacher will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Saturday. While most people will revel in Urlacher’s ability to go "sideline-to-sideline," I’ve marveled in reliving how well he would drop back into the deep middle-third of the defense. His ability to diagnose pass plays and then shuffle 20 yards down the field was amazing. Urlacher's natural instincts were augmented by meticulous film study, and it showed on the field.

Play after play, Urlacher would effectively cut off any idea of hitting seam routes with success. He was absolute menace. A few numbers represent how good Urlacher was at breaking up passes. He hasn’t played since 2012, but according to Pro Football Focus, Urlacher still ranks in the top five in interceptions and passes defended among inside linebackers from 2006 through last season -- through last season! -- with 43.

In 2005, Urlacher went to the Pro Bowl, was named first-team All-Pro and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year as the Bears rallied to finish 11-5 after the poor start.

It was remarkable and felt like the start of something. If the defense was this good, what would the Bears look like with an offense that was more whole? We found out the next season, when the Bears went 13-3 and won the NFC Championship.

It’s unfortunate that the Bears didn’t win the Super Bowl in February 2007, and most players that I’ve talked with this week wear that as the shame of this weekend. They wish they could add that to Urlacher’s legacy as he’s inducted into the Hall of Fame, but it’s not necessary.

His greatness speaks for itself. It’s a weekend to celebrate. In Urlacher, we didn’t just watch a great player. We saw a player who changed the game. We saw a player who changed the way that we look at the position of middle linebacker. We saw a player who changed how we perceive a dominant defense.

So, 13 years later, I’m back in Canton. This time, I refuse to miss the point. Bears-Ravens matters little. Seeing Urlacher enshrined in the Hall of Fame matters most. 

Laurence Holmes hosts the Laurence Holmes Show on 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter @LaurenceWHolmes.