Lance Briggs acknowledged a month ago what most people assumed anyway: that this likely would be his last season as a Bear. He had been around long enough to understand the score.
At that point, age was beating Briggs 33-0 and lining up for the extra point. He turned 34 not long after. Thirty-four in linebacker years is about 60 in normal-person years. Two weeks later, he suffered a groin injury. On Friday, the Bears put him on injured reserve, ending his season and almost surely his career in Chicago. That’s how the end works at his age – not with a sudden gush, but drip by drip.
Anyone who watched him struggle this season or last knew he wasn’t close to the player he was in his prime. He was slow. He was fragile. Time had caught up with him and attached ankle weights to his legs.
The unfortunate part is that he has gone out more Willie Mays than John Elway – unfortunate for him, unfortunate for us. He deserves a better sendoff than the one he’s getting, but that’s due to circumstances. No one is in much of a celebratory mood right now, not with the way he played this season and certainly not with the way the Bears have played. A loss to the Lions on Thanksgiving dropped their record to 5-7 and made a playoff berth about as likely as a January heat wave.
Besides the groin injury, Briggs missed three other games this season with a rib injury. A fractured shoulder kept him out of seven games last season. Those are the kinds of things that happen to 33-year-olds who play a position that calls for having no regard for one’s physical well-being.
So earlier this month, when the discussion turned to his Bears career coming to an end, Briggs wasn’t fighting the idea.
“I understand it,” he said. “I understand that this is probably my last year as a Chicago Bear. … But, for me, I really do enjoy my teammates. It’s been unfortunate to watch from the sideline because I want to see them find success. Any Bear making a play is always a good thing.”
For most of his 12 seasons, he was one of the Bears making the big plays. The team chose him in the third round of the 2003 draft. He started off in Brian Urlacher’s considerable shadow but didn’t stay there for long. It became apparent soon enough that he was an exceptional player in his own right. In his rookie season, he picked off a Brett Favre pass at Lambeau Field and returned it 45 yards for a touchdown.
Seven Pro Bowl selections would follow. He would finish with 1,174 tackles, 16 interceptions and 16 forced fumbles. Was it a Hall of Fame career? No, but it was a very good one nonetheless.
In 2010, the last time the Bears beat the Packers at home, Briggs had nine tackles and an interception in a 20-17 victory. He always was a Lovie Smith guy, and if there was one thing the former coach preached, besides the importance of hating the media, it was the importance of beating the Packers. That helped endear Briggs to the town.
But his legacy in Chicago will be a mixed one: a great player who stepped in cow pies now and then. During a 2007 contract dispute, he famously said: “I’ve played my last snap with them. I’ll never play another down in Chicago again.’’ He eventually signed a one-year contract – and two more contracts after that.
Later in 2007, he was charged with leaving the scene of an accident after a one-car crash that mangled his $350,000 Lamborghini on the Edens Expressway. A city rolled its collective eyes.
Leading up to this season’s opener, Bears coach Marc Trestman allowed Briggs to skip the week’s first practice for a personal day. The reason? Briggs was opening a barbecue restaurant in Elk Grove, Calif., his hometown. It raised questions about his commitment to the team and Trestman’s judgment. Trestman would later say that he never asked Briggs the reason for his requested absence. Briggs would later deny Trestman’s assertion.
I suspect we’ll appreciate Briggs more when he’s gone than we did while he was here. He and the city need a break from each other. Fans weren’t happy with his contract demands or with how much his play had slipped the past few seasons. But eventually the memory of a linebacker making play after play will win out. As it should.