Why Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher's case for the hall of fame goes beyond stats, awards
Make no mistake about it: Brian Urlacher will be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But it's possible it might not be this year.
It should happen this year, but that's the admittedly biased opinion of someone who covered each of the 182 games Urlacher played for the Chicago Bears.
Urlacher finished in the top 20 of the NFL in solo tackles eight times in his 13 seasons. More important, especially to him, was that his team finished in the top five in fewest points allowed five times. And he was the most dominant player on those teams. The Bears also finished in the top five in yards allowed three times with Urlacher at middle linebacker, and team accomplishments were what mattered most to him.
While Urlacher was always reluctant to talk about himself or accept individual accolades, he was eager to spread the praise to his teammates.
He was the 2000 Defensive Rookie of the Year after the Bears drafted him ninth overall out of New Mexico. But, early in his career, he was uncomfortable when reporters would swarm him to ask questions at the exclusion of older teammates.
He became the 2005 Defensive Player of the Year and was an eight-time Pro Bowl pick who was first team All-Pro four times. But numbers and awards are just part of what elevated Urlacher into the same discussion as the three Bears Hall of Fame middle linebackers who preceded him -- Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.
Urlacher was the key figure in head coach Lovie Smith's Cover-2 defense.
The 6-foot-4, 258-pound tackling machine had the size and strength to take on offensive linemen, but he also possessed athleticism uncommon for a player his size. That gave Urlacher the agility and range to drop into coverage in passing situations, covering much of the middle of the field and closing the passing areas between himself and the safeties.
Another future Hall of Famer, Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten, offered the ultimate compliment in describing Urlacher's play.
"Brian was such a unique player," Witten told chicagobears.com. "People probably don't give him enough credit because there was so much talk about the system. But in a lot of ways he really made that system. With Cover-2, he could stretch the field, but he could also come up and make the tackle.
"It's been hard to see somebody duplicate what he did. Smart, intelligent, big, strong, fast, athletic. But really the most important thing I felt about him was he raised everybody else's game around him by the way he played, and that's the ultimate sign of a great player."
Still, speculation suggests that Urlacher could be overlooked Saturday because this is also the first year of eligibility for another middle linebacker, Ray Lewis, who is considered a lock to gain induction with 13 Pro Bowls and seven first-team All-Pro selections among his many accomplishments.
Any debate on who was the better NFL misses the point, however. Both Urlacher and Lewis are more than worthy, and Kevin Mawae, a Hall of Fame finalist this year as well, says Urlacher was the more rugged linebacker. As an eight-time Pro Bowl center over a 16-year NFL career, Mawae played against both middle linebackers.
"To me, Ray was all over the place -- an athletic guy, but he was not a downhill hitter," Mawae said on the Talk of Fame Network. "He's not taking on offensive linemen. He was a jump-around guy. Brian Urlacher, sideline to sideline ... could do it all ... just like Ray. But he was more of a physical player in the box against offensive linemen, and that's just the way I view it."
On Saturday, Urlacher will find out if enough Pro Football Hall of Fame voters see it the same way.
• Bob LeGere is a senior writer at Pro Football Weekly. Follow Bob's Bears reports on Twitter @BobLeGere or @PFWeekly.