When Brian Urlacher was a rookie, the Bears held a “Decades of Dominance” dinner, attended by their legendary players throughout the years. The linebacker walked in the room, saw Dick Butkus and Mike Singletary in black ties and realized something was wrong.
“No one told me I had to wear a tux,” he said.
It was the perfect example of the responsibility thrust onto Urlacher at a young age. The ninth pick of the 2000 draft was already being compared to the linebacker greats who came before him.
The eighth pick of the 2018 draft, inside linebacker Roquan Smith, is now facing the same inevitable comparisons — not only to Singletary and Butkus, but to Urlacher, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.
Fair or not, linebackers drafted by the Jaguars don’t have the same kind of tradition to live up to.
Urlacher can’t help but acknowledge he had succeeded at “the most coveted position in pro football,” or that he got there after being graded against the Bears’ greats his whole career.
Of course, it’s not fair to compare Smith to such company. Nor was it fair to Urlacher, 18 years ago. Or Butkus in 1965.
“There shouldn’t be any pressure, shouldn’t be any comparisons,” Urlacher said. “There are no comparisons. It’s like what I said when people asked me that question: It’s not fair to Butkus, to Singletary, to Bill George, to compare me to them.
“I’m not them. I was me. I didn’t think it was fair to them. They were in the Hall of Fame at that time.’’
Butkus put it more succinctly.
“I think it’s a lot of bull-[expletive] to start bringing all that stuff up,” he told the Sun-Times. “I remember what Urlacher mentioned, when he was playing, the Bears [linebackers] that were in the Hall of Fame. I think the same thing would go for Roquan. Let’s let him start playing first and cut out all the pressure.”
Butkus blames the nonstop football chatter on television for the debate, but he notices that a winning Bears team would give fans a different subject to talk about.
“I hope Roquan plays his game,” Butkus said. “If he turns out to be a Hall of Famer, great. If not, as long as he plays well enough for the Bears to win.
“I think he’s the type of kid that is going to be thinking about that. I don’t think he’s going to be thinking about, ‘Oh, geez, I’ve got this legacy to follow.’ ”
• • •
When Smith was drafted by the Bears in April, he rattled off the list of the Bears’ greatest linebackers. In the months since, including during his 29-day contract holdout, he grew to appreciate what they did.
He watched film of Butkus, the five-time All-Pro who was named to the Hall’s all-decade team of the 1960s and 1970s.
“You can tell it’s old tape, but he definitely stands out,” Smith said. “He’s fiery … He’s definitely a hard hitter.”
Smith said the same applies to the footage of Singletary and Urlacher.
Smith befriended Butkus’ son, Matt, who surprised him on the Georgia campus to tell him he won the Butkus Award, given to college football’s best linebacker. The two still talk every week. Dick Butkus first met Smith at the Rose Bowl and was impressed by the play of the player he deemed quiet.
Meeting Butkus, and being compared to Urlacher and Singletary, still makes Smith smile.
“It’s pretty crazy just hearing some of those guys’ names and my name in the same sentence,” he said. “I just have to keep my head down and work my tail off one day to actually be mentioned in the same sentence.”
It’s an impossible standard.
“It’s not right,” Butkus said. “It’s not fair to him.”
There’s a reason Urlacher and Butkus bristle at the notion of setting such a high barometer for Smith — they’ve been there before. Urlacher was the next Bears star linebacker to follow Singletary, the centerpiece of the greatest defense in NFL history who retired eight years before Urlacher was drafted.
Butkus’ pressure was more direct. His first season with the Bears (1965) was Hall of Famer Bill George’s last with the franchise.
“How do you replace Bill George?” he said. “After getting to know Bill, he was getting up there in age, as we all do, and at some point, it was time for the young guys to take over.”
That doesn’t make it easy.
“I don’t feel as much pressure,” Smith said. “But it’s great — a long line of history of a lot of great linebackers. For me to step in and have the opportunity to follow in those guys’ shoes, it’s tremendous.”
