Bears' Brian Urlacher deserves to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer

Thursday, 23 November 2017, 08:46:44 AM. Brian Urlacher, a player who changed the position of middle linebacker in the NFL, should go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame next summer.

At the end of our conversation, balanced humility and reality when his Pro Football Hall of Fame credentials came up.

“My body of work is out there and I feel it’s as good as anybody’s, honestly, if you look at my numbers compared to defensive players in the Hall,’’ Urlacher told me last August. “But that’s not why I played the game, to get to the Hall of Fame. I never dreamed that when I started playing, I’d have a chance to be in that conversation. So just to be considered is a big deal.’’

So Tuesday’s news that Urlacher was one of six first-time nominees among the 27 Hall semifinalists resonated with the former linebacker. Imagine his thrill Feb. 3, 2018, if the Hall announces a class that includes Urlacher, who deserves induction in his first year on the ballot.

“If I don’t get in, it won’t be the end of the world,’’ Urlacher said. “If I do, it will be unbelievable.’’

A player who changed the position of middle linebacker in the should go in next summer. You don’t have to be someone from Chicago who covered Urlacher’s career to appreciate the overall impact he had on the game in 13 seasons from 2000 to 2012. Respected NFL journalist Peter King of TheMMQB.com, one of 48 Hall of Fame voters, published Wednesday his best guess of the Class of 2018 and Urlacher was the fourth player listed after Ravens linebacker , wide receiver and offensive tackle Tony Boselli. No arguments here.

“Brain center and game-dictator for Chicago,’’ King wrote of Urlacher.

Lewis represents a lock because of his longevity — he made 13 Pro Bowls in 17 seasons from 1996-2012 and won two Super Bowl titles — but he and Urlacher differed in styles as much as the inside linebackers are compared. One was over-the-top, the other understated. One was a prototypical, old-school linebacker, the other a new-age athletic freak of nature. Wouldn’t it be fun to contrast Lewis’ and Urlacher’s acceptance speeches at Canton, Ohio, from the same enshrinement ceremony?

What Lewis and Urlacher shared in common was their teams considering each indispensable. Urlacher meant every bit as much to the Bears as Lewis did to the Ravens. Over 13 seasons, the Bears were 9-17 in games Urlacher missed. In a related note, the Bears are 25-49 since Urlacher retired, underscoring how irreplaceable he was.

Protected by a 3-4 defense under coach Dick Jauron that freed him up to roam his first three NFL seasons, Urlacher revolutionized the role of the middle linebacker in coach Lovie Smith’s Cover-2 defense. At 6-feet-4, 258 pounds, Urlacher still covered tight ends down the middle as ably as he stuffed running backs in the demanding single-gap scheme. He could run down or jolt Edgerrin James. It would be revisionist history to say Urlacher never complained about the demands of Smith’s defense but everybody can agree he funneled any frustration in the right direction. The big-market star played with an edge of a small-town kid trying to prove something.

Urlacher loved the game as much as he disliked attention, a reluctant superstar who prided himself as being one of the guys more than one of the NFL’s brightest lights. He was as unassuming as he could be unblockable, inelegant but authentic in a way that endeared him to Bears fans.

No athlete since Michael Jordan left town in 1998 has epitomized Chicago more than Urlacher. No Bears defensive player ever started more games (180). He made eight Pro Bowls, four All-Pro teams, the NFL’s all-decade team for the 2000s and won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2005 and Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2000. Not to mention that Urlacher endured 17 Bears starting quarterbacks in 13 seasons.

For comparison’s sake, Urlacher was right suggesting his statistics stack up well to other Hall of Fame linebackers. Take linebacker Chris Hanburger, for example, who played from 1965 to 1978 and was inducted in 2011. Hanburger, who never won a Super Bowl either, made four All-Pro teams, nine Pro Bowls and intercepted 19 passes — three fewer than Urlacher.

Debate over Thanksgiving dinner where Urlacher fits among Bears all-time great linebackers Dick Butkus, Mike Singletary, Bill George and George Connor. I would rank Urlacher second, behind Butkus and in front of Singletary, a terrific player who benefited from being surrounded by All-Pro-caliber talent. History also should note Urlacher’s significance as a transformational player who redefined the position with a rare combination of speed, power and instincts.

His signature game came Oct. 16, 2006, in Glendale, Ariz., when the Bears trailed the 23-3 in the second half but stormed back to win 24-23. A defense that scored two touchdowns drew inspiration from the guy who made 25 tackles and broke up two passes. As much as any player that night, Urlacher was responsible for late Cardinals coach Dennis Green experiencing a postgame meltdown when Green famously proclaimed: “The Bears are who we thought they were!”

Until the end of his exceptional career, Urlacher was better than anybody imagined he would be — and good enough to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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