OK, #NFL History class is about to begin with a two-question quiz:
- Is Brian Urlacher the best middle linebacker in Bears’ history?
- Does it matter?
The answer to the first question will probably be directly related to your age.
If you are, say 60ish, you will say, “Hell, no! Dick Butkus is peerless, baby. Not even in the same league.”
Let’s say you are in your mid-life crisis. Your answer: “Mike Singletary! He anchored the best defense in NF: history.”
If you are 35 or younger, you have heard of Singletary and Butkus, but you know full well there is only one answer: “Urlacher.”
Question #two is less subjective. The correct answer to it a resounding, “NO!”
It does not matter which of them was the greatest, though it is fun to debate. It is like Cowboys fans debating Staubach versus Aikman, Bob Lilly or Randy White, or Tony Dorsett vs. Emmitt Smith. They were each Hall of Fame greatness. They were each singular players in their era.
So it is in Chicago. They happen to have in the Windy City the headiest middle linebacker group of any NFL franchise. To go three deep at a position, and each man in the discussion is arguably the best of his era (I did say arguably, Ray Lewis fans) is an uncommon feat for any franchise.
For all of the great defenses the Bears have had through the generations, only Singletary and Urlacher have won NFL defensive player of the year for the franchise. But if you think that puts Butkus behind them, then you aren’t listening to Bears’ great Dan Hampton:
“There will never be another Butkus,” he said. “Was [Vince] Lombardi the all-time greatest coach? I don’t know, but forever he’ll be recognized as the greatest and so will Butkus. He defined the position, changed the public’s perception of the NFL. There’s Ray Lewis, but Butkus will always be Butkus.”
The Hampton quote was lifted from a brilliant article on the subject by Melissa Isaacson of ESPNChicago.com.
Butkus defined the middle linebacker position in Chicago and the NFL. He is the standard. Singletary redefined it in Buddy Ryan’s 46 defense and the 1985 Bears defense is among the best in league history. That team went 15–1 and won the Super Bowl. That defense, which was ranked first in the NFL, gave up only 198 points in a 16-game season. That is 12.4 ppg! They surrendered just 4135 total yards, which is 258 yards per game. They also had 54 takeaways.
And in the middle of all of that was Mike Singletary.
But then Brian Urlacher was part of two amazing defensive years in Chicago.
The 2005 Bears defense was the stuff of legends. While it didn’t quite capture the hearts of millions the way the 1985 Bears defense did, it was the league’s force to be reckoned with — buoyed, of course, by No. 54. Urlacher had 121 tackles, made the Pro Bowl and was named the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year, joining two-time winner Mike Singletary as the only Bears to win one of the league’s highest honors.
And who can forget the first half of the 2012 season? In eight games, the Bears recorded seven pick sixes. Erickson vividly recalls the one Urlacher had:
Urlacher had one interception his last season. Against the Titans in Nashville, the Bears turned in a 51-20 shellacking to improve to 7-1. Up 14-2 in the first, with the Titans at midfield, Urlacher picked off Matt Hasselbeck, jumped over a diving defender near the far sideline and beat a handful of others to get to the end zone. It was the Bears’ seventh pick-six score in their eighth game of the season, and almost appropriately in a throwback to the Bears’ defense of old, it was a 46-yard gallop.
Urlacher has officially retired from the NFL. In five years, he will join Butkus and Singletary in Canton. The Pro Football Hall of Fame ought to display their three busts together…right in the middle, where they each made their indelible mark on the NFL.