Ditka backs Sayers vs. Urlacher

Updated: May 21, 2010, 4:37 PM ET
ESPNChicago.com

Mike Ditka joined the chorus of Chicago Bears Hall of Famers who have come to the support of Gale Sayers in his controversy with linebacker Brian Urlacher.

The war of words started May 4, when Sayers criticized quarterback Jay Cutler's performance in 2009, questioned the future of coach Lovie Smith if the Bears struggle again this season, and wondered how well Urlacher will come back from season-ending wrist surgery.

Urlacher responded in a Chicago Tribune article Thursday by ripping Sayers for criticizing the Bears and questioning Sayers' credentials because the Hall of Fame running back never won a championship, or even a playoff game.

"I like Brian Urlacher a lot, I think he's one heck of a football player," Ditka said Friday on "Mike & Mike In The Morning " on ESPN Radio. "It's unfortunate to have this in the Bears family. I don't like it.

"I don't think Gale was being that critical, honestly. I think somebody asked him a question. They asked him about the state of the Chicago Bears. He answered very honestly what he thought about Cutler. He answered very honestly what he thought about the coach. Brian's coming off an injury. Brian's a great football player, he has to stay healthy, there's no question about that. Nobody can play when they're hurt.

"So I don't know where it was so inflammatory. I didn't see that. And I understand, your feathers get ruffled here and there. When somebody sees something they think is wrong, I don't think it's wrong to say it. Sometimes criticism pointed in the right direction can help you."

Sayers played from 1965 to 1971, exclusively with the Bears. Ditka played from 1961 to 1966 with Chicago, and he said criticism that Sayers never won a championship is misguided.

"[Dick] Butkus never won a Super Bowl," said Ditka, who coached the Bears to the Super Bowl XX title. "Was there a better linebacker? I don't know. I don't think there's a better linebacker.

"Super Bowls are won by great teams, not necessarily by great individual players."

Butkus backed Sayers, and he said he's also been frustrated by the Bears, who haven't made the playoffs since losing to the Indianapolis Colts in Super Bowl XLI.

"It's a real reach to say: 'What did Gale do?' Urlacher wasn't even born yet, what does he know?" Butkus told the Tribune. "I say things to other people, too, about the Bears. It's total frustration. You think [Sayers] is saying it because he hates the Bears? You get so tired of sitting there watching them."

Hall of Famer Dan Hampton told ESPN Chicago that Urlacher needs to develop thick skin.

"You can't have thin skin if you can't win," Hampton said. "That's just the way it is. Buddy Ryan used to say, 'We're not in the business of playing football, we're in the business of winning games.'

"Ultimately, [the Bears] haven't been successful in three years. However you want to cut it, those are the facts. Gale Sayers just had the audacity to point it out."

Smith addressed the controversy during the team's minicamp Friday.

"Those are guys in the Bears family, when you're in the family, ideally, you'd like to keep things in," he said. "No one is happy with where we are right now. That's why you need minicamps and things like that.

"Our football team is better, and when we play better this year, everybody will be happy."

Hampton, who helped lead the Bears to the Super Bowl XX title, took exception to the theory that Sayers' lack of a championship should preclude him from commenting on his former team.

"The doublespeak part of the whole thing is since Gale and Dick Butkus didn't win a Super Bowl, maybe they don't have the right to say anything. Well, I beg to differ," Hampton said. "Their rings say 'Hall of Famer,' and last time I checked, that was a pretty select group."

Ditka said if not for Sayers' career-ending knee injuries, his records still would be standing.

"Let me say one thing about Gale Sayers: He was before his time," Ditka said. "First of all, he could have been the best two-way back/receiver in the league, ever.

"If he doesn't get hurt when he does, I'm telling you, nobody would ever break his records. I was there. He made me look good on blocks where I didn't know where I was half the time. The guy was unbelievable. I saw him. Brian never saw this, but that's OK."

Ditka also defended Sayers' character.

"You have to understand who Gale Sayers is," he said. "And understand the kind of individual he is. He's one of the most mild-mannered, easygoing guys I've ever been around. He would not hurt a flea. He would not say anything to harm anybody in any way. I truly believe that in my heart.

"He was asked a question. And you don't take time when you're answering a question to analyze everything you're saying about it. I didn't see anything bad about it, really. I don't think he was trying to scorch anybody. He was trying to lay out some facts that are pretty evident to people if they look at what's going on right now."

Ditka said the bottom line is that the Bears have more to worry about than Sayers.

"The Bears are in the North division. Right now, they have two concerns: Green Bay and Minnesota," Ditka said. "That should be their only two concerns.

"Unless they can control their division they're not going to win. And right now there are two teams that are playing better than they are, and that's Green Bay and Minnesota."

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