Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Goodbye You Magnificent Bastard

Brian Urlacher was a son of a bitch. He was also a bastard, a villain and a tyrant. His kingdom was the size of a postage stamp; hash mark to hash mark, from the line of scrimmage to about 20 yards up field. For a little while, that patch of turf was the most dangerous real estate in America to try and enter. These past 13 seasons, I have watched 3 full generations of Lions players attempt to invade Urlacher's kingdom and more often than not receive nothing but pain and punishment for their troubles. Brian Urlacher was Lucy to my beloved Lions' Charlie Brown; only if Lucy had dog-piled on top of Charlie Brown after he missed the ball, shoved some turf in his face and stole his lunch money before skipping away while calling out "whaat a pusssyyyy". It's fair to say that I hated Brian Urlacher in so much as anyone can really "hate" a professional athlete just because they beat the crap out of your hopelessly inept football team. In other words; to the very fiber of my being.

It certainly didn't help that Urlacher's breakout game as a Middle Linebacker came against the Lions; 9 tackles, a sack and an interception later the Lions had somehow won the game 21-14 but I knew this wouldn't be the last I'd heard of Urlacher. Over the next few years Urlacher would grow into one of the NFL's most dominant defensive players while my beloved Lions rotated through an endless parade of ultimately ineffective men at the "Mike" position. Even as his skills wanned with age he still found a way to relentlessly torment my team; always one step ahead of our coaches and quarterback. I loathed Brian Urlacher and I loathed the Bears simply for having him while my team did not.

Today, Brian Urlacher retired from professional football. The hows and whys of the situation aren't all that important to me; Urlacher's recent injury history and his general belief that he was worth more than the Free Agent market was currently willing to spare were both common public knowledge. What I do find interesting however is my reaction as both a sports fan and a self admitted hater of all things Brian Urlacher; I was sad. This wasn't just a passing feeling either; I spent all day in my office pretending to do work while I looked up his stats, highlight videos and press clippings. Before long I realized that I was desperately trying to grasp the greatness of Brian Urlacher one last time before he slipped into the obscurity of NFL history and the anonymity of everyday life. I watched the career of an immortal Lion slayer pass before my eyes in a single afternoon and when it was complete I stood in awe of the man.

Brian Urlacher was good; actually he was "really, really fucking good" to be precise. The numbers are eye popping: 1,353 Tackles, 41.5 Sacks, 91 passes defended, 22 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles  and 3 touchdowns speak to a career full of high-impact, game changing plays. His list of NFL awards is equally impressive: Defensive Rookie of the Year, 2005 Defensive Player of the Year,  8 Pro Bowls and more importantly 4 All-Pro selections as a middle linebacker. The amazing part of Urlacher's career however is that somehow all of these statistics and awards fail to tell the whole story of Brian Urlacher. No to truly understand Urlacher's greatness one has to subject Urlacher's play to the eye test and then examine it in the context of football history. Brian Urlacher wasn't just a great middle linebacker, he was a prototype hybrid from the future set loose on the NFL in the year 2000. Urlacher was certainly strong, but it's his speed, positioning and borderline supernatural ability to diagnose pass routes that helped change the way NFL defenses operated.

As a former college Monsterback (hybrid safety-linebacker), Urlacher came into the NFL blessed with significantly better coverage skills than you would expect from a linebacker. When combined with his prodigious athletic abilities this allowed Urlacher to become one of the most dangerous defensive players in the open field in NFL history. In my time as an NFL fan the only linebacker I can think of who could match or exceed Urlacher in this area is Derrick Brooks of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and I don't think it's a coincidence that they both operated as the lynchpin of highly successful Tampa 2 defensive units. Before Brooks and Urlacher, nobody was talking about a linebacker's coverage skills or his ability to "operate in space" but within a few short years of dominating opponents these guys changed all of that. Over the years since many teams have tried to emulate the success of this defensive scheme without a Derrick Brooks/Brian Urlacher type linebacker and have failed miserably; this is also not a coincidence in my opinion. Urlacher allowed the Bears to cheat on defense for years by covering twice as much ground as lesser athletes with ruthless efficiency and tactical brilliance. Most disturbingly of all; he made the whole damn thing look so easy, especially against my beleaguered Lions.

Many people will use today's announcement to take swipes at what Brian Urlacher wasn't. He wasn't the greatest linebacker in the history of the Bears; that honor goes to Mike Singletary assuming he agrees to keep his pants on while accepting the award. He wasn't the greatest pure Mike linebacker of his generation either; it's a close race but I have to give Ray Lewis that honor by the threads of a bloody white suit. While he was widely regarded as a team leader, he lacked the flamboyant overbearing personality of a Lawrence Taylor or a James Harrison. Whether or not that counts as a strike against Urlacher is pretty debatable; my midwestern values prefer the strong silent type of leader to a guy who's always talking on television personally. Finally some folks will choose to remind us that by the end of his career, he wasn't really "Brian Fucking Urlacher" anymore either and that's a reasonably fair point. I don't feel that Urlacher hung on to the game too long but there is no question that in the end, football had used up most of his athletic brilliance already. The naysayers have more than enough ammo to shoot holes in Urlacher's Hall of Fame worthiness but it says right here he won't have to wait more than an extra year to hear the call from Canton.

No, today I will not dance on the grave of Brian Urlacher's career. Today, I stand solemnly in awe and wonder as Urlacher says goodbye to the NFL and hello to the rest of his life. I find myself hoping the real world treats him well, that he has quality time to to spend with his kids and that he finally finds love after so many painful (and public) stumbles. The warrior has hung up his armor and it just wouldn't feel right to boo him as he walked out of the arena. Goodbye you magnificent bastard; you entered my world as the son of a bitch who always ruined my day and you leave it as one of Football's immortal gods. Jesus, did I just say that about a Bear?

-The Sportsball Chic

No comments:

Post a Comment