Older NFL players frequently say they’ll know when it’s time to quit, but usually they don’t. So their teams make the decision for them.
Brian Urlacher might be the latest example of that. He could catch on with another team hoping to prove to the Bears that he still has plenty of football left to play, but the odds are stacked against him ever approaching his Pro Bowl days.
Teams don’t usually give up on once-great players who are still playing great. It’s just bad business in a sport with a hard-and-fast salary cap.
Some of the best-known players in Bears history have attempted to keep the dream alive after experiencing great success in Chicago, but usually it doesn’t work out that entire well.
Quarterback Jim McMahon played seven years in Chicago (1982-88) and helped lead the Bears to the playoffs in each of his final five seasons, including victory in Super Bowl XX. From 1984-87, the Bears won 25 straight games with McMahon as the starting quarterback.
But, after clashing with coach Mike Ditka and being traded to the San Diego Chargers, McMahon kicked around the NFL for eight more years, mostly as a seldom-used backup.
He had one decent season (1990) in his three with the Philadelphia Eagles and a couple of mediocre campaigns with the Chargers (1989) and the Minnesota Vikings (1993).
But in his other five seasons post-Bears, McMahon started a total of just two games. He threw just 5 passes in his final two seasons, both with the Green Bay Packers.
After 13 years with the Bears, Steve McMichael also finished his career with one season in Green Bay, looking barely recognizable in green and gold to Bears fans who saw him play 191 games and rack up 92½ sacks.
In his one year with the Packers, as a 37-year-old tackle, McMichael played in all 16 games and started 14 times, but he had just 2½ sacks and 19 solo tackles. In the previous five Bears seasons in which he started 16 games, McMichael averaged 91 solo tackles and 9 sacks.
More recently, a once-great, six-time Pro Bowl Bears cornerstone left the team on bad terms after a long career when a relatively small amount of money — $500,000 — separated the two sides. Sound familiar?
That was less than two years ago, at the start of 2011 training camp, when 34-year-old center Olin Kreutz parted ways with the Bears after 13 years, including starts in 159 of the previous 160 games.
Kreutz had offered to take a pay cut, but it wasn’t enough for the Bears, who refused to budge beyond a one-year deal worth $4 million. He landed in New Orleans but quit the Saints after four games.
“I just know, it’s not in my heart,” Kreutz told his agent Mark Bartelstein at the time. “I’m not going to keep collecting a check if I know deep inside me I can’t bring what I need to bring to play every week.”
Bartelstein said Kreutz’s falling out with the Bears probably played a role in his diminished passion for the game.
“It hurt him a lot the way it went down with the Bears,” Bartelstein said two years ago. “He wanted to finish his career with the Bears, so I think there’s a part of it. But how much, it’s hard to say.”
While it didn’t end well for Kreutz, it didn’t work out for the Bears, either.
To compensate for the loss of Kreutz, the Bears moved guard Roberto Garza to center and signed former Seahawk Chris Spencer for $6 million over two years to take Garza’s old spot.
That season the Bears were the NFL’s second-worst team at protecting the quarterback, allowing 49 sacks. Last year the Bears allowed 44 sacks, and Spencer was benched after two games.
The Bears, of course, hope to have a smoother transition from the Urlacher Era.
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