The only question Pro Football Hall of Fame voters should have been asking themselves about Brian Urlacher on Saturday was whether he belonged next to Bill George, Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary.
That’s it. Not how his career stacked up against his contemporaries but how it measured against the Bears’ Monsters of the Middle. Did he belong next to those great middle linebackers?
Of course he did. We in Chicago knew that, had seen his greatness with our own eyes, but would Hall voters look at him the same way we did, with something approaching religious fervor?
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Yes, they would.
Urlacher was voted into the Hall on his first try, and all is right with the world.
“[People would ask], ‘How do you compare to Singletary and Butkus?’ ’’ he said. “I would always say, ‘I’m not at their level because they’re in the Hall of Fame.’ Now I am, too. So I can finally say I’m at their level. We’re all cemented in Canton forever.”
If he hadn’t been elected Saturday, he would have gotten in next year or the year after that. But being a first-ballot inductee is a nod to just how good he was. It is an acknowledgement that, for 13 years, he drove opposing offensive coordinators crazy, to the point of distraction. He was a roaming, ransacking question: How do you account for someone who can’t be accounted for?
And the follow-up question: Anybody get the number of that truck? Yes, we did: 54.
To their credit, Hall voters didn’t hold it against him that Ray Lewis, considered a tick or two above Urlacher in terms of linebacker accomplishments, was also on the ballot. They saw that Lewis’ greatness didn’t mean Urlacher wasn’t great.
And they obviously viewed Urlacher as a worthy member of the Bears’ great middle-linebacker succession. George helped usher in the middle-linebacker position. Butkus’ hits were ferocious going on felonious. Singletary’s intensity was on full display at all times. But none of the three ran like Urlacher did. Coach Lovie Smith’s cover-2 defense worked well only because his middle linebacker could sprint so well.
He could drop into coverage, smothering running backs, tight ends and the occasional wide receiver. He hunted from sideline to sideline. He ran, and nobody could hide.
He was 6-4, 258 pounds but skinny-waisted. The speed allowed him to play safety at New Mexico. The size and speed made him a Hall of Fame linebacker. When scouts talk about the importance of having loose hips to quickly change direction, they’re talking about someone like Urlacher. It was as if a coach had dreamed him up.
It wasn’t just Urlacher’s style of play that was unique. It was how he looked. The shaved head, the eye black, the barbed-wire tattoo around the biceps. Because of him, more men in Chicago than would care to admit adopted the latter-day Uncle Fester look. That’s about where the resemblance ended.
He registered tackle after tackle and, OK, he probably was credited with some that he made only tangentially. It was good fun trying to predict how much coaches would raise his tackle total the day after a game. Nine in unofficial press-box tackles would balloon to 15 after further review. It didn’t matter. Numbers tried to describe him and couldn’t.
A 2006 Monday night game in Arizona became famous for Dennis Green’s “crown their ass!’’ rant but also because Urlacher led the Bears to a dramatic comeback with an absurd 25 tackles (by coaches’ tally), two quarterback hurries, two passes defended and a forced fumble. Green might not have screamed the “Bears are who we thought they were!’’ if he had instructed his team to pay more attention to one of the best players in the NFL. The Cardinals’ disregard of Urlacher’s whereabouts that night was almost as jaw dropping as his tackle total.
It took the Bears longer than it should have to realize where to play him. He went through his first training camp as an outside linebacker and made his first start there in the team’s 2000 season opener. All that did was remove him from one side of the field, which allowed opposing teams to run away from him. The Bears moved him to the middle in the third game of the season, and it was all over for running backs. He finished with 125 tackles and eight sacks that season.
True greatness can’t be disputed. You know it when you see it. I don’t remember anyone suggesting that Urlacher was something other than great, aside from a magazine that named him the most overrated player in the NFL. Smith was outraged by the article, but people rolled their eyes at the absurdity of it and moved on. What other linebacker could do what he did? The Ravens’ Lewis and nobody else.
Too often our Chicago parochialism gets in the way of good judgment when rating our athletes. Good gets upgraded to wonderful too easily. Not this time. Not even close.
George, Butkus and Singletary — if Urlacher could stand next to those three middle linebackers, he could stand next to anybody.
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