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Lance Briggs: ‘This probably will be my last year as a Chicago Bear’

When Packers coach Mike McCarthy was asked Wednesday about Lance Briggs’ impact with the Bears, he reached all the way back to the heart of the Lovie Smith era.

“I always go back to the ’07 game [at Lambeau Field], where I think he made 13 tackles in the second half,” McCarthy said. “They played exclusively Cover-2.”

Those were the days, when Briggs was nestled in his ultimate comfort zone — playing weakside linebacker for a coach he adored in a defense that perfectly suited him; playing next to Brian Urlacher; making tackles and big plays; and beating the Packers.

With Briggs making a career-high 19 tackles, the Bears won that game at Lambeau 27-20 by outscoring the Packers 20-3 in the second half. In Lovie Smith’s first three seasons, the Bears beat the Packers six times out of eight after being tormented by Brett Favre in losing 18-of-20.

Those days are long gone, which made Briggs’ lament Wednesday that “this probably will be my last year as a Chicago Bear” particularly melancholy as a seemingly fait accompli. Briggs has been one of the greatest, most consistent players in Bears history. A third-round draft pick out of Arizona in 2003, Briggs made seven consecutive Pro Bowls from 2005-11 and was snubbed from No. 8 in 2012, when he led the Bears with 128 tackles and returned two interceptions for touchdowns. He has been first or second in tackles on the Bears in nine of his 11 seasons. His five interception-return touchdowns are tied for the third most among linebackers in NFL history.

“He’s made a Hall-of-Fame career out of his time in Chicago,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said.

But even Briggs senses that it’s time. Briggs still is the Bears’ best linebacker, but he’s not making the impact he once did. He has missed 10 of the Bears’ last 17 games over two seasons because of injuries. What was once a perfect fit at Halas Hall is more of an awkward one.

“It’s the last year of my deal,” Briggs said when asked why he thinks he’s done in Chicago. “It’s not like I’m going to magically show up after this year and they’re going to open the gates up for you.

“I’ve talked to my buddy Alex Brown [an eight-year starter with the Bears who was unceremoniously cut in 2010] — those gates are closing. You’re a free agent. I know the reality of it and I’m proud of all the years I’ve had here. It’s been great. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”

Briggs was typically candid in discussing the circumstances of his inevitable departure from the Bears — or any subject, actually. Asked why the Bears played so well in beating the Packers last year — when Josh McCown beat Seneca Wallace at Lambeau, he told it like it was: “Shea took out Aaron Rodgers,” he said, referring to Shea McClellin’s sack of Rodgers in the first quarter that broke Rodgers’ collarbone.

Not done yet as he turns 34 next Wednesday, Briggs nonetheless epitomizes the awkward transition on defense from Lovie Smith to Marc Trestman and Mel Tucker — which began with general manager Phil Emery’s less-than-graceful handling of the end of the Urlacher era. The Bears have struggled on defense ever since, and the “Lovie hangover” can’t be discounted as a culprit.

Briggs still loves his teammates, but his relationship with those outside of that circle is at best professional and cool. Asked about his relationship with Trestman during training camp in August, Briggs was noticeably distant.

“My relationship with him is he’s my head coach and I’m his player,” Briggs said.

Briggs, perhaps inadvertently, put Trestman in a tough spot when he took a personal day and missed practice in Week 1 to open his restaurant in Elk Grove, Calif. When Briggs acknowledged on his weekly television show that he left the locker room just as the sparks started to fly during the Brandon Marshall rant after the loss to the Dolphins, he looked like a guy punching a clock instead of a veteran leader.

With the current dynamic, a mutual parting of the ways might be beneficial for both sides. That’s not to disparage a player who has produced like few other Bears in franchise history, just the reality of the situation. The Briggs story shouldn’t end that way, so let’s let Rodgers provide a fitting ode to an all-time Bear:

“He’s a great player. He does it all,” Rodgers said. “He’s athletic. He’s downhill in the run game. He’s extremely intelligent reading his gaps — firing when he needs to and making a lot of [tackles-for-loss].

“He’s very heady in the pass game. He covers a lot of ground. He’s good in space. He understands route concepts. He’s a good blitzer. He’s very tough and strong and also has agility to avoid blockers.

“He’s a guy that’s been playing at a high level for a long time. I have a lot of respect for him and the way he plays the game — the way he conducts himself. He’s not a cheap player. He plays snap-to-whistle extremely hard. He does his job. He brings it every single time he’s out there.”