- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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Buddy Ryan, that old, fiery curmudgeon, sat in his vast barn in Shelbyville, Ky., some weeks ago and talked about his favorite subject: the Chicago Bears' famed 46 defense of the 1980s.
"Coaches didn't like it because it made them look bad," Ryan explained. "We hit a lot of quarterbacks, and that was one of the things coaches were a little tender about."
The 46 defense brought the Bears their only Super Bowl, XX, vaulted Ryan into a five-year tenure as head coach job with the Philadelphia Eagles and, essentially, built this barn and the sprawling horse farm that surrounds it.
Ryan was asked how the 2005 version of the Bears defense compared to the fearsome 1985 group. Suffice to say, he wasn't overly complimentary. There was one thing, however, that he particularly liked about these modern Bears.
"Oh, I like that middle linebacker that you got," Ryan said, brightening. "He's a hell of a player. He's big, he's fast and he's tough. I think he'd qualify to play for me."
And then Buddy Ryan laughed out loud.
Yes, Brian Urlacher could have played for Ryan. He is the Bears' middle linebacker, and very much a modern-day peer of Ryan's so-called Mike linebacker, Mike Singletary, who is already in the Hall of Fame. Urlacher's numbers, believe it or not, suggest he is more than halfway toward being enshrined in Canton.
Consider: Singletary was named to 10 (consecutive) Pro Bowls in 12 seasons with the Bears. Urlacher will be attending his fifth in six seasons. Singletary recorded 1,488 tackles, while Urlacher's count is already at 956 (both totals are according to statistics kept by the Bears). Singletary won the league's Defensive Player of the Year twice, in 1985 and 1988. Urlacher just received his first such award, taking 34 of 50 votes to finish far ahead of the Colts' Dwight Freeney and the Steelers' Troy Polamalu.
These are giddy times in Chicago. The Bears are back in the playoffs and their defense, not surprisingly, has carried them there. While the Bears' offense is considered a liability in Sunday's divisional playoff game with the Carolina Panthers, no one is concerned the defense won't show up. Urlacher is the best player on the league's best defense.
Through 10 games, the 2005 Bears were running slightly ahead of the 1985 team in terms of points and yards allowed. For now, though, the 1985 legacy is secure. These Bears softened a little down the stretch when it became clear they were going to win the NFC North. They allowed 51 points in games at Green Bay and Minnesota to finish the regular season with 202 points allowed -- four more than the 1985 Bears. The old Bears finished well ahead of the current Bears in yards allowed (258.4 vs. 281.8), turnovers forced (54 vs. 34) and sacks (64 vs. 41).
Still, the Bears managed to lead the league in fewest points allowed and placed second to Tampa Bay in fewest yards. Their defensive coordinator is Ron Rivera, who played linebacker alongside Singletary under Ryan. Although Urlacher is a good four inches taller and 25 pounds heavier than Singletary -- and faster, too -- Rivera sees similarities.
"Their passion, their passion for perfection," Rivera said. "I don't think Brian gets enough credit for his work ethic. Here's a young man, when he watches film, he studies the film. He reminds me an awful lot of Mike in that respect, because Mike really was a great student of the game."
Head coach Lovie Smith feels the same way.
"You talk about leadership, some of the things that Mike Singletary had," Smith said. "Brian knows where everyone one is supposed to be, he is definitely another coach on the field, and you need that."
Said Urlacher: "It's a huge compliment, but, he's in the Hall of Fame. He did win a Super Bowl, [and] we haven't done that yet. He's so far out of my league right now. He was probably the best linebacker of his era."
Urlacher occupies the same position on the same team, but the two schemes are radically different. Let Singletary, now an assistant coach for the San Francisco 49ers, explain the difference between his attacking 46 defense and today's more benign Cover 2.
"The 46, wherever the team's weakness is, that's where you can go," Singletary said. "It's sort of like going to the doctor, and they prescribe exactly what it takes to knock it out -- that's what the 46 is like.
"The Cover 2, is basically a blanket type of defense. We are not going to shut down one thing, it will be a slow death. It's like we are not going to kill you all at once. You just bleed, and after awhile you just realize it's not happening."
Given his role in this more passive scheme, it is remarkable that Urlacher, killing them softly, managed to record 171 tackles this season.
"Personally, I don't like Cover 2," he said, laughing. "I have to run down the middle every time, I am basically out of the play unless they throw it down the middle of the field, and even if they run it, I am behind.
"But it's our base coverage, pretty much everyone in the NFL runs it now, but it works for us. We are pretty good at it, but it's not fun for me."
Back when the NFL was born in the 1920s, linebackers as we know them today didn't exist. In 1954, Bears middle guard Bill George dropped off the line and became the first middle linebacker. He played for 14 seasons, until 1965, the same year the Bears drafted Dick Butkus No. 3 overall from Illinois. He played 13 seasons, all the way to Canton, and his savage play remains the signature of the position. Eight years after Butkus retired, the Bears drafted Singletary in the second round from Baylor. Eight years after he retired, the Bears made New Mexico's Urlacher the ninth overall choice, in 2000.
"There is a tremendous amount of tradition there," Singletary said. "For me it was an opportunity to step into some very large shoes and take that challenge on, and take it to the next level, hopefully. I never looked at it as pressure, and I don't think Brian looks at it as pressure, either.
"When I played, I remember asking the trainer, Fred Cato. 'Fred, where do I fit into this deal?' Fred said, `Hey, when you are done, you'll know, when your career is over, I'll let you know.
"And that's just kind of the way it will be for Brian."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The Bears are in the playoffs on the strength of a defense led by Brian Urlacher, who is living up to the legacy of other great Bears MLBs.