- Melissa Isaacson, espnW.com
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If Bears linebacker Lance Briggs saw the question coming, and surely it could not have been a complete surprise, that does not mean he was ready for it.
Briggs was asked Wednesday whether -- considering the advancing (football) age of himself and several of his defensive teammates -- he felt a sense of urgency going into Sunday's NFC Championship Game; whether, in fact, he felt this was his last chance for the Super Bowl.
"No, no, I'm 30," Briggs quickly retorted, "not dead."
Five years ago, a hot topic in the Bears' locker room heading into the playoffs was the proverbial window of opportunity and how long the team had before it slammed shut.
Today, the window theory has some cracks.
With seven Pro Bowlers on the roster, an average age of 25 years old, and such core players as Adewale Ogunleye, Tommie Harris, Brian Urlacher and Olin Kreutz signed to long-term contracts, it appeared there was every reason to be optimistic beyond the 2006 season.
The team had just completed a 13-3 season, which followed an 11-5 campaign, not to mention consecutive division titles. And the Bears would defeat Seattle and New Orleans en route to Super Bowl XLI.
But not everything was necessarily as sunny as it appeared. Five starters and part-time starters, including Briggs and guard Ruben Brown, would be free agents at the end of the season. The offensive line was aging, with Brown at 34 and Fred Miller 33. And the Bears' leading receiver, Muhsin Muhammad, was 33.
In addition, running back Thomas Jones was the subject of trade speculation, and in their seventh NFL seasons, Jones, Urlacher and Mike Brown had all taken a pounding. Moreover, the team's defensive coordinator, Ron Rivera, was considered a candidate for head-coaching vacancies around the league.
If the idea of a two- to three-year window even exists anymore in the NFL, it applies to teams like the AFC championship-contending Pittsburgh Steelers, not the Bears. Receiver Hines Ward, who will be 35 in March, is one of several key Pittsburgh players in their mid-30s, and last week gave the Steelers "one or two more years" to play at the level at which they have appeared in five conference championships over the past 10 seasons and two Super Bowls over the past six.
But it's not easy to tell that to a player such as Briggs.
"I don't see it that way," he said when asked about the "urgency" of beating the Packers this weekend. "I don't know how many years I'll get to play or all of us on the team will get to play, but we're going to enjoy it. Obviously, it's not easy to get to the Super Bowl, so I think that, more than anything else, it's just not easy. It's hard fought. We haven't been there in years, so it's precious."
Precious, to be sure.
Chris Harris was a 24-year-old safety for the '06 Bears, who lost to Indianapolis in the Super Bowl, and if he expected to return to the conference championship game five years later, it would not have been in a Bears uniform after being traded six months later to the Carolina Panthers.
"If somebody had told me that then, I would have slapped them," Harris said, laughing. "It's funny how things work out, but you don't question God's will."
But Harris differed slightly from Briggs in going along with the theory that the window is open for only so long to each team and each player.
"Absolutely," he said. "The window of opportunity is so small in the NFL, you've got to maximize every chance you get. We have guys who are older but still playing well. But it's a short window, and you have to seize the moment.
"I appreciated going [to the Super Bowl] in my second year, but I thought you're supposed to go to the playoffs every year and that's not the case. I don't take it for granted now at all. I cherish the moment because nothing is guaranteed. Look at Anthony Adams [who's 30]. This is his first playoffs."
The Bears were the ninth-youngest team in the NFL this season at 26.9 years old, according to a Pro Football Reference formula originally cited by The New York Times, which calculates the functional age of teams by placing "greater weight on the team's most relevant players."
On the surface, not too young, not too old.
But among the players 29 and older: Kreutz and Roberto Garza on the offensive line; and Harris, Adams, Briggs, Urlacher, Israel Idonije, Julius Peppers, Pisa Tinoisamoa and Charles Tillman on defense. On special teams, punter Brad Maynard is 36 and long snapper Patrick Mannelly is 35.
Still, unlike the '06 team, few expected this team to advance as far as it has. The Bears have done it with new offensive and defensive coordinators. They have young and rising skill position players in Jay Cutler, 26; Matt Forte, 25; Devin Hester, 28; and Johnny Knox, 24. And if anyone cares to call Urlacher, 32, or Peppers, 31, over the hill, they should do so at their own risk.
As for the coaching staff, it appeared glued together a year ago at this time, when Lovie Smith hired the innovative but not exactly in-demand Mike Martz as offensive coordinator and moved a seemingly reluctant Rod Marinelli from the defensive line to defensive coordinator. Today, they are being lauded as key reasons for the Bears' success and most likely will not be hired away in the offseason.
For Smith, the window was closing on his fingers after finishing out of playoff contention for three straight years. Today, short of an embarrassing loss Sunday, it is open wide.
Not surprisingly, he is not a big believer in the window theory.
"You can think about the present and the future and let yourself go that direction," Smith said. "But to me, it's just about now and what's happening at [this] time. If you're in a position to go and you have a chance, like four teams that have the opportunity to get to the Super Bowl, and win it, you have to assume this is the only time you're going to get that opportunity.
"We've been in that position before where we're at the Super Bowl and we didn't win it then and we said, 'OK, well next year we'll come back,' and it didn't happen. So, of course the message for our football team is not to think too far beyond just trying to take advantage of a great opportunity that we have right now."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
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