• • •
The buzz around Smith, the highest-drafted Bears linebacker in 44 years, comes as the result of a vacuum.
The team drafted 12 middle or inside linebackers between Urlacher and Smith. Lance Briggs, who was selected in the third round in 2003, was an overwhelming success. He reached seven Pro Bowls playing alongside Urlacher, who said Briggs deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.
As for the rest: Nick Kwiatkoski, a fourth-round pick in 2016, or Jon Bostic, a second-round pick in 2013, might be the second-most successful one. Ten have been certifiable duds:
• Two — Michael Okwo and Marcus Freeman — never played a regular-season down for the Bears.
• Three more — Karon Riley, Joey LaRocque and J.T. Thomas — never started a game for the Bears.
• Five — Leon Joe, Bryan Knight, Jamar Williams, Khaseem Greene and Joe Odom — started fewer than nine games for the team.
Unable to draft replacements for Briggs or Urlacher, the Bears turned to throwing money at the position. When Briggs retired after the 2015 season, the Bears switched to a 3-4 defense and tried moving former first-round pick Shea McClellin — and his $2.63 million cap hit, 11th-highest on the team — to inside linebacker. He lasted a year.
The next year, the Bears gave Danny Trevathan a four-year, $28 million deal and Jerrell Freeman a three-year, $12 million contract. Limited by injuries, Trevathan has started 20 of 32 games with the Bears. Freeman flamed out majestically. He missed the final four games of his first season because of a performance-enhancing drug suspension. He tore his pectoral muscle on the first play of the 2017 season and then received his second PED bust.
Trevathan, who felt the weight of the Bears’ tradition when he arrived, had already made a name for himself as a Super Bowl champion with the Broncos.
“Just coming here, I think you know what’s in front of you — the linebacker history here and the defense, as well.” he said. “It’s a big window for linebackers here. It’s a big city to play linebacker here. It’s just all about going out and executing and being part of that great tradition.”
Urlacher, Butkus and Singletary all spent their entire careers with the Bears. George spent 14 of his 15 seasons with the franchise. There’s a reason, then, that the mantle of continuing the Bears’ tradition has been applied to Smith, not Trevathan.
“There’s a lot of pressure,” Trevathan said of Smith. “But, you know, pressure, it can either break you or it can make diamonds. It can mold you or break you down, so either or.
“Your attitude should be to take that pressure and apply it to your game and get better from it. It’s not going to be easy, but the ones that do it and do it well, they become one of the greats.”
• • •
Snarling and violent, Butkus is the NFL’s uber-linebacker, as responsible as anyone living — or dead — for what fans picture when they think of the position. Singletary was the heartbeat of the greatest Bears team.
Urlacher, though, pulled off one of the rarest feats in sports: living up to unrealistic expectations.
“You never saw it affect him,” chairman George McCaskey said. “He just went out there and played.”
Smith would be wise to follow Urlacher’s playbook: continue to eschew the comparisons, publicly and privately.
Former Bears coach Lovie Smith stood 40 yards from the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction stage last month, talking about the pressure Urlacher faced in living up to the team’s legacy. He paused mid-sentence out of respect — Butkus was crossing the stage after being introduced to the crowd.
Only when the noise died down did the coach continue to talk about his most famous pupil.
“A guy like [Urlacher], attention is gonna come his way,” he said.
It will come Smith’s way, too.
“He’s smart. He’s played in a good defense for three or four years at Georgia. I think he’ll be just fine,” Urlacher said. “Play fast, is what I’d tell him. Play hard and play fast was the way I was [taught].’’
Butkus wants him not to worry about any legacy but his own.
“He’s going to be OK,” Butkus said. “I don’t like all the publicity about whether or not he’s going to join the legacy of middle linebackers.”
When Smith plays his first game, he’ll think about those linebackers who came before him. But he won’t worry about the responsibility that comes with following them.
Not yet, at least.
“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “I try not to put myself there just yet. I haven’t played a snap. I’m trying to work my tail off and do what I can to put myself in the best possible situation.”
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