Brian Urlacher decision: If not now, when?

March, 20, 2013
3/20/13
8:00
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UrlacherRob Grabowski/USA TODAY SportsThe Chicago Bears and Brian Urlacher failed to reach an agreement on a new contract.

PHOENIX -- The Chicago Bears' chairman wanted Brian Urlacher back in 2013. So did the Bears' coaching staff. So why did the team announce Wednesday evening that it was unable to reach a contract agreement with Urlacher, presumably ending his 13-year tenure with the team?

Let's go back to the place we started this conversation in January. If there were ever a time to make a clean break from a franchise player, it's during the kind of transition the Bears are experiencing. The arrival of new coach Marc Trestman, and the breakup of a defensive scheme that extended back almost a decade, provided a logical and relatively controversy-free departure point for an icon in the twilight of his career.

The way I see it, if you're going to have a transition year, you might as well pile on as many of the changes as you can for the foreseeable future. A "transition year" doesn't necessarily have to be a "rebuilding year," but the Bears were already going to be dealing with change in 2013. The faster you deal with it, the quicker you can move forward.

If anything, I've been surprised at how far the Bears took this process. I envisioned them emerging from their pre-combine organizational meetings and informing Urlacher they would be moving on. Clearly, however, Trestman and his staff got a look at the Bears' depth -- or lack thereof -- and realized there could be some short-term pain associated with Urlacher's departure. Earlier Wednesday, I wondered if Trestman wanted Urlacher back to serve as a quasi-mediator between the new coaching staff and the locker room upon which he held a solid grip.

Coaches, of course, are trained to value today and tomorrow -- not next year and beyond. It's the job of the Bears' front office, and especially general manger Phil Emery, to consider the bigger picture. And it's clear, no matter what might be said publicly, that the Bears wanted to jump-start the process of rebuilding a linebacker corps that has remained largely intact for years.

How do you navigate the complex issue of nudging out a franchise icon who still wants to play, while also juggling the short-term desires of the coaching staff and the wishes -- detached or otherwise -- of ownership? You make an offer that you're pretty sure will be refused.

I'm not a mind-reader. I can't tell you for sure that Emery followed that a strategy that has been used many other times in NFL history. But the outside clues sure do suggest it. Urlacher, in fact, told Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune that he received a take-it-or-leave-it one-year contract offer worth a maximum of $2 million.

You and I might agree that's a reasonable value for a middle linebacker with a balky knee and 13 NFL seasons of wear on his body. But it represented about a 75 percent pay cut from Urlacher's 2012 compensation, a drop that few Hall of Fame players would agree to. Urlacher told the Tribune it was "a slap in the face." For context, consider that the Baltimore Ravens paid now-retired middle linebacker Ray Lewis $4.95 million to play his 17th and final season in 2012.

And before you bring it up, let's not blame the Bears' tight salary-cap situation for this decision. Urlacher's cap figure wouldn't have been any more than $2 million in 2013 under that offer. If they wanted, the Bears could have used any number of salary cap tricks to maintain that figure while offering Urlacher more cash. They didn't. They wanted him back only on the terms of a clearance sale -- if at all.

Let's be clear: There will be short-term pain that will follow this decision. The Bears must replace not only Urlacher but also strong-side linebacker Nick Roach, who signed with the Oakland Raiders, at the same time.

In a best-case scenario, the Bears will open the season with one of the draft's top middle linebackers -- perhaps Georgia's Alec Ogletree or even Notre Dame's Manti Te'o -- in the starting lineup. It might take several offseasons to reassemble a credible group of starting linebackers.

In the end, the Bears had ignored this pending transition long enough. Ideally, they would have had an heir on the roster already to take Urlacher's job. Now, they have an urgency that no NFL team prefers. But if not now, when? The urgency would only increase.

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