This is not the way it should have ended for the Bears and Brian Urlacher.
The team will have to find a new face for their franchise — and a new middle linebacker — after parting ways with the unrestricted free agent, an eight-time Pro Bowler and a future Hall of Famer.
The Bears announced late Wednesday afternoon they were unable to reach a contract agreement with Urlacher for the 2013 season, which would have been his 14th with the team that drafted him in the first round (ninth overall) out of New Mexico in 2000.
So, on the same day they signed journeyman defensive end Turk McBride and made an offer to a backup cornerback, Carolina’s Captain Munnerlyn, the Bears decided to move on without Urlacher.
Bears special-teams standout Blake Costanzo recently tweeted, ”Where is Urlacher? … he’s the heart and soul of this team.”
Now the heart and soul is gone.
The bombshell came just hours after new head coach Marc Trestman told reporters at the owners meeting in Phoenix: “We all understand I think that he can help us on the field. I’ve said that, and I’ve said that to Brian.”
But the Bears reportedly lowballed Urlacher with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $2 million for one year, an ultimatum they had to know he’d reject.
He was seeking $11 million over two years, a figure no team will pay a once-great player who will be 35 in May and is now an injury risk. Reports said Urlacher was willing to come down from his original request, but the Bears weren’t willing to budge.
“It was an ultimatum, not a negotiation,” Urlacher told the Chicago Tribune. “I wanted to be in Chicago. I wanted to finish here.”
Urlacher’s base salary was $7.5 million in 2012 and his cap hit was $9.2 million. It was the last season in a five-year, $40.6 million deal he signed in 2008, which included a $6 million signing bonus and an additional $2 million in other bonus money.
His previous deal, signed before the 2003 season, was for $57 million ($19 million guaranteed) over nine years but was renegotiated in 2008.
“We were unable to reach an agreement with Brian, and both sides have decided to move forward,” Bears general manager Phil Emery said in a release.
“Brian has been an elite player in our league for over a decade. He showed great leadership and helped develop a winning culture over his time with the Bears. We appreciate all he has given our team, on and off the field. Brian will always be welcome as a member of the Bears.”
Urlacher’s 1,779 career tackles are the most in franchise history. His play spearheaded the defense, which led the Bears to Super Bowl XLI, their only Super Bowl appearance in the past 28 years.
He led the team that season with 185 tackles, the second-highest total of his career, and added 3 interceptions.
But, after suffering serious injuries in three of the past four seasons, Urlacher is no longer an elite player.
He was fourth on the team in tackles last season with 88, even though he missed the final four games with a hamstring injury. He was the Bears’ leading tackler at the time of his injury.
In 2011, Urlacher suffered knee-ligament damage in the season finale and still was hampered by that injury at the start of last season after missing the entire preseason while continuing to rehab and undergoing follow-up arthroscopic surgery.
In 2009, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Urlacher missed 15 games after suffering a dislocated wrist in the season opener. But he returned the following season to make his eighth Pro Bowl and lead the team by a wide margin with 146 tackles.
“Over the last 13 years Brian Urlacher has been an outstanding player, teammate, leader and face of our franchise,” Bears chairman George McCaskey said.
“As Bears fans, we have been lucky to have such a humble superstar represent our city. He embodies the same characteristics displayed by the Bears all-time greats who played before him, and he will eventually join many of them in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“We thank Brian for all he has given our team and our city. He will always be a part of the Bears family. We wish him the very best.”
Urlacher started 180 of the 182 games he played in 13 seasons (2000-12). He also had 41½ sacks (most by a linebacker in Bears history), 22 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries and 11 forced fumbles.
His 11 seasons of 100-plus tackles are the most in franchise history.
Only Walter Payton (184) and Olin Kreutz (183) started more games in franchise history than Urlacher. He was the 2005 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year, the 2000 NFL Rookie of the Year and a four-time all-pro (2001-02, 2005-06).
Both Trestman and Emery had expressed a desire to retain Urlacher because of his elite leadership skills, ideal locker-room presence and knowledge of the defense.
“Brian is a very, very capable player,” Trestman said. “I am excited about him being a part of this football team if that happens.”
A week ago, when the subject of slighting Urlacher after all his accomplishments was broached, Emery said: “Well, the talks are ongoing, so I don’t know why anybody would feel slighted. We haven’t come to conclusion.”
Now the Bears have. And one of the greatest players in team history clearly feels slighted.
The Bears already have lost unrestricted free-agent linebackers Nick Roach to the Oakland Raiders and Geno Hayes to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Lance Briggs is the only linebacker on the team with more than one start in the NFL.
ŸFollow Bob’s NFL reports on Twitter @BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com/sports.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.